My career mission has been to awaken my discipline, anthropology, to the analysis of technology from an anthropological point of view. The road was a long one, and I was by no means the only pilgrim, but I am now proud to say that the anthropology of technology (AoT) is now recognized as a vibrant subfield of my discipline, attested by the publication of The Palgrave Handbook of the Anthropology of Technology (2022). 

Drawing on important contributions from the history of technology and the British sociology of technology, AoT similarly recognizes the deep cultural and social dimensions of the human technological adventure, and refuses to view the role of technology in human societies as the irreversible and predetermined consequence of a given technology's putative “inner logic." The field views both the construction of new technologies and their use in society as fundamentally socio-cultural phenomena that are best understood by understanding their underlying cultural meanings and social dynamics. Yet AoT defines technology far more broadly than other, kindred, fields, including the sociology and history of technology:  its focus embraces high-tech, contemporary systems and also the small-scale societies that anthropologists have typically studied, as well as the technology of humanity's past, as revealed by archaeological research and analysis. 

My commitment to help develop AoT dates to the early 1980s, while I was teaching traditional anthropology courses at a fine liberal arts college, where my interests in developing AoT were not entirely encouraged.  In 1985, I discovered that the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science was looking for an anthropologist to join what was then called the Humanities Division. I applied, and in my interview, Dean Edgar Starke challenged me to come to Charlottesville and “develop the anthropology of technology,” as he expressly put it. I was hooked. 

The move to UVa was crucially important in my effort to develop the new field which, as noted above, draws inspiration from the history and sociology of technology. In Charlottesville, my colleague W. Bernard Carlson introduced me to the history of technology, while another colleague, Michael Gorman, introduced me to the British sociology of technology. Put simply, there was no other setting in existence that could have been more beneficial to my helping to formulate a new, pioneering subdiscipline in my field. 

During the 1980s and 1990s, I published several papers that helped to define AoT and continue to receive numerous citations in the world’s leading scholarly journals. These include “Fetishized Objects and Humanized Nature: Towards an Anthropology of Technology” (Man, 1988), “The Harsh Facts of Hydraulics: Technology and Society in Sri Lanka’s Colonization Schemes” (Technology and Culture, 1990), and by far the most influential, “Social Anthropology of Technology” (Annual Review of Anthropology, 1992). These and other publications have received more than 5,000 citations.

Of all of my papers from those years, though, I am most proud of “The Social Meaning of the Personal Computer” (Anthropological Quarterly, 1988), and “Technological Dramas” (Science, Technology, and Human Values, 1992). The two papers develop a deeply anthropological theory of invention, as well as resistance to inventions, based on the work of anthropologist Victor Turner in the Ndembu tribe in Africa. Turner developed theory of social dramas characterized by a four-part  sequence: first, a breach, an event that deeply transgresses social norms; second, a crisis, in which contesting groups divide along the fracture zones in their culture; third, redressive actions, which attempt to impose control, and fourth, reintegration,in which a compromise is reached that ends the drama.  The paper suggests that Turner’s model can prove useful in understanding the cultural factors in new technology development. Currently, in a book under contract with Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, I am employing the theory to explain the invention and development the mechanical voting machine, in response to the disastrous presidential election of 1898, which convinced many Americans that fraud, rather than the people’s will, was determining election outcomes. 


University of California, Berkeley (A.B. 1971, M.A. 1972, Ph.D. 1977

Selected Publications

Social Anthropology of Technology Annual Review of Anthropology, 1992
Fetishized Objects and Humanized Nature: Towards an Anthropology of Technology Man, 1988
Social Meaning of the Personal Computer; Or, Why the Personal Computer Revolution was No Revolution Anthropological Quarterly, 1988
Technological Dramas Anthropological Quarterly, 1988
"A Standing Wave in the Web of Our Communications": Usenet and the Socio-Technical Construction of Cyberspace Values C. Lueg and D. Fisher, "From Usenet to Cowebs: Interaktion With Social Information Spaces," Springer, 2003
"'If I Want It, It's OK,': Usenet and the Outer Limits of Free Speech The Information Society, 1996
"Worlds in the Making: Technological Activities and the Construction of Intersubjective Meaning" In the Social Dynamics of Technology: Practice, Politics, and World Views / [ed] M. A. Dobres & C. Hoffman, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998


Albert Payson Usher Prize, Society for the History of Technology, for "Harsh Facts of Hydraulics" 1992
IEEE Book of the Year, for Democratizing Information: Online Databases and the Rise of End-User Searching 1992
Sally Hacker Prize, Society for the History of Technology 2006