Category Archives: technological momentum

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.


144: Thomas Hughes’ American Genesis

In American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, Thomas Hughes argues that the 100 years from 1870 to 1970 were the years in which Americans made the country over into the modern technological nation; American “technological systems” revolutionized both technology/ technological development and American culture.  American Genesis is not a celebration of American industrial might, but a critical history: because inventors, industrial scientists, engineers, and system builders created modern America via technological systems, their values have become our values, so examining the messy history of technological development can both release us from the burden of the past and free us to turn technology to our own ends.

Hughes divides the century of technological enthusiasm into several overlapping processes:

  • Invention of systems: the years from the Civil War to WWI were a heyday for independent inventors, who “forged a massive enterprise that ended up dominated by giant corporations.”  This period corresponds with Charles & Mary Beard’s “Second American Revolution,” with its massive social, economic, technological, and political changes; it is also the beginning of Mumford’s “Neotechnic” era.  As WWI approached, funding for invention increasingly came from the military; industrial scientists began to compete with investors
  • Spread of large systems: system builders (Hughes focuses on Edison, Ford, and Taylor) connected innovations into technological systems of their own invention.  Fordism and Taylorism spread around the world and were thought to solve social and political unrest in addition to production problems; “White socialism” was proposed as an answer to Marxism.
  • Emergence of technological culture, massive government systems, and countercultural reactions: 
    • If Americans made modern technology, Europe made modern technological culture: the Bauhaus/ International Style; Le Corbuiser; Italian Futurists and Soviet Constructivists, etc.  
    • During the Great Depression and WWII, private technological enthusiasm slowed in the US, but federal involvement in technological systems – the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Manhattan Project – developed systems at an unprecedented scale.
    • The atomic bomb and the massive destruction in Vietnam led to countercultural anti-technology movements in the 1960s, with an emphasis on spontaneity, passion, and organic, small, beautiful technologies instead of mechanical centralized systems, order, and efficiency.
Within each of these periods, Hughes details and analyzes various inventors and their technological systems: Hiram Maxim and the machine gun; Bell and the telephone; Edison and the incandescent bulb, phonograph, and motion-picture system; William Stanley, Nikola Tesla, & Elihu Thomson and electric light-and-power transmission; William and Orville Wright and the internal-combustion-engine airplane; Reginald Fessenden, Lee de Forest & Edwin Armstrong and wireless telegraphy/telephony (radio); and Elmer Sperry and gyrocompass and automatic control devices for Navy.  Using these, he develops several main concepts that have been instrumental in history of technology studies: 
  • technology: “the effort to organize the world for problem solving so that goods and services can be invented, developed, produced, and used.”
  • invention: the process of solving new problems.  Independent inventors tend to come up with more radical solutions and to include business concerns because they find it easier to develop their own systems than to compete with major corporations directly; industrial scientists are constrained to choose problems and solutions that incrementally improve existing systems. Neither is a lone inventor. (Edison)
  • technological systems: hardware, processes, devices, machines; transportation, communication, and information networks that connect them; and people and organizations, including businesses and sometimes regulators.
  • modern culturedevices, machines, processes, values, organizations, symbols, and  forms expressing the order, system, and control of modern technology, and to the thought and behavior mediated by these and their expression.”
  • technological momentum: when they’re new, systems are socially constructed, and inventors embed their social and political values in a technology; as they get older and bigger they become more ossified until they can no longer change, at which point they start shaping culture. (the Manhattan Project)
While I think Hughes’ work could do with a less linear, Progress-oriented version of technological change, as well as more attention to inventors who were not white and male and to other stakeholders in general, his breakup of the determinism debate is huge.

139: Wiebe Bijker’s Bicycles, Bakelites and Bulbs

In Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change, Wiebe Bijker uses cases studies on the development of the bicycle, Bakelite, and GE’s fluorescent lamp to show that technologies have politics, but like society, they are socially constructed; “artifacts are not only shaped by the power strategies of social groups but also form the micropolitics of power, constituting power strategies and solidifying power relations.”  Power relationships materialize in technologies, and the technologies themselves become embedded in politics, so exploring the social construction of particular technologies reveals the politics of technology and the relationship between technology and power.

Each of Bijker’s three case studies reveals a piece of his theory of sociotechnical change:

With the bicycle, Bijker shows how technological change is actually a social process, so the context of the invention and the meanings applied by social groups had more of an impact on the bicycle’s design than did its intrinsic technological specifications.  Relevant social groups assigned meanings that favored some designs over others, and the bicycle’s interpretive flexibility meant that particular designs “worked” while others didn’t largely because they had been accepted by relevant social groups.  Once a particular design (the Safety bicycle) was accepted by a majority of people, bicycle design had achieved closure, and both design and meaning became stabilized.

With Bakelite, Bijker shows how even technologies that seem to come from “unique individual ingenuity and creativity” are actually linked to larger sociocultural processes.  Bakelite developed out of a particular “technological frame,” a configuration of knowledge, goals, values, and artifacts that is structured by social, economic, scientific, and technological conditions, all of which went into the invention itself.  In order to understand the politics of a technology and the structure of creativity, we need to take a contextualist approach and embed the inventor in his social context.

Bijker uses the development of the GE fluorescent lamp to discuss power for constructivists.  Power is an explanandum that has two aspects: a semiotic aspect that focuses on fixing an artifact’s meanings in a particular way, and a micropolitical aspect that focuses on the interactions among relevant social groups in a technological frame.  Explaining or revealing power structures helps explain the political order of a particular combination of technology and society, so that the technological artifact is like a material incarnation of a particular power configuration.

Bijker then uses the concepts from these case studies to argue for a liberatory technopolitics.  Instead of a divide between society and technology, he posits a single sociotechnical ensemble, a bundle of machines, artifacts, and social formations where the technical is always socially constructed and the social is always technically constructed.  While he has no answer for how an understanding of sociotechnical politics can lead to a more democratic culture, he hopes that revealing the structures of power can help humans locate sites of agency.

25: Jeff Meikle’s American Plastic

Jeff Meikle’s American Plastic delves into the history, technology, and business of plastic (in the US) to show that plastic is both material and metaphor for American culture.  On the one hand, plastic’s seemingly infinite malleability can lead to creative freedom and human domination over nature; on the other, its synthetic, chemical artificiality detaches us from the natural world and thus leads, somehow, to death.  Lest this dichotomy seem too simple, he situates his history of plastic within Thomas Hughes’ “technological momentum” framework, which holds that when technologies are young, they are easily manipulated by society; as they (and their attendant industries and systems of distribution) age, they shift from the manipulated to the manipulators.  Thus, if plastic was all “whatever” in the late 1800s, by the late 20th century, plastic had become a necessary, if silently lurking, element in our everyday lives.

The majority of the book focuses on technological manufacturing processes, the development of the plastics industry, and changing cultural perceptions of plastic (which were often, especially in DuPont’s case, carefully crafted by ad execs).  The part that I found most interesting was Meikle’s discussion of the relationship between plastics and streamlining in the 1930s, as it captures an industry, a technology, a culture and an aesthetic all in transition at once.

Although Bakelite, the first synthetic plastic, had been around since the turn of the century, it didn’t take off until the 1920s, when its promoters were able to recast it as a material of innovation rather than one of simulation.  This reframing of plastic as something wholly man-made – and the reframing of “man-made” as a positive quality – was reflected in Bakelite’s new emphasis on modern design, which took advantage of plastic’s plasticity to create shapes and textures that could not be held by natural materials.  Inspired by Bakelite, other plastics manufacturers followed suit and developed radios, furniture, bowls, and other household goods with sleek, smooth surfaces and simple, sweeping curves.  Meikle is careful to point out that this streamlining trend was NOT a direct result of the plastic manufacturing process, which involved pouring softened plastic into molds.  Instead, he argues that the 1930s were a moment of flux, when culture and technology were on relatively equal footing: 1930s design resulted partly from consumer demand for ‘machine-age forms’ and partly from the high cost of machining plastic molds, which pushed manufacturers to develop simpler, more streamlined forms.  In other words, plastic and streamlining came together as a “happy coincidence.”  Plastic sure did look good in curvilinear forms, though.  More importantly, the visual disconnect between the new streamlined plastics and natural materials and forms, which now looked irregular and staid by comparison, appealed to Americans’ utopian aspirations while also giving plastic its identity.

After WWII and into the 1960s, plastic stopped being the utopian super material and started to seem emblematic of everything that was wrong with American society: cookie cutter homes filled with identical vinyl floors, naugahyde furniture, and Tupperware, social isolation, inequality and environmental destruction.  Meikle doesn’t suggest that plastics directly caused the countercultural revolution – his analysis is far too nuanced to do that – but he does tie the proliferation of plastic to an ongoing tension between human creativity and the sense that American culture is increasingly detached from “the resistant stuff of nature.”  Considering that a little under a century ago we were celebrating the domination of nature via plastic, this tension reveals a now-mature technological system’s imbalance of power between humans and nature.  Meikle calls the tension “insoluble;” I’ve never considered myself much of an environmentalist, but I do hope he’s wrong.