I thought of the millions of different men by whose combined labor and thought automobiles were produced, from the miners who dug the iron ore out of the earth to the railroad men and teamsters who brought the finished machines to the consumer, so that man, space, and time might be conquered, and ever-expanding victories be won against death. (Diego Rivera)
Diego Rivera's double-edged paean to the Ford River Rouge factory epitomizes the ambivalence that had come to characterize the American love affair with technology by the early 20th century. For Rivera technological achievement--wrestling resources from nature and transforming them into machines to conquer space, time, death and man--imprisons while it liberates in an uneasy synthesis of promise and threat. Making sense of these powerful conflicting valences requires attention to a century-long history during which the concept of technological practice slowly took on a 20th century formulation that proved remarkably durable until the very recent past.
In the late 19th century electric power utilities and other complex systems began to replace mechanical contrivances like the steam engine as the dominant symbols of technology. At roughly the same time, the word "technology" began to replace earlier expressions such as "the mechanical arts." Warnings about new technology can be found as early as Jefferson's famous call to leave factories in Europe lest their vices corrupt a republican citizenry. Throughout the 19th century, a handful of critics such as Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, and Hawthorne warned of invention's seductive power to distract from higher purpose. Emerson's 1833 exultation in railroad speed turned somber by 1857: "Machinery is aggressive. The weaver becomes a web, the machinist a machine. If you do not use the tools, they use you. All tools are in one sense edge-tools, and dangerous."
Such wariness, however, was dwarfed by unbridled popular enthusiasm about progress. For engineers, politicians, preachers, and business leaders, America's destiny to construct a new society through the power of invention was a constant refrain in public rhetoric. The notion of exceptional American inventiveness depended in part on the twinned mythologies of a land free from tradition's constraints and of prior inhabitants lacking legitimate culture. The "empty land" welcomed free-wheeling and aggressive creativity, not as conquest of peoples or conflict between classes, but as youthful innocence and civic virtue. To cite one among a host of celebrants, Russell Conwell's enormously popular lecture "Acres of Diamonds" (first delivered in 1861 and subsequently performed more than 6000 times) exhorted listeners to seize hold of opportunity, to believe that their creative capacities opened a world of boundless possibility where wealth rewarded the virtuous citizens whose private achievements built up the public order. "I say that you ought to get rich, and it is your duty to get rich . . . . The men who get rich may be the most honest men you find in the community." Had the term been much in use at mid-century, "technology" would have described the tools, some conventional and some startlingly novel, that this ingenious people used to craft a new society in the wilderness.
During the Gilded Age, however, two seemingly
contradictory trends began to coalesce
into a new national climate, at once daring and anxious. Americans
thrilled to protean
technological triumphs transforming what had been primarily a rough
frontier life. On the other
hand, urban violence frequently seemed to threaten all they held dear.
Two decades of bloody
confrontations between workers and management police were rushed to
readers in lurid, generally
anti-worker, detail thanks to new communications technologies: the
telegraphic wire service,
high-speed printing, and half-tone photographic reproduction. Still
more unsettling, millions of
immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe flooded the nation with
what many saw as
invading hoards who spoke strange languages and affronted a Protestant
Contemporary technologies, precisely rational and elegantly complex, stood out for many, especially among the middle-class, in welcome contrast to these alarming signs of social disorder. New inventions such as telephones, skyscrapers, and electric utilities, showcased experts who could introduce seemingly miraculous systems to solve unimaginably complex problems. That these same systems demanded conformity from the people who used them was less immediately obvious but equally significant. A new technological style, based on standardized systems, was gradually replacing earlier, less efficient techniques that had required more hands-on negotiation. Older types of negotiation--skilled workers with foremen and owners, independent engineers with clients, or local businesses with national companies like the rail lines--were unpredictable and sometimes truculent. Traditional practitioners needed political skill along with technical know-how. The new standardized systems not only replaced these less efficient arrangements; they also modeled a post-political ideal of systemic control in an uncertain time. Not surprisingly, many who feared social chaos looked to technological expertise for answers and, in the process, elevated efficiency and control to the status of essential public values.
Substituting systems designed by experts for more traditional negotiations appealed to middle class and elite observers in part because the new systems did work much better than many older ones. Railroads rolled past the nation's mostly dirt roads; skyscrapers, hotels, and department stores lit by electricity gave hope of transforming dim filthy tenements; early automobiles evoked the dream of streets free from horse manure. Pronouncements about reorganizing society according to rational laws from Progressive Era technocratic heros such as Thomas Edison, Charles Proteus Steinmetz, Frederick Winslow Taylor, or Henry Ford were treated as hot copy by the popular press throughout the period. Ensconced as General Electric's resident wizard, socialist inventor Steinmetz saw the corporation as the model for social justice. The Socialist Party, he argued, "cannot be antagonistic to the corporation principle, since its ultimate aim, socialistic society, may be expressed as the formation of the industrial corporation of the United States, owned by all the citizens as stockholders." For the enthusiasts of large systems, whether socialist like Steinmetz or capitalist like Ford, new technologies announced an exciting era of abundance for all. Yet other observers noticed that the new technical systems created an artificial landscape that defined the individual as a tiny figure against imposing, sometimes brutal, and always dynamically changing technological forces. Technology appeared increasingly to mold the world according to its "own" mysterious and inexorable trajectory. Increasingly cut off from its 18th and early 19th century relationship with a republican vision of democratic political process and guaranteed by impersonal machines and systems, "Progress" no longer required the consent of an independent citizenry.
The perception that modern technology imposed cultural passivity occurred to many writers throughout the 20th century, from Lewis Mumford to the refugee scholars of the Frankfurt School. But it has generated politically significant opposition to the ideology of progress only in the recent past. Anti-technology movements stem in part from World War II technical triumphs that came to be seen as heinous. Germany, epitome of scientific and engineering sophistication, used its expertise to build death camps; the United States constructed atomic bombs and dropped them on civilian targets. Building on this grim symbolic foundation several social trends have coalesced in what some observers see as a crisis for the idea of technological progress itself. Since the mid 1960's ecological consciousness and no-growth notions have achieved significant political power in some localities and are increasingly influential in national debates. They have combined with other currents of thought--from new age religion and fundamentalist cults to philosophical relativism and literary post-structuralism--to mount an unprecedented challenge to the Enlightenment heritage of scientific rationalism.
Nevertheless, technological determinism continues
to exert powerful influence on public
debate. Pervasive popular rhetoric, in such varied contexts as Disney's
immensely popular EPCOT
Center, advertisements using hi-tech iconography, and Congressional
competitiveness or weapons research, portrays a race toward the future
driven by extant
technologies which resist critique from any individual person, place,
politics or social vision. Deterministic "Technology," inexorably
moving forward, intimidating even as it promises
abundance, remains the dominant underlying structure of popular
attitudes. The staying power of
this definition of technology may be due in part to the abiding allure
of the myth of the empty
land. When the United States is seen as the fortuitous product of an
innocent conquest of open
wilderness, when the essentially political work of the Constitution's
designers is forgotten,
technology with its restless innovative energies, operates in public
consciousness as an omnipotent
force, sometimes benevolent, sometimes nafarious, god-like in power and
devilish in whim. When, by contrast, technological decisions are seen
as part of an unending and necessary debate
about allocating resources toward competing goals, in short, as
politics in the original meaning of
the word, technological practice is situated in a hopeful context of
chosen human purposes. From
this perspective, retrieving the old tradition of civic virtue,
achieved through public action and
debate, appears to be a primary national agenda.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Works and Days" The
Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson Concord Edition, (Boston:
Houghton Mifflin, 1st published 1870) Vol VII, (quote on p. 164).
Goldman, Steven L. ed. Science, Technology and Social Progress (Research in Technology Studies, Volume 2) (Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press 1989).
Kasson, John F., Civilizing the Machine:
Technology and Republican Values in America, 1776-1900 (New York:
Marx, Leo, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford University Press 1964).
Hughes, Thomas Parke, American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm (New York: Penguin, 1990)
Smith, Merritt Roe, ed. Beyond Technological
Determinism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994).
Steinmetz, Charles Proteus, "Address," to the annual convention of the National Association of Corporation Schools (June 8-11, 1915) in NACS Proceedings 3, (quote on pp. 54 & 840). Cited in Ronald R. Kline, Steinmetz: Engineer and Socialist (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins 1992), p. 219.