Attributing scientific and technological progress: The case of holography

History and Technology 21:367-392 (2005)
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Holography, the three-dimensional imaging technology, was portrayed widely as a paradigm of progress during its decade of explosive expansion 1964–73, and during its subsequent consolidation for commercial and artistic uses up to the mid 1980s. An unusually seductive and prolific subject, holography successively spawned scientific insights, putative applications and new constituencies of practitioners and consumers. Waves of forecasts, associated with different sponsors and user communities, cast holography as a field on the verge of success—but with the dimensions of success repeatedly refashioned. This retargeting of the subject represented a degree of cynical marketeering, but was underpinned by implicit confidence in philosophical positivism and faith in technological progressivism. Each of its communities defined success in terms of expansion, and anticipated continual progressive increase. This paper discusses the contrasting definitions of progress in holography, and how they were fashioned in changing contexts. Focusing equally on reputed ‘failures’ of some aspects of the subject, it explores the varied attributes by which success and failure were linked with progress by different technical communities. This important case illuminates the peculiar post-World War II environment that melded the military, commercial and popular engagement with scientific and technological subjects, and the competing criteria by which they assessed the products of science.
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