Rumination: Tinkering and Science in Action

Because the theme of the provocation this week includes foundational work, it makes sense to include Bruno Latour in this rumination. The goal of this paper is to find a way to bridge Bruno Latour’s Science in Action (1987) with Kathleen Franz’s Tinkering: Consumers Reinvent the Early Automobile (2011). There are quite a few points at which these two books diverge, in no small part because the goals of the books are different. Science in Action gives the first outright definition of a ‘black box’ in an STS context; a black box is a “term used by cyberneticians whenever something is too complex” (Latour, pp. 2-3) and just becomes a box that makes outputs for inputs without showing the technological process. Latour discusses the two ‘faces’ of science; the bearded, ready-made science and the clean-shaven science in the making. Throughout the book, Latour argues for studying science while it is still in the making because that is the point before end users have defined the objectivity or subjectivity of a claim (this is the second “rule of method” that Latour provides).

Tinkering (2011) is about the participation of consumers in the design process of a technology, the subsequent technological closure of automobiles, and the following exclusion of tinkering by the automotive industry. In Tinkering, Franz discusses the history of automobile development in the United States from the perspective of the consumer, often pulling from literature and news sources to bolster her points. The two most interesting chapters in this book are the second chapter and the final chapter. The second chapter explores the ways in which women maintained and ultimately lost mechanical agency in the 1910s through the 1930s. While Franz uses primary and secondary sources heavily, she rarely – if ever – discusses actual physical tinkering practices. A small criticism of this book must get out of the way before this paper goes on – the author writes that early automobile manufacturers often tinkered with little mechanical experience. However, many early automakers were mechanical engineers or bicycle mechanics that held more than sufficient technical expertise. Examples of this include Carl Breer, who was an engineer (Breer 1995), and Horace Dodge, who already held patents on bicycle components (Zatz, n.d.).

In the second chapter, Franz argues that “women motorists not only remade the automobile to fit middle-class notions of efficiency, comfort, and convenience; they also used the automobile to help revise their relationship to public space” (p. 43). In this way, women used tinkering as a road to increased agency in their lives. In the early 1910s, women held respect as level-headed motorists that very infrequently break laws, even in motor heroine literature such as the Motor Girls, The Automobile Girls, and the Motor Maids (see the image below for an example). Interestingly, some of the first autobiographical records of transcontinental road trips via automobile were written by women; Emily Post published By Motor to the Golden Gate in 1916. This book was an account of her road trip from New York to San Francisco; this was before her famous writings about etiquette. While women enjoyed automobility with agency in the 1910s, into the 1920s and 1930s men “asserted their exclusive authority over the automobile” and the women’s movement faded (Franz, p. 44). In this chapter, Franz discusses the ways in which men discounted women’s mechanical prowess, citing the planetary transmission of the Model T as a particular point of contention. In addition, women became docile companions on family road trips – often doing the same chores they did at home while in worse conditions. Over this period, automobility was progressively drained from women as men started to dominate both the driving and tinkering aspects of automotive life – in this case, tinkering is grassroots innovation that consumers tried to sell to automotive manufacturers. Similar to the way women lost their tinkering agency, Franz argues that men also eventually lost their agency to tinker as automakers made cars more resilient to both damage and unencumbered modification – especially with the introduction of more aerodynamic automobiles. With the addition of these automobiles, automotive manufacturers made tinkering at home more difficult.

In the back of Science in Action, Latour gives seven Rules of Method and six Principles for conducting studies of science in the making. While most of the book is very hard to read, this section is just hard to understand. This is a disease to STS at large and not necessarily Latour on his own. The difficulty is partly due to confusing logic flows such as in the third rule of method: “Since the settlement of a controversy is the cause of Nature’s representation, not its consequence, we can never use this consequence, Nature, to explain how and why a controversy has been settled” (Latour, p. 258). While grammatically correct, this sentence is hard to follow because it involves twisting around time to understand what he’s trying to say. The first rule of method is more understandable: “We study science in action and not ready-made science or technology; to do so, we either arrive before the fact and machines are black-boxed or we follow the controversies that open them” (p. 258). Here Latour argues that we shouldn’t look to study technology with closure unless we’re unpacking a controversy. However, unlike Latour suggests, it may not be necessary to use a controversy to understand knowledge production after technological closure.

Breaking open a black box by redefining a technology’s use goes against the need for controversy but still lends itself to fruitful studies of knowledge production by studying the social reconfigurations around a technology that may produce new cultural understandings and knowledges about said technology. This is especially evident in Cuba, where the American automotive industry was removed when the United States embargoed Cuba. In the decades since, these American cars have become a symbol of Cuban pride for many reasons, including nostalgia, automobility, financial incentives, and as a show of ingenuity (Smith et al. 2013). Cuban car owners have been able to keep classic American cars in amazing condition despite a shortage of parts and expected wear-and-tear; this reconfiguration of American cars in Cuba has redefined what cultural meaning the American car holds in Cuba. While there was some controversy around these cars, the controversy was not of a technical nature but rather a political nature; cars are a symbol of status in a country where public transportation is unreliable and crowded, and many revolutionaries (including Che Guevara) had a penchant for fancy American cars (Smith et al. 2013).

The final chapter of Tinkering ends on the conclusion that automobiles as a technology have achieved closure and that automakers have successfully hindered future enthusiast tinkering. In light of multiple automotive enthusiast communities, this conclusion is simply incorrect. There is a category of automotive enthusiasts called restorers who bring old cars “back to life;” there are quite a few car clubs organized around this concept, and these are the cars often used in parades[1]. Restorers don’t do a lot of renegotiating social and cultural meanings around cars, but other automotive enthusiast groups certainly do. Modders and lowriders both change cars to fit their own personal needs. Lowriders are especially interesting because they use tinkering to bring in new hydraulics, custom paint jobs, custom interiors, and more to tinker a classic car – often a Chevrolet Bel Air or an American muscle car – into a one-of-a-kind piece of art with its own biography, history, and soul.

“Lowrider” refers to the modded (modified) cars, the subculture of car modders, and the car owners (Castro 2000, p. 142). This subculture is especially popular in Latino (especially Chicano) communities, where cars are modified to reflect one’s personality and are used as an expressive art form (Chappell 2012). Lowriders rip open the black box of a technology that has achieved closure and give it new cultural, social, and intellectual meaning. These cars have become a vehicle for long-term family traditions, an unwanted and unwarranted association with gang members, a canvas for art, and a way to connect personally with a piece of technology. The function of these modified cars defies that of the original car; they often can’t be driven on steep hills and make for a bumpy ride – and sometimes these cars aren’t driven at all. Even after the supposed closure of cars by automotive manufacturers has been completed, tinkerers are still active and flourishing. Tinkerers may not be called tinkerers anymore; they may be called anything from ‘enthusiast’ to ‘lowrider’ to ‘pro-am’ (Greenberg 2005), but the underlying concept of end-user technological reconfigurations is constant across time.

(Image: Jarek Tuszyński / CC-BY-SA-3.0 [CC BY-SA])

There are some bridges to be found between Science in Action and Tinkering. Latour’s sixth principle is: “History of technoscience is in a large part the history of the resources scattered along networks to accelerate the mobility, faithfulness, combination and cohesion of traces that make action at a distance possible” (Latour, 1987, p. 259). If we apply this principle to Franz’s history of automobile development, we can see how networks and infrastructures within society spread cultural ideas about who was and was not supposed to interact with cars. Franz’s use of primary and secondary sources in tracing the consumer-tinkerers of automobiles allows us to see a network of actors working together (consciously or not) to see the co-production with and cooption of automotive technology. Tracing a network makes the historical diversion from tinker-able automobiles to aerodynamic automobiles that hindered both male and female tinkering. Understanding the history of automobile development is useful to some extent, though like theory, history is not as actionable as it could be.

Despite aims to be concrete or having primary sources as evidence, both Science in Action (1987) and Tinkering (2011) are somewhat abstract. While they often bring in case studies or specific examples, neither feel grounded enough for practical application. Latour is quite philosophical and hard to follow. This may be partly due to the translation of French to English. Even so, it is hard to understand what the most basic argument of Latour’s book actually is. It seems to be that the main argument is that science should be studied while it is in the making, with the rules of method and principles as backup. Tinkering is a feminist history of automotive development, but that doesn’t mean it discusses the distinct practices of tinkerers. Understanding cultural discourse is useful up to a point, but to understand knowledge transfer and the ripping open of black boxes, one must know about the practices enacted by those ripping open black boxes. In a study about discourse or abstract knowledge production, these books may be more useful than they are to me.

In my own master’s thesis research, knowing and understanding how someone interacts with their automobile is paramount to learning about how they spread knowledge and expertise to other enthusiasts/tinkerers/pro-ams and how they cultivate their own material-semiotic understanding of their automobile. Something much more useful than discourse studies or actor-network theory would be something closer to the realms of social worlds theory, especially interactional expertise. This doesn’t mean that Science in Action and Tinkering are useless; there are certainly lessons to be learned from both. The idea that machines can be actants is useful in understanding the personification and agency of automobiles. Valuable lines of inquiry that can be asked from this book include when and where cars have agency, how cars are personified, and how engineers and enthusiasts co-create knowledge in their area of expertise.

Understanding discourse around cars can point to a broader culture around cars and could explain why women have a diminished place in the automotive community. The use of feminist analysis in Tinkering leads to interesting lines of inquiry, such as the design of a study about pro-ams and which is based on feminist standpoint theory. Overall, while other theories may be more useful for the nitty-gritty work of my master’s thesis, both Science in Action and Tinkering bring interesting insight and possible lines of inquiry into my master’s thesis research. It would be fascinating to design a feminist standpoint-based study to understand the roles of women in various parts of the classic car community and to find ways to improve the status of women in this male-dominated community.


Sources Cited

Breer, Carl. 1995. The Birth of Chrysler Corporation and Its Engineering Legacy. Edited by A.J. Yanik. Warrendale, PA: Society of Automotive Engineers.

Castro, R. Chicano Folklore: A guide to folktales, traditions, rituals, and religious practices of Mexican Americans. Santa Barbara, CA: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Chappell, Ben. 2012. Lowrider Space : Aesthetics and Politics of Mexican American Custom Cars. University of Texas Press.

Franz, Kathleen. 2005. Tinkering: Consumers Reinvent the Early Automobile. University of Pennsylvania Press. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Greenberg, Joshua M. 2005. “Between Expert and Lay.” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 27 (2): 95–96. doi:10.1109/MAHC.2005.21.

Latour, Bruno. 1987. Science in action: how to follow scientists and engineers through society. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Smith, Jeffrey S., Charles O. Collins, and Jennine Pettit. 2013. “Cacharros: The Persistence of Vintage Automobiles in Cuba.” Focus on Geography 56 (1): 1–7. doi:10.1111/foge.12006.

Zatz, David. n.d. “John and Horace Dodge: From Building Fords to Dodge Brothers.”

[1] For some reason, a high proportion of these cars are Packards. Packard wasn’t a particularly popular automaker when it was in business, so the prevalence of classic Packards is fascinating. Either these cars are made well or people who own Packards are extremely passionate about maintaining their cars.