The invisible technician today

This is free writing while I work out what I want to put in my PhD chapter. Bits of it are probably wrong to varying degrees, but being wrong is most of doing research. Our reward at the end of a research project is to be slightly less wrong.

One of the things that made the greatest impressions on me was being an MPhys student, getting the tiniest taste of doing “real” experimental physics. In theory, I was being prepared for a future career as a physicist by building an optics experiment for our teaching labs; in practice, I spent 16 hours a week in a darkened room with my lab partner being extremely confused as to why we couldn’t get a specific frequency showing up in our data.

When I would get very lost, I would talk to our lab technician. In five minutes he could do what would have taken me half an hour. I learned a lot by watching him and spending time with him, and yet it seemed like few of us students valued his work because he wasn’t thought of as someone who did science.

By the time I started my MSc, I was fascinated by the concept of tacit knowledge and by the different statuses accorded to its holders. I devoured a paper by Steven Shapin called The Invisible Technician and I still come back to it over and over again.

Shapin wrote about the history of science in the seventeenth century, and although at the end of his essay he draws direct links between the ways in which technicians are made invisible throughout the centuries, there are ways in which my task as a historian of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries are different. For a start, most of the people I want to talk to are alive (and, really, it’s not like I can do oral history interviews with dead people). Moreover, these people and I have access to the internet and can do interviews online. The widespread adoption of the internet has also changed how we interact and socialise; you’re expected to have a nice online persona so that people can more-or-less track down your contact details and get in touch with you. If you’ve spent any amount of time on the internet, you probably have an online footprint. The internet makes you more visible – so this should also make technicans more visible.

…And technicians in the 21st century are more visible, sort of, some of the time. It’s a bit more complicated than it looks.

Not everything is online

The internet is a vast repository of things people have made, but this does not mean that everything people have made is on the internet. This sounds obvious. Now let’s connect “everything people have made” to “complex scientific objects with multiple components”.

Not everything about the provenance of the different components of these scientific objects is available on the internet. There’s no reason for that information to be publicly accessible to everyone online, as long as it gets to people in the right institutions – and it does!

Not everyone is online

Like not everything being online, not everyone being online is a truism. Some people just don’t like being online. Some see no need for it.

In the UK and the US, it is more of a norm that academics maintain online profiles – at the very least a reasonably easily searchable work email address. Part of the reason I have this comparatively big internet footprint is that I live a lot of my life online – part of the reason is that I am at least nominally supposed to be trying to make myself visible and comprehensible to a loose network of contacts. Technicians and engineers have different norms and it’s harder to search them up unless you’re already tapped into an institutional network.

Not all credit is online

In scientific research – and in academia more generally – the idea of crediting someone for their research is very important. Being credited for research is how a scientist acquires prestige and influence in their field. This also happens for technicians and engineers, but it’s harder to contact them because not everyone is online and not everything is online!

In this way, technicians and engineers are still much less visible, especially outside an institution. This has knock-on effects for understanding scientific instruments built out of various different components, and for understanding the ways in which these instruments are made.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s