Open discussion on the evolution of Australian and New Zealand Thought

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

History of Science and Technology in Australia - a note

As a thought break after writing the posts on the New Zealand WEA and the transmission of ideas (here 1, here 2, here 3), I was musing over some of the ideas raised in Rafe's post on science in Australia and the supporting links.

First, a resource. As part of the burst of historical writing associated with the Bicentenary, the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering produced a very useful condensed history of technology in Australia. I mention this because I find this type of general history very useful in providing background on particular topics in Australian history.

Take transport as an example.

Subtitled "How distance shaped Australia's history", Geoffrey Blainey's The Tyranny of Distance (21st century edition, Pan Macmillan Australia, Sydney 2001) explores the ways in which Australia's vast distances have shaped our history and thought.

We all live in a prison whose walls are set by our experience and the time in which we live. These walls stand between us and an effective understanding of past times. We know this, but we do not always understand it. Checking basic facts about things such as technological change in particular areas can be critical.

One key fact linked to the development and spread of knowledge about science and technology in the Australasian colonies is simply transport time and costs.

There is, I think, still a common assumption that this limited transmission of ideas. As we saw in my discussion on the New Zealand WEA, this was far from true. But the transmission mechanisms were different.

Ideas spread throughout the Empire and beyond quite quickly. Mail - books, letters and journals - was central. Yes, there were lags, but these were less critical than we might think today. Further, because the volume of printed material was so much less, that which was produced was read and argued about in a way that rarely happens today.

Here I remember my father towards the end of his academic career saying that in some ways he felt sorry for modern economics students. Compared to his student days including his PhD studies at Manchester, they had far more to read, many more topics to study, less time to think. The position is worse today, leading to a crowding out effect in which ideas and depth can get lost in information static.

There is another factor here, the role of the academic gatekeeper.

In his material Rafe questioned why certain scholars were less influential than they deserved to be. As I see it, the modern academic system has become very rigid. This is of course a statement of opinion. But let me tease it out a little because it bears upon changes in the way Australians and New Zealanders now think.

There have always been intellectual gatekeepers. However, I think that their influence has increased in the sense that it is arguably harder for the outsider to break in.

This influence comes along several dimensions. One is simply influence on what is studied and why, something that has become more important in this crowded, specialised, age. A second lies in the academic selection process itself, with its emphasis on quantitative measurement - number of articles, citations and patents. A third lies in the vocational and the applied.

All this can make it harder for new ideas, the unorthodox, to break in.

Returning to travel and travel times, longer travel times did make certain types of interaction harder. I was reminded of this a while ago when I looking at the history of the Royal Australian (now Australian and New Zealand) College of Ophthalmologists. It took a long time to emerge as a national body, in part because travel time and costs did act as a real impediment. But this travel problem was not all negative.

Today people jet in and out. Then fewer travelled, but those who did travelled for much longer periods. So personal interaction was harder, but also tended to be longer and more intense when it did occur.

We can see this in the case of the global travel patterns of Canterbury College graduates. The global influence of that College especially in economics and anthropology dwarfs, I think, anything that can be offered by today's Gang of Eight.

As I said, musings. A stake in the ground for later discussion.

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