A mysterious cyclist

In June 1881, while sojourning on the Isle of Wight, Queen Victoria saw from her carriage a young woman travelling at considerable speed on a curious contraption. The Queen ordered one of her attendants to track down the girl, who shortly afterwards presented herself at the royal residence astride a tricycle sold by her father, the only dealer on the island. What was so special about this tricycle that it should arouse the interest of the Queen of England? And how in the space of a few short years did it turn into the bicycle that we know today? In other words, how does a technological device develop and spread?

We already know the answer offered by technological determinism: it is the 'best' device that imposes itself by virtue of its efficiency. However, the technological device which is the most efficient from its user's point of view may not be so from others. For example, a certain piece of equipment may suit the needs of the employer but not those of his/her employees, or it may not meet the standards required by environmental protection. The capabilities of the cell phone may have been adequate for the first generation of its users, but when the device became an object of mass consumption, it had to be simplified. The emphasis was now on certain functions - like text messaging - which were of entirely marginal importance to the cell phone's first users. The case of musical synthesizers is exemplary. The first electronic musical synthesizers were complex and costly pieces of equipment produced for musicians with classical training who were interested in experimentation. In his spare time, an engineer at the Moog company assembled some simple modules with a keyboard. But who would have been interested in a synthesizer of this kind, musically more limited than the ordinary electronic organ? Not the usual purchasers of Moog instruments, but certainly the new category of users consisting of rock musicians, who were looking for an easy-to-use instrument whose sounds, however limited, could be modulated even during a live performance (Pinch, 1999).

A further element should be borne in mind. The various phases of the innovation process often form an uninterrupted sequence, so that it is difficult to separate the innovation stage from the diffusion stage. Economists of innovation talk of 'learning by using' with reference to improvements made to a device, not during its production but during its use (Rosenberg, 1982). These improvements may or may not be 'incorporated': in other words, they may either give rise to a physical modification of the innovation, or simply to a change in its use. The experience of users of turbojet aircraft prompted development of maintenance procedures and flying techniques which encouraged their purchase, improved their performance, and induced engineers to redesign certain components. In the same way, the difficulties encountered by numerous users of video recorders have prompted the manufacturers to make modifications to them.

It is, accordingly, clear that earlier entry onto the market by one technology rather than another often gives the former a decisive competitive advantage: however perfectible a technology may be, its dominance increases with the number of people who use it. For example, the distribution of the keys on a PC keyboard (called 'qwerty' after the first six letters in the top row) is no more efficient than any other arrangement, and it is not due to any particular technical exigency. It derives, in fact, from the technology of the typewriters that PCs replaced. The letter distribution on the old-style typewriter served to reduce the jamming of the hammers when adjacent keys were struck in too rapid a sequence. The same goes for operating systems or word processing software (Mackenzie and Wajcman, 1999). The greater length of the tapes used allowed the VHS video recording system to outpace the Betamax - equivalent to the VHS system from a strictly technical point of view - in a sector where the rapid adoption of a universal standard was crucial

(Liebowitz and Margolis, 1995). Innovations like the digital cassette or the laser disc in hi-fi technology had indubitable advantages in terms of sound quality. But they encountered consumers who had absolutely no intention of making yet further investments in terms of both money and 'learning by using', when they had only just spent considerable sums on buying compact disc players. Conversely, a low-fidelity music player like MP3 - a compression format which shrinks audio files by eliminating sounds irrelevant to the human ear - acts on a crucial element of the technological system by significantly reducing on-line download times and therefore telephone bills.

But let us return to the history of the bicycle, a case analysed by scholars working within the framework of the 'social construction of technology' approach (Bijker et al., 1987; Pinch and Bijker, 1990; Bijker, 1995). Abbreviated to SCOT, this approach is articulated into three phases, in close analogy with the 'empirical programme of empiricism' examined in the previous chapter:

a demonstrating the 'interpretative flexibility' of technological devices: the same artefact may be designed in different modes and forms, there is no single optimal solution; b analysing the mechanisms by which this interpretative flexibility is 'closed' at a certain point and an artefact assumes a stable form;

c connecting these closure mechanisms with the wider sociopolitical milieu.

The overall aim of this approach is to go beyond reconstruction of technological innovation by 'hindsight', so that every artefact results from a necessary sequence of attempts which logically yields the most efficient model, and where all that matters are the technical properties of artefacts. On this view, the history of the bicycle is nothing but 'a simple genealogy extending from Boneshaker to velocipede to high-wheeled ordinary to Lawson's bicyclette, the last labelled "the first modern bicycle"' (Bijker, 1995: 50). In his study of the bicycle, Bijker also examines models that were apparent 'failures', representing the entire course as a multilinear process involving not only bicycle designers and manufacturers but also social groups of users, like cycling clubs and women.

An artefact like a bicycle, therefore, also results from negotiation among social groups. It must resolve problems that these groups regard as being in need of solution; its characteristics are not given

Social Groups Artefact
Figure 5.1 Relevant social groups, problems and solutions in the evolution of the modern bicycle

Source: Bijker (1995: 53)

once and for all by the manufacturer but are subject to extreme 'interpretative flexibility' by the actors involved. In Victorian England, there were at least three devices that could legitimately aspire to becoming 'the' bicycle: the high-wheeled ordinary bicycle, the low-wheeled safety bicycle and the tricycle. The high-wheeler or ordinary bicycle was preferred by sportsmen because it gave them a chance to show themselves off as athletic and adventurous. They dismissed the low-wheeled bicycle as a machine for 'sissies'. However, when the low-wheeled bicycle was redefined as a means of transport, as opposed to a device with which to flaunt macho prowess - also because of the greater use now being made of the machine by other social categories (women, for example) - the ordinary bicycle was perceived as more dangerous than the safety bicycle.

Tricycles and bicycles with side saddles meant that women could pedal while wearing long skirts. As a consequence, these models enjoyed a certain amount of success. However, it was realized that the modern bicycle could also be ridden by women when an alternative solution to the modesty problem was found: bloomers worn under a short skirt.

The new model also found favour with sports cyclists because of the invention of another technological artefact: the tyre. Initially a solution for the problem of vibration (and therefore of little attraction to sports cyclists, whose chief source of enjoyment was the thrill of the ride and who cared nothing about vibration), the tyre was then successfully redefined as a means to solve the problem of the bicycle's slowness. However, 'the technologies needed to turn the 1860 low-wheelers into 1880 low wheelers, such as chain and gear drives, were already available in the 1860s' (Bijker, 1995: 97). In the meantime, complex interpretative negotiation had taken place on definition of the main problems and the acceptable solutions, until what Bijker calls 'stabilization' and 'interpretative closure' came about.

As in the scientific controversies studied by Collins and Pinch (see Chapter 4), there comes a point when one of the many interpretations available prevails: the high-wheeled ordinary bicycle is dangerous, full stop. In this sense, the artifacts 'ordinary bicycle' or 'high-speed tyre' are social constructs, in that they result from a process of closure and stabilization which imposes one of the various possible perceptions of the same device (dangerous or 'macho' in the case of the ordinary bicycle; efficient or 'sissy' in the case of the low-wheeled one) held by the social groups involved. Analysis of technological devices must therefore apply the same principle of symmetry as developed by SSK for the study of scientific controversies, adopting an impartial perspective on the efficacy or inefficacy of a machine. This perspective is not given from the outset but results from negotiation among the social groups involved, and from the subsequent stabilization and interpretative closure. Hence, technological 'failures' are just as sociologically interesting as 'successes': a futuristic model of an 'intelligent' underground railway with a system of modular carriages, so that passengers would not have to change trains to reach their destinations, failed to incorporate the conflicting requirements of technicians, managers of the manufacturing company and the Paris city council (Latour, 1992).

One limitation of this approach is the difficulty of identifying all the groups of actors involved in the construction of a particular artefact. Moreover, while the SCOT approach has the merit of emphasizing the role of users in the innovation process, it tends to attribute to all the groups involved the same capacity to influence the closure of the interpretative possibilities. This aspect is indubitably due to the approach's strict descendancy from the sociology of science -and from the empirical programme of relativism in particular (see Chapter 4) - with which it shares an interest in controversies and concepts like interpretative closure.

But while the study of scientific controversies deals with a relatively homogeneous group (researchers engaged in the study of a particular phenomenon), this is not always so in the technological domain. Indeed, it is likely that sports cyclists, cycle tourists, Victorian ladies and gentlemen formed groups of different sizes and organization. It is especially difficult to argue that users on the one hand, and designers/manufacturers on the other can contribute in the same way to the closure process. The interpretative possibilities of the artefact's users, in fact, are largely restricted by the technological characteristics of the device as it appears on the market. As in the case of the empirical programme of relativism, the emphasis on controversies and on the closure process seemingly leads to over-generalization.

Using another case of a cycling artefact, the mountain bike, Rosen has shown that the distinctive feature of this kind of bicycle is the constantly changing design of its frame. In this case, too, the connection between the micro level of the specific controversy and the wider social context is not explained satisfactorily. The characteristics of the various groups, their differences in terms of prestige and power, their motives, and their places in the social and cultural scenario are not spelled out but are, instead, taken as given. In other words, however ironic it may seem, SCOT 'doesn't explain the social aspects of technological development as richly as the technological aspects' (Rosen, 1993: 508).

According to Rosen, the third stage of the SCOT approach ('connecting the closure mechanisms with their socio-cultural context') can be more usefully conceived as cutting across the first two stages, because it enables definition of the influential social groups, the relevant artefacts and possible closure mechanisms. In his study of the mountain bike, for example, Rosen hypothesizes that the constant variations in its design have been due to changes in cycling culture and, more generally, 'in the post-Fordist economic system to which the cycle industry belongs' (Rosen, 1993: 493).

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