Cover image for Visions of technology : a century of vital debate about machines, systems, and the human world
Visions of technology : a century of vital debate about machines, systems, and the human world
Rhodes, Richard.
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New York, NY : Simon & Schuster, [1999]

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399 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.
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T20 .V57 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Rhodes provides a lively collection of writings about the unexpected and paradoxical ways in which technology has changed our lives.

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Booklist Review

Phobic attitudes toward technology are deeply felt and strongly held. Rhodes illustrates these poles and the spectrum of ambivalence between them in this absorbing anthology of 200-plus opinions. They span this century only, which Rhodes then divides into four chronologies: pre^-World War I, when such advances as radio and the automobile liberated technology's reputation; the Depression and World War II period, whose ending with the atom symbolized technology's menace to humanity; from 1945 to 1970, the birth and adolescence of the computer, and the mixed reactions it generated; and the continuing maturation of the information age since then. Prepared by Rhodes' insightful introduction, readers quickly sense the antagonism between technologists, favorably inclined toward their inventions, and the wary stance toward machines adopted by nontechnical intellectuals--the latter exemplified by novelist Joan Didion's description of the Hoover Dam. Rhodes' collection merely taps into a "mighty river of discourse," but that tapping indicates that pro-technologists are not hopelessly retrograde to techno-skeptics in literary talents, and when Rhodes sprinkles among portentous pieces doses of comic relief (John Glenn on a launch fizzle), he assembles a captivating encapsulation of our dissonant feelings about technology. --Gilbert Taylor



Introduction Richard Rhodes The Western world has argued passionately about technology -- what it is, where it's going, whether it's good or bad for us -- throughout the twentieth century, even while inventing it at a ferocious and accelerating rate. This anthology samples that vital debate, drawing primarily on American sources. It's an impressionistic sampling. It had to be, given the sheer volume of statements, articles, books and documents generated across a hundred years. I sorted for variety, for felicity and succinctness of expression, for range not only of subject but also of mood. I looked for humor to balance solemnity, prediction to balance explication, recollection to balance abstraction. I included a share of the canonical texts all of us have heard (or, sometimes, misheard) -- H. G. Wells's prediction of atomic bombs, Arthur C. Clarke's vision of geosynchrony, Murphy's Law, Moore's Law, the silent spring of Rachel Carson. I left out most commentary on medicine, which is regularly attended because of its mortal impact on our lives. Something you think should be here is probably missing; but I hope you will also be surprised by what you find. If my witching methods work, drinking from this particular Pierian spring may at least leave you thirsty to explore the original texts, a mighty river of discourse. Those texts are referenced in the bibliography that begins on page 381. I could pretend innocence of America's environmental and cultural wars and say that technology is human making. At first inspection, it is that -- from lemon pie to computer chips, from plowshares to gene sequencers. Along with language, it's what distinguishes us from the other species with which we share the planet. People used to speak of craft or "practical arts"; in that guise, technology has been around for a good two million years. The Pleistocene spearpoint flaked from pink flint that I display on my coffee table was the high technology of its day, as sophisticated and effective as a samurai sword or a fighter jet. But for many of us, "technology" means something more specific (and problematic) than craft or practical art; hearing the word applied to cooking or gardening might surprise us, at least initially. In this more recent sense, the term came into use only about 150 years ago, adapted from a classical Greek noun meaning a systematic treatment, as of grammar or philosophy. Ask a friend today to define technology and you might hear words like "machines," "engineering," "science." Most of us aren't even sure where science leaves off and technology begins. Neither are the experts. We also usually think of technology as hardware rather than software, although many organized systems serve technological ends no less than machines; your computer isn't complete without its programs. Arguably the greatest technological triumph of the century has been the public-health system, which is sophisticated preventive and investigative medicine organized around mostly low- and medium-tech equipment; as two demographers report late in this book, fully half of us are alive today because of its improvements. This barely acknowledged distinction between old, low technology and new, high technology probably reflects our ambivalence toward machines and machinelike systems, especially when they're recent and unfamiliar, and particularly when they're large and not in our control. We swim in technology as fish swim in the sea, depend on it from birth to final hours, but many of us trust it only in its older and more familiar guises. Recent technology is more often seen as a threat -- to our jobs, our health, our values -- than a blessing. Even public health takes its lumps; I've had otherwise decent people, people who donate a share of their worldly goods to feed the poor, tell me that saving all those lives just crowds the planet. Your life too, I argue, and they nod guiltily, embarrassed but unwilling to concede the point. Technological wariness is an enduring disturbance, with roots in religion. Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humans carries the sense of it; so does the serpent persuading Eve to taste the knowledgeable apple, and the Jewish myth of the Golem, a Frankenstein's monster animated by incorporations of holy words. (Stanislaw Ulam, the Polish mathematician who conceived the design breakthrough that led to the development of the U.S. hydrogen bomb, once told MIT polymath Norbert Wiener that the Golem had been in his family, since he was a descendant of the rabbi supposed to have constructed it; Wiener, thinking of the Bomb, responded, "It still is.") Technology competes with the gods at miracle-working and the gods take revenge: no wonder we're nervous about it. At its most fundamental, our distress probably reflects angst at automata, at organized systems without souls, like nature itself in its destructive and predatory forms -- isn't that why we argue whether computers can think? C. P. Snow, the English physicist and novelist, identified more specific hostility toward technology among intellectuals, particularly literary intellectuals, in his well-known 1959 lectures on "The Two Cultures." Such hostility becomes obvious when you survey the literature; it's obvious in this book, and not because I biased the sample. To the contrary, appreciation of technology among intellectuals not technologically trained was hard to find. Since many intellectuals are concerned with social justice and not devoid of ordinary compassion, it's surprising that they don't value technology; by any fair assessment, it has reduced suffering and improved welfare across the past hundred years. Why doesn't this net balance of benevolence inspire at least grudging enthusiasm for technology among intellectuals? Snow traced the conflict to class differences that widened with the progress of the industrial revolution. I've included an excerpt from that discussion at its appropriate place in this book. The landed classes resisted the revolution, Snow notes, since it threatened their predominately agricultural interests. The new industrialists and engineers emerged from the craft and working classes. The landed classes neglected technical education, taking refuge in classical studies; as late as 1930, for example, long after Ernest Rutherford at Cambridge had discovered the atomic nucleus and begun transmuting elements, the physics laboratory at Oxford University had not yet been wired for electricity. Intellectuals neglect technical education to this day. Since most intellectuals aren't from upper-class backgrounds, Snow seems to be implying that their hostility to technology results from aping their betters -- not a very generous assessment. Given the pervasiveness of the intellectual bias against technology, technologists are probably justified in concluding that it derives in some measure from technical and scientific illiteracy as well as jealousy and competition for influence. But such conclusions risk trivializing the debate -- much as do intellectuals' tiresome accusations that greed is the technologist's primary motivation for enterprise. If the record of technological innovation in this century is, on balance, clearly positive, it's also true that technologists have been prodigal at excusing themselves from moral responsibility for weapons of mass destruction, pollution and other well-known horrors. They do so in part by refusing to acknowledge the extent to which belief systems intrude into their operations. Claims that a "technical imperative" drives technological change, for example, much as an invisible hand is supposed to drive the capitalist marketplace, fall into this category. The recent literary-intellectual assault on science as an arbitrary construction no more anchored in the real world than any other religious or social institution is an extreme but predictable consequence of such denial. The assault has found support precisely because the scientific and technological community has chosen to deny knowledge of its own complicity in installing and maintaining structural violence. Structural violence -- violence such as racial discrimination that is built into the structure of societies -- remains the largest-scale and most intractable form of violence left in a world where knowledge of how to release nuclear energy has foreclosed world war. As methodologies, science and technology are demonstrably objective and effective; but they're unquestionably bound up with power relations as social systems. All this is to anticipate the vital and continuing debate I've sampled in this book. I'm reluctant to generalize from my sample. It's designed to be an animated performance of itself, its four parts anchored in the major events that set its terms. Enthusiasm for technology grew among technologists in the first quarter of the century as the expanding mass production of consumer goods, particularly automobiles, created great wealth. But critics attacked the application of technology to industrial production even before the First World War showed how technology could mass-produce slaughter (one theorist described the machine gun, the basic killing tool of the war, as "concentrated essence of infantry"). The Great Depression shifted the debate from industrial to social transformation, borrowing metaphors and solutions from technology even as technology was challenged. By the end of the Second World War the shift from an agricultural to a technological society was essentially complete. The second half of the century filled in the spaces while a new transformation to an electronically based information technology began -- to reach its maturity, presumably, in the twenty-first century now opening. These tidal highs and lows hardly obscure the persistent, continuing enlargement of the influence of science and technology on human affairs. By whatever measure you choose, science and technology came to dominate the human project in the twentieth century. Public health more than doubled the average lifespan. The discovery of how to release nuclear energy made world-scale war suicidal. Birth control subdued the Malthusian multiplication of human population. Agriculture fed the multitudes. Electronics wired the world and put human communication beyond the reach of tyranny. Manned vessels of discovery cast off beyond the earth; automated voyagers -- notes in high-tech bottles -- even escaped the solar system. At the same time, human activities drove a catastrophic decline in species diversity and began global warming; from a wild place the earth became a garden, well tended in some districts, ruthlessly exploited in others. The evolutionary neural enlargement that spun out technology (which imitates evolution culturally, propagating in memes rather than in genes) is not only open ended; it's also myopic, which makes invention and application acts of faith. The deep truth about the debate that fills this book is that it's a debate among the orthodox, a debate about speed limits and barricades rather than the necessity of the quest. No one, not even the Unabomber, has proposed a return to the Hobbesian garden of the primates. Visions of Technology originated in discussions among the members of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Technology Book Series advisory committee. In the midst of commissioning histories of major twentieth-century technologies, we realized that there must also be a thick vein of debate about technology to be mined into a book, and that such a book might serve as a meta-history of the effect of technological change on the twentieth-century human world. Fools walk in where angels fear to tread: I volunteered to assemble an anthology provided a professional historian could be found to join me in the work. Elting E. Morison agreed to undertake that partnership. Unfortunately, his final illness intervened before he could contribute beyond reading and approving the initial proposal I drafted. His participation would have broadened the range of selections and enriched the running commentary. It wasn't to be. I wish it had been. I planned at the outset to arrange selections by theme within their roughly quarter-century periods. That plan foundered on the breadth of issues many contributors explore. Finally, chronology alone seemed adequate and appropriate; I try to sketch themes and connections in my introductory comments. Chronology -- usually of publication, occasionally of subject matter -- reveals characteristic preoccupations and repetitions with minimal anachronism. It exposes, for example, the crisis of confidence in technology that arose with the Great Depression, the challenge to technology the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s launched, the recurring testing of links between innovation and job loss.The result is a species of textual archeology, levels exposed from the earliest to the most recent in turn. The index cross-references them; the bibliography points to the original source. Thanks to Paul Kennedy, who recommended my editorial associate Stephen Kim. Stephen spent two summers sorting through the first half of the century in the stacks and archives of Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University. Jeff Wheelwright then contributed from his own extensive experience and archives as a science writer and from library investigations into the second half of the century. I consulted the distinguished members of the advisory committee and queried Technology Book Series contributors, but minimized overlap with their books. I've been reading about technology since early childhood and reporting and writing about it for more than thirty years, and obviously drew on that knowledge and experience as well. Here then is a chronological and topical range of twentieth-century assessments of what technology is, who does it, how it works and what values it sustains. GLADE May 1993-June 1998 Copyright © 1999 by Richard Rhodes Excerpted from Visions of Technology by Richard Rhodes All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.