CfP: Disappearance, death and obsolescence of techniques (18th-20th centuries)

1. October 2024
Call for papers

Workshop: Disappearance, death and obsolescence of techniques (18th-20th centuries)

Organizers: Gianenrico Bernasconi (University of Neuchâtel) and François Jarrige (University of Burgundy)

May 22-23, 2025, University of Neuchâtel

Call for papers

The history of technology is undoubtedly one of the fields most prone to linear and teleological constructs, focusing on the narrative of inventions, the succession of technical systems and the logic of substitution, as if every new technique necessarily drove out those in use in a permanent race for novelty. This vision, with its emphasis on the success of macro-inventions and the idea of technical revolution, has long dominated historical narratives, particularly since the steam revolution became the yardstick for measuring so-called "breakthrough" innovation. However, many authors have questioned the linearity of technical temporalities from an early stage, looking at bifurcations, plural temporalities and countless aborted projects. Studies on maintenance, repair and recycling have shown the importance and richness of practices aimed at the persistence of techniques: temporal stratifications, the coexistence of old and new, symbioses, have become ways of thinking about the temporal forms of techniques.

The social history of technology, renewed by greater attention to its uses, has also shown how “most inventions are effectively dis-invented, in the sense that they fall into oblivion” (David Edgerton). The past is indeed full of new machines and inventions that were celebrated as revolutionary in their early days, only to be totally forgotten: the electric car in the early 20th century, supersonic aircraft in the 1960s and1970s, or products such as asbestos, DDT and CFCs, that were eventually abandoned. Museum repositories are overflowing with devices whose workings and contexts we can no longer understand. The “Disappearance, death and obsolescence of techniques (18th-20th centuries)” workshop invites us to reflect on the process of technical disappearance, and to open up a few lines of research.


1. Technical and economic dynamics: failure, obsolescence and dismantling

The question of the disappearance and death of a technology raises the question of its failure, and also refers to the vast continent of the sociology of innovation, which has never ceased to explore the factors behind the failure of a technical project, despite being presented by its promoters as a revolutionary novelty. Bruno Latour's seminal investigation into the failure of the Aramis project in the 1980s (an acronym for Agencement en rames automatisées de modules indépendants en stations) and those who killed it represents a classic case of the sociology of techniques in this respect. The disappearance of techniques can be the rhetorical effect of a narrative of innovation, which feeds on the death of techniques – the Schumpeterian “creative destruction” – to fuel the cult of progress. Obsolescence, as the programmed death of a technical device, is another form of the disappearance of technology. The lifespan of a device can be determined by a commercial strategy, or by consumer cultures obsessed with the new.

At a time when environmental crises and major risks have become a central issue for contemporary societies, the question of dismantling and abandoning certain infrastructures, devices and objects due to their social, political or ecological harmfulness is also emerging. Physicist José Halloy has coined the term “zombie technologies” to designate equipment, doomed to disappear due to the physical and social constraints imposed by systemic ecological and social disruption. And yet, the paradox of today's capitalist and industrial societies is that they promote and multiply these dead technologies to the detriment of humans and the biosphere, because they ensure maximum profit and promise to continue industrial and capitalist trajectories.

2. Forms of disappearance: exclusion from networks, detextualization, "unmake"

David Gugerli questioned the process of technical disappearance: How do technologies disappear - from the future, from practice or from memory? What processes characterise this disappearance? Is a technique excluded from a network, is it no longer cited in technical literature? Or is it destroyed? The technical devices are burned, buried, dismantled,  or simply sent to countries in the South for the recovery of materials, and their remains are the source of serious pollution, according to unmake practices to which Heike Weber recently drew attention.

The disappearance of objects can therefore be material or discursive. Techniques are dismantled, destroyed, they may leave the production cycle, or no longer appear in company catalogs, newspaper articles, advertisements or historian’s books. Technical systems no longer accept their use: a program does not recognize an old telephone, it is hard to find film for an old camera or magnetic tape for a recorder. The disappearance of technical devices is the result of different temporal dynamics, from the contingency of their elimination to the more complex and definitive processes that lead to their oblivion. Not only do we lose the written traces of technical objects, but also the knowledge about them: we no longer know how to make an object, or even how to use it. The disappearance of a technique therefore concerns both materiality and knowledge and involves the analysis of networks of skills and know-how.

3. Forgetting: disappearance and power

The reasons for disappearance can also be the consequences of the exercise of power, and oblivion thus becomes a form of exclusion. Some technical devices that have fallen out of use are the object of a veritable cult, while others are forgotten. This question of oblivion and its functions is an important one in the long-term study of technology, as the fear of losing ancient devices and knowledge, and the rediscovery of lost or vanished equipment, are a constant challenge.  Rediscovering forgotten and buried technical equipment and practices can also become a reservoir of inventiveness and alternative paths. The collaborative paleo-energy research program, for example, aims to unearth forgotten inventions that could be put to new use in the current energy crisis (

Through The Museum of Lost Technology (, a project that was launched in Vienna in 2019, artist Ebru Kurbak addresses the question of gendered practices linked to textile production, whose disappearance is attributed to discrimination against women's practical knowledge: “particular knowledge that had been dominantly held by women had been excluded from official sites of science and technology research for centuries”.[2]

The proposed workshop therefore invites us to reflect on the history of the dynamics involved in the process of technical disappearance (failure, obsolescence, political choice), and on the forms of this disappearance (exclusion from technical systems, disappearance from technical literature), articulating disappearance both as oblivion and as a form of exclusion. To clarify the issues surrounding the dynamics of the disappearance of techniques, it is crucial to engage in a collective reflection with historians working in a variety of periods and spatial settings.

Proposals of max. 400 words, in French or English, should be sent to by October 1, 2024.

The workshop is organized in cooperation with the Musée international d'horlogerie de La Chaux-de-Fonds. Accommodation and meals will be provided for participants.


Gianenrico Bernasconi, Guillaume Carnino, Liliane Hilaire-Pérez, Olivier Raveux (dir.), Les Réparations dans l’histoire. Cultures techniques et savoir-faire dans la longue durée, Paris, Presses des Mines, 2022.

Gianenrico Bernasconi, «Choses dormantes et revenants: objets, temps et techniques», in Mélanie Hugon-Duc (dir.), Faire (avec). Science fiction du patrimoine alpin, Gollion, Infolio Editions, 2024, p. 121-126.

Jérôme Denis et David Pontille, Le soin des choses. Politiques de la maintenance, Paris, La Découverte, 2022

David Edgerton, Quoi de neuf ? Une histoire des techniques depuis 1900, Paris, Le Seuil, 2013

David Gugerli, Vom Verschwinden der Technik, Zürich, Chronos, 2024.

José Halloy, interview avec Alexandre Monnin et Nicolas Novas, « Au-delà du low tech : technologies zombies, soutenabilité et inventions », in Laurence Allard, Alexandre Monnin, Nicolas Nova (dir.), Écologies du smartphone, Lormont, Le Bord de l’eau, coll. « Documents », 2022

Liliane Hilaire-Pérez, « L’histoire des techniques a longtemps été la discipline la plus simplificatrice », Zilsel, 2019/1 (N° 5), p. 229-267.

François Jarrige, La ronde des bêtes. Le moteur animal et la fabrique de la modernité, Paris, La Découverte, 2023.

Stefan Krebs, Heike Weber, The Persistence of Technology. Histories of Repair, Reuse and Disposal, Bielefeld, transcript, 2021.

Bruno Latour, Aramis ou l’amour des techniques, Paris, La Découverte, 1992.

Svante Lindqvist, "Change in the Technological Landscape. The Temporal Dimension in the Growth and Decline of Large Technological Systems", in Economics of Technology, Amsterdam, 1994, p. 271-288.

Barbara Penner, Adrian Forty, Olivia Horsfall Turner, Miranda Critchley, Extinct. A compendium of Obsolete Objects, London, Reaktion Books, 2021.

Giles Slade, Made to Break. Technology and Obsolescence in America. Cambridge (Mass.), Harvard University Press, 2006.

Jonas Van der Straeten, Heike Weber, « Technology and its Temporalities: A Global Perspective », in Guillaume Carnino, Liliane Hilaire-Pérez, Jérôme Lamy (dir.), Global History of Techniques (19th-21st centuries), Turnhout, Brepols, 2024, p. 261–281.

Heike Weber Heike, «Made to Break? - Lebensdauer, Reparierbarkeit und Obsoleszenz in der Geschichte des Massenkonsums von Technik», Stefan Krebs, Gabriele Schabacher, Heike Weber (Hg.), Kulturen des Reparierens. Dinge – Wissen – Praktiken, Bielefeld, transcript, 2018, p. 49-83.


[1]é le 23.06.2024)

[2] 23 June 2024)

Organised by
Gianenrico Bernasconi (Université de Neuchâtel) et François Jarrige (LIR3S UMR 7366 CNRS-uB, Université de Bourgogne)
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