In Our Own Devices, Jill Lepore at the New Yorker reviews "The Power Makers: Steam, Electricity, and the Men Who Invented Modern America" by Maury Klein and "A Culture of Improvement: Technology and the Western Millennium" by Robert Friedel.
Check out the whole article but we've quoted some of the juicy bits here and after El Jumpo
Historical narratives in which machines drive history look like this: x machine produces y kind of society. "The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist," Karl Marx wrote, in "The Poverty of Philosophy," in 1847. Lewis Mumford, in his meditative 1934 "Technics and Civilization," made this swap: "The clock, not the steam-engine, is the key-machine of the modern industrial age." For Klein, Edison flipped the switch on "a new era in American life," the age of abundance.
This logic is usually called "technological determinism," and is something that Mumford himself, during the course of his career, repudiated and vigorously attacked as "a radical misinterpretation of the whole course of human development."
Precise definitions are hard to come by, but in its purest form technological determinism looks a lot like the nineteenth-century idea of progress and holds that machines are the most important force in human history, that they follow a fixed path through set stages, and that they bring about social, political, cultural, and economic change. The printing press led to the scientific revolution. The cotton gin carried slavery to the American West. The automobile drove city dwellers to the suburbs. The Pill gave birth to the sexual revolution. Surgical strikes numbed us to the agony of war.
These statements have a ring of truth; they're useful, insightful, and worth considering. And, at first glance, they're pleasing: you can picture the steam engine, the clock, the light bulb, the printing press, the cotton gin, the Pill, the automobile. You find yourself silently nodding in agreement. Technology changes our lives all the time, in little ways and big ways, sometimes profoundly, very often for good, and sometimes for very great good. Really, it's not such a big leap to believe that technology drives change, and drives history. Asked to guess which is the more powerful force in history--gadgets you can tinker with or wispy, diaphanous ideas--most people would put their money on gadgets. And why not? The printing press versus, say, predestination isn't really a fair fight, unless you've got a lot of time to think about it, and to read books--printed on a printing press. In some parts of these United States, daily life is like living in a museum dedicated to the proposition that technology is destiny.
But what if x isn't all that triggers y, or even what mostly does; what if it just looks that way, because we are living y? It's easy to forget that some of these y's started long before the x's, suburbs before automobiles. And none of the x's tell the whole story; the Pill, while not a small thing, wasn't everything. Statements like "The light bulb ushered in the age of abundance" employ a grammar suspiciously like that of advertising copy. Viagra will save your marriage. Electronic voting will restore faith in American democracy. The iPod will make you groovy.
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