This summer, I attended the Tensions of Europe (ToE) conference focused on histories of technology in Europe and the impact of the digital age on contemporary scholarship. The conference was most interesting in encouraging presentations that considered technologies as both research subjects and tools. The different types of technology appeared in presentations primarily concerned with European integration or national histories that countered the dominant American narratives about the technological past. Some presenters ventured outside the current geographical boundaries of Europe to consider imperial, colonial, and postcolonial histories of technology.
My interest in the conference is related first and foremost to my academic interest in histories of technology, broadly conceived. Most scholarship considers technological subjects connected to the Industrial Revolution or the Information Age. Recently, in African studies and other regional fields in the global south, scholars have approached histories of technology in different ways, often expanding the definition of technology and considering its trajectories from different perspectives. The work by Gabrielle Hecht and Clapperton Mavhunga demonstrates this point. Another reason I attended the conference was to learn how scholars within the interdisciplinary field of technology studies have applied digital tools to their research. Thus, the panels I attended either incorporated digital methods or investigated technological histories that extended beyond the European Union.
One thing that struck me about the presentations were the different approaches to incorporating digital methods into the presentation narratives. As someone who has never presented on digital methods at a conference, I began jotting down how each presenter structured their fifteen minutes. Some focused heavily on the digital method–be it textual analysis, mapping, or network graphs–as an innovative way to conduct historical research, while others focused almost exclusively on their historical argument mentioning only briefly their methodological choices. A common question for both types of presentations is how, if at all, the digital method facilitates making an intervention in the literature. This point was not always clear, but remained important since most participants were grounded in histories and sociologies of technology and, like me, wanted to understand how the digital tool served the presenter better than alternative methods.
The presentation structure I liked best briefly summarized both the arguments and approaches taken by other authors on the subject before transitioning to the presenter’s methodological approach. The presenter then typically explained how a particular digital tool facilitated interpreting the same historical evidence in a different way or enabled bringing new historical materials to bear on the subject. This presentation structure often clarified the purpose of the digital tool and the presenter’s contribution to the field. My notes on the different presentations have been instructive in considering how to justify specific digital tools in relation to my own historical research.