Trevor Pinch, Science and Technology Studies, tells the story of two competing inventors in the 1960s: Robert Moog ’65 and Donald Buchla. Both were working to build the first commercially viable electronic synthesizer. In the end, Moog’s synthesizer became mainstream and Buchla’s did not, and the reasons are far from arbitrary.
“Moog always had keyboards on his synthesizers—they were built around technical standards that involve octaves of music,” Pinch says. “Buchla, on the other hand, said, ‘We’ve got this new source of sound, electronics—why be stymied by an old interface, the keyboard?’”
Buchla, who recently passed away, imagined a new music involving sweeps of sound and unusual timbres, Pinch continues. “But the fact that most synthesizers you see now have keyboards on them shows how a certain notion of music from our culture gets embedded into the hardwiring of the technology,” he says.
Telling the story of these synthesizers and their significance exemplifies one kind of work Pinch does. Rather than uncover the effect technology has on society, he studies how society impacts the development of technology—an approach that he pioneered, with others, in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. Pinch has continued to forge new fields of study—most recently the role that sound has played in shaping our world.
How the Culture of a Science Discipline Shapes Its Scientific Approach
As an undergraduate student in physics, Pinch became interested in the sense that scientific knowledge and practice were neutral, above and separate from society. “It seemed that scientific knowledge was immune to the social, cultural world,” he says.
Upon graduation, Pinch entered a program in sociology at Bath University and chose science as his subject. For his research, he interviewed scientists all over the United States, traveling everywhere by Greyhound bus. “I didn’t know the reputation that the buses had in the U.S. at the time,” he recalls. “When I called these elite physicists and told them I was at the bus station, they all rushed to come get me!”
Pinch survived the trip, and his research led to a first book, Confronting Nature: The Sociology of Solar-Neutrino Detection (Springer, 1986). It examined the culture of the physics community, and how that culture shaped the way they approached a scientific problem. Pinch subsequently applied the same technique—looking at the impacts of culture—to technology.
The Social Construction of Technology
“We used as a case study the history of the bicycle,” he explains. The bicycles of the Victorian era, called penny-farthings, had one very large wheel and one tiny wheel, and were used mostly for sport. Along with Dutch sociologist, Wiebe E. Bijker (Maastricht University), Pinch showed how the evolution of the bike was propelled and constrained by societal issues.
“There were people who found the standard bike too dangerous,” says Pinch. “Also for reasons of fashion and etiquette, women weren’t supposed to be seen riding such a high-wheeled bike. So we showed how the bicycle manufacturers and engineers of the 1890s are shaped by these social groups and a need for a different sort of bicycle. We called that the social construction of technology.”
When Pinch came to Cornell in 1990, his task was to build a graduate program in the burgeoning field of science and technology studies—a field with Pinch’s theory of the social construction of technology as one of its pillars. In Ithaca, Pinch realized that Moog’s synthesizer factory was up near Trumansburg, New York, and he set about applying his concept to electronic synthesizers—publishing a book-length study, Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer (Harvard University Press, 2002). The topic revived Pinch’s own career as an electronic musician and inspired him to pursue a related but new course of inquiry: the study of sound.
The Interesting Phenomenon of Sound
“In working on Analog Days, I realized the hardest thing to write about was the new sounds that were being produced by the synthesizer,” says Pinch. “And in a comparatively short period of time, between the mid-60s until today, we get saturated with electronic sound. I became very interested in how this new soundscape developed, and I realized that sound was an interesting phenomenon in its own right.”
“It’s [Science and Technology Studies] provided me with an environment where I could flourish.…And the space to show that something like science, which seems to be only about theoretical knowledge and experiments, is actually shaped by history, culture, and society.”
Most recently, Pinch has been pursuing this interest, thinking and studying how sound has impacted science and technology, and how sounds, many of them unique to our times, become “part of the sonic wallpaper of our lives,” he says.
His next book, tentatively titled The Sonic Imaginary, examines the way certain figures throughout history have used sound to transform the future. Moog is one; social psychologist Stanley Milgram, famous for his studies on obedience, is another.
In Milgram’s experiments, held at Yale University, research subjects were told to administer electric shocks, through a machine, to a naïve subject. But the naïve subject was in fact an actor, and the study was designed to see how far people would go in harming another when ordered to do so. “What is little known is that those experiments also involved a sonic dimension,” says Pinch.
The mock shock machine emitted a buzzing sound, and the actors had to make yelps of pain. “These sounds, and how credible they are, how people listen to them, become an important part of understanding the experiment, how the experiment works,” says Pinch. “I’m interested in these experiments and earlier ones, how Milgram imagined sound would affect things, the sonic imaginary.”
Studying sound, Pinch says, has made him much more aware of the soundscape in his own environment, and he wants to raise this awareness for students. He brings them on listening tours of Cornell’s campus, asking them to pay attention to an aspect of experience that might be otherwise ignored.
For Innovation, Passion Required
In following his passions, Pinch has been at the forefront of science and technology studies and sound studies, but it hasn’t always been easy. “Often it’s been in the face of some hostility, particularly in early work on the sociology of science,” Pinch says.
“But I think to do innovative research, you really can’t think about job markets and what career you’re going to get,” he continues. “You should only be thinking about the questions you’re interested in, and if you’re interested in your research, you’ll do it with passion, and you’ll write about it in a way that really matters to you. That will persuade people that it does matter.”
A little luck doesn’t hurt either, Pinch adds. He counts as his lucky breaks: being at the cutting edge of a field as it took off, and being at an institution willing to invest resources in a new program. “Cornell hired me with the idea that they would build a department,” he says. “And Cornell kept its promise.”
The Science and Technology Studies Department recently celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary. “It’s provided me with an environment where I could flourish and pursue my curiosity,” Pinch says. “And the space to show that something like science, which seems to be only about theoretical knowledge and experiments, is actually shaped by history, culture, and society.
“I started out using sociology, a low discipline on the academic totem pole, to explain physics, a high one. It reverses things. It’s counterintuitive,” Pinch continues. “I try to stress to students—take a risk, be bold, think counterintuitively, because often things are not what they seem. And our job is to try to uncover what they really are.”