20.433 technological progress & de-skilling practice

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Thu, 1 Feb 2007 09:20:28 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 20, No. 433.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Thu, 01 Feb 2007 09:06:16 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: technological progress & de-skilling practice

David Baird, in Thing Knowledge: A Philosophy of Scientific
Instruments (California, 2004), uses the history of analytical
chemistry to show how the technological development of instruments
tends to de-skill the fields of enquiry which these instruments are
designed to serve (pp. 96-112). In its classical form, the analytical
chemist uses his or her knowledge of chemical interactions to
determine the constituent parts of a compound by separating them out.
This, he shows, requires much subtlety and craft, though the process
is often long and tedious, hence a problem not merely for the learned
practitioner, who invests much time to get results, but also for the
fields of application in which many such chemists work. (Think, for
example, of industries in which the specific composition of a metal
is crucial to manufacture. The speed at which a molten metallic
compound is analyzed becomes a major bottleneck and the accuracy of
analysis crucial. In the days of classical analysis, a 15% error rate
was not uncommon.) To make a long but fascinating story short, what
happened was that instruments were developed that more and more
successfully embodied the craft-knowledge of the chemists, greatly
speeding up the analysis and radically increasing its accuracy.
Analysis by instrumentation won the day.

The victory of instrumentalized analysis had social consequences. A
new class of technicians arose -- those with sufficient skill to
operate the instruments but not, by any means, chemists with the
skills of former days. The practice of analysis had become
de-skilled. In an editorial published in 1947, Walter Murphy
described the situation:

>The widespread introduction of instrumentation has caused a
>sharp division in the analytical laboratory between those of
>professional and subprofessional training, experience and ability. Today
>thousands of analytical procedures are carried on readily by laboratory
>technicians. The true professional is expected to direct, to administer,
>and to pioneer research in analytical chemistry. He is therefore
>required to be an organic chemist, and may, at times, be expected to be
>a biochemist, a metallurgist, a specialist, if you will, in a dozen or
>more highly specialized fields. He most certainly must be somewhat of an
>expert in electronics -- he must be almost as much a physicist as
>physicists themselves. In addition, he is usually expected to be
>specially skilled in some field within the profession of analytical

Murphy made strenuous efforts to change the perception of his field
so that the demands made on the professional chemist would be
properly appreciated, and so the status of the field raised.
Apparently he was quite successful -- distinctions between chemists
and technicians did develop; curricula were revamped; awards
established. The profession rethought itself amidst much confusion
about its nature -- like a pharmicist filling a prescription or a
doctor planning a course of treatment? Another chemist, Ralph
Mueller, promoted a science of instrumentation, for by this point
instruments were themselves recognized as an independent medium in
which knowledge was developed, discoveries made.

Obviously our situation with computing is different. But there are
lessons to be learned, choices to be made. What do you think these are?


Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London |
Received on Thu Feb 01 2007 - 04:23:57 EST

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