Category Archives: science

161: John Jordan’s Machine-Age Ideology

In Machine-Age Ideology: Social Engineering and American Liberalism, 1911-1939, John Jordan argues that early 20th century “rational reform” was the product of the top-down, antidemocratic, technocratic politics of the machine age, and thus American liberal reformers in this era became less interested in helping the poor gain their voices as citizens than in engineering and controlling society.  Jordan’s cultural history, which relies primarily on the papers of reformers, statements and theories of prominent engineers, writers, and academics, and popular lit sources, shows how technological language and notions of Progress, control, and hierarchy filtered into social reform and the institution of liberalism as a whole.

Jordan divides his study into three historical periods, each with its own reform projects.  He locates the origins of rational reform (1880-1910) in Progressive reformers and sociologists like Veblen, who want to make the relationship between reformers and society less political and more like the relationship between engineers and nature.  From 1910 to WWI, publications like Lippman’s The New Republic and foundations like Russel Sage, the Rockefeller Foundation, and Carnegie Corp start arguing that “disinterested specialists” well-versed in social science and technology should lead the masses; Herbert Hoover called on manly men to be “officers in the great industrial army;” and Taylor and other efficiency experts made the efficiency craze visible.

Finally, social engineering hit its stride from 1918-1934, when Herbert Hoover’s “strikingly colorless moral universe,” created through war relief, paved the way for technocrats to further engineer social control.  Social problems like unemployment, education, poverty, and crime began to be seen as inefficiencies in the social system rather than injustice; universities were transformed into institutions of research, and psychologists turned “normality” into results on intelligence tests; the Century of Progress Fair in 1933 meshed science and capitalism into public entertainment, so that not even leisure spaces were not safe.

Of course, not everyone agreed with social control; Jordan also taps many of the era’s outspoken critics, including John Dewey, Lewis Mumford, Walter Lippman, Robert Lynd for cautions against the TOO successful social control of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini.  They also argued that humanity and democracy were necessarily messy; that competence was no match for the sheer variety of the American consumer, and that no one is disinterested, least of all reformers who trust their own authority and pet project over the needs and opinions of the people they’re supposedly helping.

Rational reform, therefore, became a question of ways of knowing.  Rational technocracy became articulated with liberals, who decided that the best way of knowing was science and that the goal of reform was to create an efficient social machine.  This perspective obviously created horrible problems because it reduced humanity to numbers and thus left out whole huge parts of the human condition that can’t be approximated.  Even scarier, however, is knowing that the drive toward quantitative knowledge lives on today: with more and more data, the cloud comes closer and closer to modelling human life – but even in the aggregate, can we really be replaced by zeros and ones?


159: Eugene Ferguson’s Engineering and the Mind’s Eye

In Engineering and the Mind’s Eye, Eugene Ferguson argues that the current (since the 1950s) privileging of math and science over the visual and nonverbal in engineering education is both a historical aberration and a dangerous practice.  Using a well-illustrated history of engineering design, Ferguson argues that not all engineering problems can be solved by mathematical analysis; without the ability to visualize machines, structures, and the environment, engineers often make poor judgement calls that lead to disastrous failures in bridges, nuclear power plants, refrigerators, and other technologies.

Ferguson’s emphasis on the visual is actually linked to a larger concern with engineering’s loss of that holistic, experiential real-world experience on which the field was initially based – its retreat into scientific analysis.  Thus, his history of engineering emphasizes its subjective nature before the scientific turn.  In the Renaissance, engineers used improved drawing techniques to visualize and thus think through Scientific Revolution discoveries like planetary motion and human anatomy, and perspective drawing techniques (devised by Renaissance mathematicians) facilitated design by making representations more realistic.  In the 18th and 19th centuries, formalized drawing techniques (especially orthogonal drawing), the use of models, and the development of visual systems for engineering calculation – slide rules, indicator diagrams, nomography, and graphic statistics – kept visual thinking at the forefront of engineering design and practice.  After WWII, engineering education shifted away from an open-ended art and toward deductive, exact science: shop courses were replaced with theories of thermodynamics, mechanics, heat transfer; students have little interaction with the real world; graduating engineers have a hard time designing solutions for real-world problems.

Throughout, Ferguson’s underlying argument is that the subjective, connected to real-world problems through visual thinking and representation, is incredibly important to engineers’ ability to design effective solutions, and that engineering’s scientific turn to abstract objectivity has had disastrous effects on the safety and utility of engineering projects.  While his emphasis on the visual leads Ferguson to neglect larger systems of power in some of his examples (the Challenger failure), and I suspect that what he’s actually getting at is fostering creativity rather than the visual per se, his argument for subjectivity and creative, real-world thinking in engineering certainly makes sense to me.

81: Paul Boyer’s By the Bomb’s Early Light

Paul Boyer’s By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age seeks to understand how the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 affected American culture, thought, and worldview in the first 5 years of the new “atomic age.”  Accordingly, the book uses a wide range of contemporary articles, books, editorials, letters to editors, radio broadcasts, movies, popular music, opinion polls, and the personal papers of prominent political figures to reconstruct both the history of nuclear energy and the new atomic culture.  Boyer argues that the culture industry was able to channel multiple fears and reactions to the bomb immediately after the blast into an understanding that “the dread destroyer of 1945 had become the shield of the Republic” by 1950.

According to Boyer, reactions to the bomb followed a rough trajectory from multiple viewpoints to a single viewpoint in less than five years.  Right after Hiroshima, Boyer found multiple expressions of a “primal fear of extinction,” which led to support for international control of atomic energy.  However, this movement failed because the atomic scientists and other proponents of atomic energy exploited widespread anxiety about a nuclear war between capitalist and communist states… which led not to international regulation but to anticommunist hysteria.  American attempts to quell the hysteria by searching for a silver lining in peaceful applications of nuclear energy also backfired as early as 1947, when writers began suspecting that nuclear energy’s positive impact had been “badly oversold.”  The strategy that ended up working was the one taken by the federal government and allied groups, which emphasized future peaceful applications of nuclear energy combined with arguments for the feasibility of nuclear civil defense and the need for supremacy in the arms race.

Boyer finds in this story the roots of 1980s nuclear policy.  I think it also provides a compelling cultural-technological explanation for the beginning of the Cold War, as well as a strangely anachronistic interpretation of post-war culture.  Perhaps the 1940s and 50s really were as top-down as the Culture Industry would have us believe?  After all, Boyer did get much of his cultural information from contemporary pop-culture stories…

78: Cynthia Eagle Russett’s Sexual Science

In Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood, Cynthia Eagle Russett explores scientific constructions of gender difference from 1880-1920 as part of a larger scientific shift from a belief in the malleability of nature to a belief in biological determinism; she argues that this shift tracked the transition to a new, modern worldview.

Russett pulls from a variety of Victorian sciences to examine the social construction of sexual difference: phrenology, anatomy, physiology, craniology, evolutionary biology, psychology, etc.  Generally, these sciences were used to disprove the equality of mankind, so that women were inferior to men, non-European races were inferior to European ones, and, because the categories were immutable, environmental intervention was no longer a viable reform policy.  Different theories had different impacts on the construction of “woman” as a social category.  Many of these complicated Victorian notions of Progress.  Darwin argued that the transmission of culture from mother to child was a physical process, so education of the mother had a direct impact on the intelligence of the child; Patrick Geddes and L Arthur Thompson argued for a static and essentialist view of sexual difference based on metabolism that could not be affected by environmental factors, so education of women was futile; recapitulation theory created a ladder of human development and placed women, children, and people of color as a buffer between humans and apes; Spencer argued that the most fundamental (biological and social) division of labor was that between the sexes, and that societies with higher differentiation (like the Victorians) were the most advanced, and so on.  In each, Russett locates the moment where women are constructed as inferior to men because of some immutable biological difference.

Throughout, Russett argues that these theories gained currency because they assuaged white, middle-class anxieties about cultural change and fears about no longer being dominant.  Her book thus contributes both to an understanding of cultural reactions to modernism AND to the larger feminist enterprise of exposing false constructions of gender by mapping out ideological constructs within science.

22: Hugh Aitken’s Syntony and Spark

Syntony and Spark is nominally a history of the development of radio technology to 1914, and Hugh Aitken does a thorough job of tracing this technological trajectory from its origins in a set of mathematical equations (Maxwell’s electromagnetic field) to a burgeoning communications industry at the eve of WWI.  But it is also a case study for a theory about the relationship between science, technology, and the economy.  The development of the radio is interesting, but I think Aitken’s theoretical framework is even more so.

Aitken was writing in the 1970s, when the history of technology was still lost somewhere in the gulf between history and technological development and trying to find its sea-legs.  Scholars knew that they wanted to look carefully and critically at the relationship between technology and culture, but there were few models, and even fewer people had offered good, solid frameworks for studying the connection.  This book, according to John Staudenmaier and Emily Thompson, anyway, was one of the ones that made it.

Aitken’s goal was to figure out a relationship between science, technology, and the economy, and he did so empirically, by tracing the development of spark radiotelegraphy.  His theory has three major components.

First, having traced the technology from its origins in Maxwell’s theorems, to Hertz’s and Lodge’s experimental proof, to Lodge’s and Marconi’s development of viable commercial products and systems, Aitken argues that the process of transmission appears to be linear, from science (Maxwell) to technology (Hertz & Lodge) to business (Lodge and Marconi).

However, science, technology, and the economy are all vastly different spheres with their own norms, processes, methods of inquiry and creative potential.  Science is concerned with slowly and methodically enlarging human knowledge; technology is concerned with designing solutions to real-world problems, and the economy is concerned with generating profit by meeting consumer demand.  Each sphere thus speaks a different language, fosters a different set of skills, considers different things to be important, and considers different kinds of acts to be creative.  Thus, second, science might be generating one kind of knowledge, but it doesn’t exactly have all of human knowledge and creativity in a headlock.  Rather, the three spheres are interdependent loci of creativity.

And third, this interdependence leads to a feedback look between the three spheres.  Science may uncover principles that technology can then build out into something the economy can use, but it goes the other way, too.  The economy can generate demand for certain technologies and fund certain kinds of research over others; and technology can empirically derive things that science finds useful, like Lodge’s measuring instruments or Marconi’s discovery that radio waves bend around the earth.

While Aitken’s method could use more attention to social groups (instead of just “the economy” as a source of demand) and less attention to individual men who seemed to drive the pace of technological and scientific change all by their lonesomes, his theory still seems relevant today, and not just for radios.  The examples that immediately come to mind are iPhones and DNA mapping, both of which seem (to me at least) to be borne of tightly-knit webs of scientific, engineering, and business interests.