PAST Journal

Volume 32, 2009

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Book Review

Technology Matters: Questions to Live With

by David E. Nye

Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006

282 pages. Index

$27.95 (cloth), ISBN 9-262-14093-4

“Technology is not the mastery of nature but the relations between nature and man.” — Walter Benjamin

David E. Nye, Professor of American History at the University of Southern Denmark, has written a book that explores what technology is as a living thing; that is, the human/technology interface. His question comes alive within the avenues pursued specifically in this volume: exactly what the extensions of our powers as tools, inventions, and the command of nature mean to our thinking and behavior. Homo faber is the author’s subject, and how our history as makers of technology indeed defines us by a species-long record of toolmaking and using, beginning with the earliest known hand ax traceable to homo erectus 1.6 million years ago.

Since that time, we have lived with the question of how, once invented, our technologies take on their own lives in remaking us. But, Nye points out, as ingenious as we are, our ability to know our own creations is quite limited by comparison. Our tools and their outcomes are always far ahead of our ability to understand the technological drives that give rise to the enduring process of imagination, invention, effect, and response.

Technology Matters is a systematic response to the ongoing need to appreciate the effects of our works on ourselves, our decision-making, and our thinking and behavior. This is no easy project. Like the problem of consciousness and thinking in cognitive science, it is impossible to divide off our works as a realm apart from our nature. But Nye is adept at identifying the main issues that make this pursuit of intelligence doable and even urgent for the health and survival the human race and the planet earth.

To explore this question, Nye cites the poet Rilke’s entreaty to be “patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to live the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue . . . [to l]ive along some distant day into the answers” (x) .

To follow this poetic-inquiry approach, Nye lays out a groundwork of provocative questions in eleven chapters that pose some ways of proceeding through the tangled web. These start with the definition of technology itself from its pre-historical origins. The path resumes in the interface of human works and science, logic, nature, economics, politics, values, decision-making, policy, risk-taking, loss aversion, cognition, change, opportunity, and adjoining fields on which our greatest ideals and worst fears are played out.

Throughout these considerations are interlaced discussions of such issues as jobs, computer games, progress, scientific inquiry, evolution, technological momentum, social control of innovation and inventions, and their evolution within culture and as cultural constructions. The human/technology interface is thereby conceived as a system to be understood as a self-mediating process. Culture is constantly being reinvented by its own productions along certain genetic lines of creativity and choice-making. The technology/human synthesis is the most arresting dimension of the author’s discussion. More attention to the cultural process, as the overarching system of collective thought and behavior, would extend the focus and improve this book’s explanatory powers.

Although we seldom think systematically about the world created by human ingenuity, as Nye points out at the outset, this is an important thing to do. “We live not merely in a technological world, but in a world that from our earliest years we imagine and construct through tools and machines” (ix). Virtually all our experiences are mandated by technology, or conditioned by its many demands and effects. This is not the same as determinism, Nye often notes, because cultural drives and priorities are always, however invisibly, the mediators in perceiving the advantage and setting the agenda for adoption. Our humanity becomes a technological question as culture has come to be about that subject. This fact makes analysis and assessment of matters technological all the more critical. We need to find ways into and through this daunting black box in order to arrive at a collective technological intelligence.

This is because technology implies much: skills, process and narrative, social evolution and transaction, roles adopted to fit technology, brain evolution, sensory ability, imagination, transformation, creativity, and our whole stance and relationship to the universe, past and future, through our repertory of tools. These topics demand a sweeping view and a grasp of the way everything around us funnels--both from and toward—the impulse to make and make over the human environment.

That built environment intersects everywhere with the culture concept, so that the human mind and motivation must be considered part of every invention, as writing, agriculture, fire, communications, the Internet, nanotechnology, and transportation are integrated into our cultural toolkit. Even the lawn, our link with nature, is problematic, since “a park is a technological artifact, especially if it has a lawn. Lawns are tended by machines . . .” (194). Man and nature are, within the cultural scheme, two aspects of one unified system.

Layered into the basic problem is contextualism: the concept of potentials versus actual usage. The way things are designed is typically only one limited aspect of the way they emerge to operate in real time with many human factors, on the ground, and with and against other technologies and over decades. Edison conceived the phonograph as a voice recorder for dictation, whereas its actual function turned out to be for music; a demonstration that “invention is often the mother of the unforeseen” (159).

Nye considers many systems of cause-and-effect, paradox, unintended outcomes, innovation, paradigm shift, efficiency, novelty, collectivism, and diversity . . . and what these mean to us in our life and work. The culture concept always in play in the discussion means that we have choices to make about our technologies; they are not fated or inevitable. No matter how difficult it may be to detect just when the turning-points in any technology’s history were, they once presented avenues headed elsewhere in other evolutionary directions. In examining farming, the auto, electricity, the suburbs, clothing, the telephone, bicycle, department store, atomic power, business structures, congressional committees, patents, and environmentalism, the symbolic meanings and cultural drivers directing technology clearly emerge as the root system holding the many issues together.

So in the end, as at the prehistoric beginning, technology is at heart more than a toolkit. It is an index to our values and, constructed with many kinds of tools, from chisels to calculus, the culture (and the emerging types of multi-culture) that manifests those values.


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