The 2015 marks the fifth year of ICOHTEC’s Maurice Daumas Article Prize. The committee awarded the prize this year to Stefan Krebs for his article, ‘“Dial-gauge versus Senses 1-0”: German Car Mechanics and the Introduction of New Diagnostic Equipment 1950-1980’. It was published in Technology and Culture in April 2014 (Volume 55, Number 2, pp. 354-389). The winning article was one of 15 accepted entries. Of these one was in German and one in Spanish, the remaining 13 were in English. Most did not deal explicitly with technology, but rather its social impact on (most notably) tourism, the environment, colonialism or memory. Several articles dealt with technology policy.
Krebs’ work set itself off from the other submissions because it seriously explores embodied knowledge about a technology in use and makes an important case for the social importance and uses of this kind of knowledge. Krebs agrees with Kevin Borg that repair represents a “middle ground” between production and consumption and is therefore particularly deserving of study. The committee was particularly impressed by the article’s strong philosophical framework, which was unique among the submissions.
The article has two parts: first Krebs establishes the importance of diagnostic listening as a skill cultivated by expert car mechanics, in the second part he talks about how social relations made the adoption of diagnostic tools in car repair in Germany more difficult and slower than in America in the 1950s. Using a transnational comparison, Krebs suggests that the different sociotechnical hierarchies in the field of car maintenance were crucial to the way in which diagnostic tools were adopted or resisted.
In explaining the fate of diagnostic tools among car mechanics, Krebs argues that the tacit knowledge of diagnostic listening was key not only to how car mechanics understood the technology of faulty cars but also to their social world: particularly in Germany, where the guild structure made social hierarchies among car mechanics more explicit and longer lasting, the skills of experts set them apart from apprentices in the field and thus preserved their social position. Because of this, Krebs argues, diagnostic tools could not be adopted by German mechanics until they were advertised not (as originally) as allowing semiskilled workers to do expert work (the computer gives an expert diagnosis), but as tools that needed expert training to be correctly used and understood. This crucial change was a result, he argues, both of experience with the tools in practice and of social pressure, and allowed German auto mechanics by the 1980s to make use of diagnostic instruments without the low status associations that were earlier implied by their use.
Krebs used an impressive variety of sources for his research including handbooks, trade journals and oral histories given by former car mechanics. These interviews clearly influenced Krebs’ interpretation of his other sources, demonstrating nicely how studying a technology in use can paint a different picture from trade journals that tend to promote novelty. Many aspects of Krebs’ article thus demonstrate important directions for research in the field.
Dr. Hermione Giffard, The Netherlands
4 May 2015