145: John Kasson’s Civilizing the Machine

The five essays that make up John Kasson’s Civilizing the Machine: Technology and Republican Values in America, 1776-1900 all examine different aspects of the relationship between technology and Republican ideology.  Using a wide variety of primary sources, including speeches, newspaper accounts, sketches, and writers like Emerson, Bellamy, Thomas Jefferson and Tenche Cox, Kasson shows that Americans first rejected technological development because they feared becoming corrupt like Europe; then incorporated Republican ideology into industrialization to stave off that same corruption by lending moral purity, industry, and restraint to technological development; and then found themselves being exploited by the very technologies they hoped to control, all in the name of Republicanism.  Kasson thus uses the relationship between political ideology and industrialization in the 19th century to complicate the relationship between technology and culture.

Despite following a roughly linear trajectory (similar to Thomas Hughes’ technological momentum), the five chapters examine technology and culture from widely different angles.  Kasson’s first three chapters cover the Jefferson/Hamilton debates as a fear of cultural corruption by industrial technology, and early capitalists’ efforts to keep their systems of production from adversely affecting workers’ lives; the mix of Republican ideology and nobless oblige at the Lowell Mills; and Emerson’s ruminations on whether technology was creating classes, stifling or nourishing creative freedom, or alienating people from their environment.  His fourth problematizes Kouwenhoven’s argument that 19th century Americans preferred a simple, functional machine aesthetic, arguing instead that Americans liked ornate machines, and even considered the utility and beauty of complex/ornamented machinery to be high art.  And his fifth chapter examines utopian and dystopian fiction of the late 19th century by Bellamy, Twain, Donnelly, Howells, and others; he shows both that Americans saw increasing evidence that technology leads to greed, corruption, chaos, and anti-Republican values, and that they saw social and technological reform as the only way to save America from the machines.

While Kasson’s mostly elite sources don’t really speak for the majority of Americans, insofar as they speak to a certain class of  Americans his book problematizes the relationship between technology and culture.  More importantly, I think, he shows how a fear of technology distracted people from realizing that industrial capitalism was the real enemy, and Republican values of individualism, thrift, hard work, and restraint meshed so well with capitalist enterprise – shaped it, even – that they foreclosed their own freedom without realizing it.

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