Jonathan's Response

Hughes’ technological “systems” parallel Kuhn’s scientific paradigms in certain aspects; for example, he argues that as systems mature, they gain momentum, with various actors invested in its growth and stability. Thus, technological systems actively discourage radical innovation (since they do not contribute to growth and can challenge the status quo), but instead technological change occurs via the solution of “reverse salients,” in which components that are out of synch with the system are corrected via conservative inventions. This suggests that actors for the most part aim to work within the existing system — much like Kuhn’s normal science. However, such conservative innovations do result in significant change in the system over time, albeit gradually. Radical inventions, however, require new systems, and the resistance to change can lead to situations where various systems co-exist (in contrast to Kuhn’s paradigms).

Perhaps these differences arise from a fundamental difference in Hughes’ technological systems in comparison to Kuhn’s description of the scientific process. These systems, Hughes argues, are not apart from society, but instead are “both socially constructed and society shaping” (51). Therefore, we cannot refer to the “social context” of a technological system because the components themselves are socially constructed. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn depicts closed scientific communities that appear to have consistent internal logics and norms. Acceptance or rejection of an alternative paradigm depended on the consensus of the community. A technological system, according to Hughes, has no such bounded community to determine its course. Instead, its human components include inventors, scientists, engineers, manages, investors, workers, and others. Furthermore, it is dependent on environmental factors (physical, social, political) not under its control.

From this perspective, scientific knowledge/expertise is only one component of a much larger, messy assemblage. Scientific expertise on its own is not sufficient to drive technological change and intervention. Instead, “system-builders” must display a wide-range of knowledge to solve problems (e.g., managerial, financial, etc.) that arise during the phases of system evolution, which Hughes claims “demand(s) the attributes of a generalist dedicated to change” (57).

Despite Hughes’ focus on technology vs. Kuhn’s focus on the natural sciences (in particular, physics), one could argue that science also requires a broad range of expert knowledge in order to continue its project (political, managerial, financial), for it is not a closed entity separate from “the social” — it seems to me, therefore, that the scientific process today (which is not necessarily exclusive of technological development) resembles more closely Hughes’ systems approach.

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