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Presented By: Science, Technology & Society

STS Speaker. Birth of a Notation: Charting Human and Machine Failure at the Dawn of the Jazz Age

Edward Jones-Imhotep, University of Toronto

Henry Laurence Gantt, Work, Wages, and Profits (New York: The Engineering Magazine, 1910), Chart I. Henry Laurence Gantt, Work, Wages, and Profits (New York: The Engineering Magazine, 1910), Chart I.
Henry Laurence Gantt, Work, Wages, and Profits (New York: The Engineering Magazine, 1910), Chart I.
This talk examines how one of the central graphic technologies of Scientific Management and of modern project consulting — the Gantt Chart — grew out of attempts to create intricate psychic and cultural linkages between two kinds of failure in Progressive-Era America: failure as a condition of industrial machinery, and failure as a kind of person. For its creator, Henry Gantt, the chart ultimately formed part of a project of racial containment: a vision that kept black workers out of northern factories by encoding a relationship between whiteness and efficiency and providing a graphic formalism for white racial uplift. Against the backdrop of the Great Migration, the charts combined with racist union practices, anxieties about black mobility, and fears of racial degeneration to create northern industrial concerns as closed white democracies that cultivated a specific kind of technological self. Linking those developments to our own worries in the early-21st century, the talk encourages us to see the history of modern technology as a history of the intersections between failing machines and historical selves, and of the social orders and dystopias they both made possible.

Bio: Edward Jones-Imhotep is a historian of the social and cultural life of machines and Director of the University of Toronto’s Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology. He writes about topics ranging from the history of music studios and artificial life to space technologies and the technological geographies of islands. His research is particularly interested in histories of technological failure — breakdowns, malfunctions, accidents — and what they reveal about the place of machines and the stakes of machine failures in the culture, politics, and economics of modern societies. He is the recipient of the Society for the History of Technology’s Sidney Edelstein Prize for his book, The Unreliable Nation: Hostile Nature and Technological Failure in the Cold War (MIT Press, 2017), and the Abbot Payson Usher Prize for his article, “Malleability and Machines: Glenn Gould and the Technological Self.” His current book project, Unreliable Humans/Fallible Machines, examines how people from the late-18th to the mid-20th centuries understood machine failures as a problem of the self — a problem of the kinds of people that failing machines created, or threatened, or presupposed.
Henry Laurence Gantt, Work, Wages, and Profits (New York: The Engineering Magazine, 1910), Chart I. Henry Laurence Gantt, Work, Wages, and Profits (New York: The Engineering Magazine, 1910), Chart I.
Henry Laurence Gantt, Work, Wages, and Profits (New York: The Engineering Magazine, 1910), Chart I.

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