When you get as many letters after your name as I have, you tend to pile up papers along the way. Here are a few of my more accessible academic moments.
The Technological Sublime vs. The Frankenstein Complex: Utopia, Dystopia, and Christianity in the Great Internet Debate
It started as a simple question back in 1994 or so: as this new Internet thing grows, why are the public pronouncements about it so damned polarized? Five years later the search for an answer had sifted through a lot of popular commentary; examined dot-com hoopla galore; encountered the thinking of a variety of neo-Luddites; taken a hard look at how LIFE had portrayed technology during its 36-year run; contemplated the cultural plausibility of cyberpunk; revisited the Romantic poets; dived hard into the technotopianism of Francis Bacon and the Enlightenment; and since all that wasn’t enough, I also side-tripped through Millennarian theology and wound up all the way back in Genesis I, 27-29. Because you can’t possibly understand the Internet without grasping the ideologies of dominion underpinning the preeminent strain of Judeo-Christianity across the last several millennia.
So much for simple questions, huh? Here’s a handy-dandy PDF download of my page-turning, pot-boiling, lathered-up 1999 doctoral dissertation. Knock yourself out.
Scatterlings of the Metrocene
Thoughts on technology, education, and the future of media culture. Co-authored by Dr. Jim Booth.
“The Fly” on the Stage: Readings and Misreadings of the “New” U2
It doesn’t matter how obvious you make things, some folks just refuse to get it.
The Long View: Enlightenment Ideologies of Science and Technology and the Internet Debate
The future will be like the past, only moreso.
Chapter 2: The Technological Sublime
But if any Human being earnestly desire to push on to new discoveries instead of just retaining and using the old; to win victories over Nature as a worker rather than over hostile critics as a disputant; to attain, in fact, to clear and demonstrative knowledge instead of attractive and probable theory; we invite him as a true son of science to join our ranks.
— Francis Bacon, Novum Organum
The utopian/messianic/technophilic view of science and technology outlined in the preceding chapter is consistent with an ideological bent that traces its lineage at least as far back as the dawn of the Enlightenment in Europe, and its conquest and assimilation of the collective Western psyche at the end of the millennium is utterly complete. Contemporary Western – and particularly American – culture is technological by definition, with some commentators going almost so far as to suggest that technology is our culture. A brief example illustrates the point: despite Chernobyl, Bhopal, the Exxon Valdez and Three Mile Island – three disasters and a near-cataclysm whose names have become synonymous with catastrophe – in general usage the English language has no pejorative connotations of the words “science,” “scientific,” or “technology”.
The valorization of science pervades our daily lives. Advertisers routinely employ both overt and subtle appeals to science when pitching their wares – perhaps “laboratory tests” show a product to be “20 percent more effective at killing germs,” or maybe the actor/spokesman is garbed in a white lab coat, the technotopian equivalent to the regalia of the professor or priest. The reports of market researchers, which daily shape (or dictate outright) the course of global commerce and affect the lives of billions around the world in ways too profound and numerous to consider here, are wrapped in the vocabulary and methodology of legitimate science. Even journalists, who are charged with the admittedly difficult task of converting complex scientific research findings into terms comprehensible to their lay readership, rarely question the right of Science to speak ex cathedra on the issues it chooses to address.
Whether or not the public buys the product or the pitch, the invocation of science is nearly always taken unwarily. Science and technology in the West enjoy an unparalleled ascendance, and their image is virtually immune to taint even in the face of their greatest failings. When scientific findings meet with popular resistance, it isn’t science per se that is questioned. Science remains our friend, and if it presents us with findings we don’t believe (or don’t want to believe), the resulting dissonance is almost always attributed to human error or perhaps the abuses of some person or persons pushing an unpopular political agenda.
Despite the fact that we’re usually uncritical about the effects of technology as realized in the daily lives of our citizens, we should understand that ideologies wholly contradicted by the experiences of the public tend not to survive. Postman observes, quite sensibly, that we think of science and technology as our friends and are uncomfortable questioning that friendship in large part because they are our friends – technology “makes life easier, cleaner, and longer. Can anyone ask more of a friend?” (Postman Technopoly xii). Where advanced health and medical technologies are available, birth rates and weights are higher, life expectancy is greater, and the overall quality of that life is spectacularly superior to what it would be otherwise.
The Ideological Structure of Technological Society: Postman’s Technopoly
Postman’s caveat – that technology has in fact been a good friend to humanity – is important to understanding his model of contemporary technological society, the Technopoly, and serves as a useful (if not necessarily definitive) starting point for discussion. Postman contends that cultures throughout history can be divided into three categories: tool-using, technocracy, and Technopoly. Tool-using cultures invented things either “to solve specific and urgent problems of physical life, such as in the use of waterpower, windmills, and the heavy-wheeled plow” or “to serve the symbolic world of art, politics, myth, ritual, and religion, as in the construction of castles and cathedrals and the development of the mechanical clock.” Tools were integrated organically into social, political, and religious traditions, which served to direct development and provide legitimacy for their employment. All tool-using cultures, whether primitive or sophisticated, are theocratic, or at least are “unified by some metaphysical theory” (Postman Technopoly 22-26).
Citing the introduction of the rifle to the Ihalmiut tribe in the early 20th Century as an especially tragic example, Postman argues that the primacy of cultural tradition disappears, or begins to disappear, in the technocracy – in essence, technology becomes the enemy of received culture. In the case of the Ihalmiut, the rifle displaced the bow and arrow, resulting not in the “modification of a culture but its eradication.”
In a technocracy, tools play a central role in the thought-world of the culture. Everything must give way, in some degree, to their development. The social and symbolic worlds become increasingly subject to the requirements of that development. Tools are not integrated into the culture; they attack the culture. They bid to become the culture. As a consequence, tradition, social mores, myth, politics, ritual, and religion have to fight for their lives (28).
The West’s modern technocracies, Postman says, are characterized by the conflicts which arose from the invention of three devices: “the mechanical clock, which provided a new conception of time; the printing press with moveable type, which attacked the epistemology of oral tradition; and the telescope, which attacked the fundamental propositions of Judeo-Christian theology” (28-29).
Some of the technocratic impulses Postman describes are evident in the writings of Walter Lippman, who as early as 1922 actually made the case for something very like an overt technocracy in American governance. In his formulation, the drive toward technocracy was fueled by the sheer complexity of the modern world.
For the real environment is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance. We are not equipped to deal with so much subtlety, so much variety, so many permutations and combinations (Public Opinion 16).
What results from this vastness is that humans, lacking the ability to comprehend the detail and nuance of the actual environment, wind up constructing “pseudo-environments,” incomplete and sometimes inaccurate shadows of the complex world which lies just beyond the comprehension of the laity.
Unfortunately, the pseudo-environment produces “fictions” which “determine a very great part of men’s political behavior” (21). When we add to the general complexity of the world the intrinsic complexity of human nature, especially as acted upon by widely divergent social conditions, the result is a system of decision-making (an innumerable web of systems, actually) that is both uncertain and unreliable. Democracy is inherently confounded, Lippman contends, because it assumes “that somehow mysteriously there exists within the hearts of men a knowledge of the world beyond their reach.” He concludes that
representative government, either in what is ordinarily called politics, or in industry, cannot be worked successfully, no matter what the basis of election, unless there is an independent, expert organization for making unseen facts intelligible to those who have to make the decisions (31).
He elaborates on the specifics of how such an expert organization might be formed, and how it might function independently and efficiently to address the various problems of the society, including the shaping of a more educated public opinion. Many of these challenges are of a technical nature, but by this stage in American history the ideology of science was well on its way to colonizing the social sector as well. Ultimately, science had transcended its original bounds, permeating and informing every sphere of human activity (Aronowitz Science as Power). The implication of Lippman’s proposal is that science holds the key to a social and moral utopia – or at least to a society where the illusions of the pseudo-environment could be replaced by a world view more clearly illuminated by the light of technical expertise.
Lippman’s concerns weren’t unfounded, of course. As he made clear, the important decisions facing society and its elected representatives were increasingly technological and complex, and the average person could hardly be expected to cultivate the detailed and specific expertise necessary to reach an informed opinion on many issues confronting early 20th Century America. His insights were not only well-taken, they were prophetic – the technological questions facing the United States in 1922 were barely a decent warm-up for the innovations which would challenge the country during and after World War II.
However, Lippman was arguably as naive as he was insightful, because implicit in his proposal – the establishment of a technical bureaucracy, basically, which would guide lawmakers in their decision making – was the assumption that science and technology were immune to bias (a question that will be taken up in some detail later). He assumes that technical experts can be trusted to act purely on objective criteria, and the result, in his view, will be policy which issues from scientific truth, free from the taint of ideology and insulated from the influence of an ill-informed lay public.
Postman contends that the Western world, and especially the United States, has now evolved beyond technocracy into the third phase of his taxonomy, the Technopoly. In the technocracy, the technological and traditional thought-worlds still co-exist, if uneasily – technology seeks dominance and diminishes the authority of cultural traditions, but these traditions continue to exist and exert some influence on the life of the culture. In Technopoly, though, the triumph of technology is complete.
With the rise of Technopoly, one of those thought-worlds disappears. Technopoly eliminates alternatives to itself in precisely the way Aldous Huxley outlined in Brave New World. It does not make them illegal. It does not make them immoral. It does not even make them unpopular. It makes them invisible and therefore irrelevant. And it does so by redefining what we mean by religion, by art, by family, by politics, by history, by truth, by privacy, by intelligence, so that our definitions fit its new requirements. Technopoly, in other words, is totalitarian technocracy (48).
Technopoly, as Postman describes it, fosters a powerful willing suspension of disbelief regarding the technical world, except that our credulity isn’t confined to the screen, the stage, the television, or any other locus of entertainment – it instead generalizes to the society at large. The ability to see the world consistently and comprehensively has eroded to the point where no assertion of fact appears impossible or unacceptable. People are stripped of the “social, political, historical, metaphysical, logical, or spiritual bases for knowing what is beyond belief” (Technopoly 58).
Technopoly essentializes in typically Postmanesque fashion, but it isn’t without historical grounding. Drawing on Frederick W. Taylor’s 1911 book The Principles of Scientific Management, Postman insists that in the Technopoly, “the primary, if not the only, goal of human labor and thought is efficiency; that technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment; that in fact human judgment cannot be trusted…; that subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking; that what cannot be measured either does not exist or is of no value; and that the affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts” (51). Technological development demands that “people must sometimes be treated as if they were machinery,” Postman says,
[b]ut in technocracies, such a condition is not held to be a philosophy of culture. Technocracy does not have as its aim a grand reductionism in which human life must find its meaning in machinery and technique. Technopoly does (52).
But if Postman exaggerates for effect, he doesn’t exaggerate much, and if he fails to precisely describe where the technological world is at present, he at least has a good idea of which way it’s heading. The Technopoly model is not an unfair description of what our culture’s dominant utopian ideology of science strives for in principle, both in society generally and specifically in the case of the Internet debate. In the first chapter appeals to efficiency pervade all corners of the utopian case, with several commentators (Perelman being chief among them) couching their arguments in terms which explicitly or implicitly assert that the Internet is better (for education, for the economy, etc.) because it is more efficient. And where proponents of Net development suggest that online technology will remedy social ills by providing the populace with virtually unlimited access to the world’s storehouses of information, Postman replies that none of society’s problems are the result of an information shortage. Instead, he says, Technopoly is what happens to a society when its defenses against the “information glut” have broken down (72). Jonas concurs, arguing that if we do not effect vast improvements in the human condition it will not be a failure of of knowledge, but a failure of will and morality (Jonas Imperative of Responsibility).
If Postman is at all accurate in describing contemporary technological society – and he appears to be on the right track, at least philosophically – it’s worthwhile to examine how we got here, how tool-using Western culture evolved into technocracy, and finally Technopoly. A powerful argument can be made for beginning the historical discussion in the first chapter of Genesis, where God is depicted as granting humanity dominion over nature and authorizing its vast exploitation. However, we will instead begin in the early days of the Enlightenment, for it was at this point that humanity began to see its way from a theoretical dominion over nature to a practical domination of nature. The Garden of Eden story will be taken up in the following chapter.
Bacon and the First Technotopia
Francis Bacon’s highly influential New Atlantis, first published in 1626, recounts the fictional discovery (a la Swift in Gulliver’s Travels) of Bensalem, a lost utopia, and offers one of the earliest testaments to the potential of applied science (Outhwaite & Bottomore). The Bensalemite nation, the ship’s crew discovers, is accomplished in all manner of advanced technologies: refrigeration and preservation, mining, agriculture, astronomy, meteorology, genetics, animal husbandry, desalination, medicine, musicology, mechanics, air flight, and mathematics are literally only a few of the nation’s advanced technological arts. The engine driving this vast knowledge is Salomon’s House, a research institute similar in concept and purpose to the British Royal Academy. A local merchant with whom the narrator becomes acquainted explains about the founding and charter of the order by an ancient king:
Ye shall understand, my dear friends, that among the excellent acts of that King, one above all hath the pre-eminence. It was the erection and institution of an order, or society, which we call Saloman’s House, the noblest foundation, as we think, that ever was upon the earth, and the lantern of this kingdom. It is dedicated to the study of the works and creatures of God (Bacon New Atlantis 118).
The technologies developed by the scientists of Salomon’s House provide the Bensalemites with a quality of life unimaginable to the denizens of the more scientifically primitive British Isles and European continent, and the members of the society of scientists are held in reverential esteem by the populace. The narrator’s description illustrates the near-deific status held by the technologist in this utopia.
He was carried in a rich chariot, without wheels, litter-wise, with two horses at either end, richly trapped in blue velvet embroidered; and two footmen on each side in the like attire. The chariot was all of cedar, gilt and adorned with crystal; save that the fore end had panels of sapphires set in borders of gold, and the hinder end the like of emeralds of the Peru color. There was also a sun of gold, radiant upon the top, in the midst; and on the top before a small cherub of gold, with wings displayed. The chariot was covered with cloth-of-gold tissued upon blue. He had before him fifty attendants, young men all, in white satin loose coats up to the mid-leg, and stockings of white silk; and shoes of blue velvet; and hats of blue velvet, with fine plumes of divers colors, set round like hat-bands. Next before the chariot went two men, bare-headed, in linen garments down to the foot, girt, and shoes of blue velvet, who carried the one a crosier, the other a pastoral staff like a sheep-hook…. Behind his chariot went all the officers and principals of the companies of the city. He sat alone, upon cushions, of a kind of excellent plush, blue; and under his foot curious carpets of silk of divers colors, like the Persian, but far finer. He held up his bare hand, as he went, as blessing the people, but in silence. The street was wonderfully well kept; so that there was never any army had their men stand in better battle-array than the people stood. The windows likewise were not crowded, but everyone stood in them, as if they had been placed (New Atlantis 127-128).
The narrator and other members of the crew are fortunate enough to gain an audience with the visitor from Salomon’s House, and in the meeting they are instructed in the seemingly limitless bounty of the society’s scientific expertise. The scientist begins with the institute’s mission statement: “The end of our foundation is the knowledge of causes and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible” (129). In sum, this is the utopian promise of science, seen from an idyllic Enlightenment perspective. In the last line – “the effecting of all things possible” – Bacon offers a concise statement of the Enlightenment’s ideology of science, as the secrets of motion and even creation are apprehended and drawn under the umbrella of humanity’s intellectual dominion.
Postman calls Bacon the “first man of the technocratic age,” an assertion that manages to be simultaneously apt and unjust. The observation is accurate in acknowledging Bacon’s place as the foremost apologist/propagandist for the emerging study of the applied sciences in the 16th and 17th centuries. While his contemporaries were “impressed by the effects of practical inventions on the conditions of life, Bacon was the first to think deeply and systematically on the matter” (Technopoly 36). Postman credits Bacon with being the first to see, “pure and serene, the connection between science and the improvement of the human condition,” and David Noble says his writings “came to attain almost scriptural authority” (48).
…he continually criticized his predecessors for failing to understand that the real, legitimate, and only goal of the sciences is the “endowment of the human life with new inventions and riches.” He brought science down from the heavens, including mathematics, which he conceived of as a humble handmaiden to invention. In this utilitarian view of knowledge, Bacon was the chief architect of a new edifice of thought in which resignation was cast out and God assigned to a special room. The name of the building was Progress and Power (Postman Technopoly 35-36).
“Perhaps more than anyone else before or since,” says Noble, Bacon came to “define the Western project of modern technology.” In his view, technology provided the best means of “millenarian advance” because it was ever becoming “more perfect” (Noble 49). Bacon was well aware of the impact of technology on culture, says Postman, noting that in Novum Organum Bacon explicitly denounced “the infamous four Idols, which have kept men from gaining power over nature:”
Idols of the Tribe, which lead us to believe our perceptions are the same as nature’s facts; Idols of the Cave, which lead us to mistaken ideas derived from heredity and environment; Idols of the Market-place, which lead us to be deluded by words; and Idols of the Theater, which lead us to the misleading dogmas of the philosophers (Postman Technopoly 37).
Postman is correct in saying that Bacon understood the powerful effect technology could have on culture, but two things must be noted in Bacon’s defense. First, he saw technology’s profound impact on culture as being altogether positive. The lives of most Europeans were, as Thomas Hobbes put it, “poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” after all, and the sciences did in fact hold out the promise of a vastly improved quality of life. Nothing in our existing record indicates that Bacon ever envisioned the bleak desperation and degradation of life during the Industrial Revolution, child labor, pollution, toxic dumping, nuclear catastrophe, etc. Second, and most critically, while Postman’s analysis of the technocratic age casts technology as the enemy of the traditions which provided moral authority and context in the tool-using age, we must understand that in Bacon’s conception science was the work of God. The ship’s crew in New Atlantis were devoutly Christian men, and the circumstances surrounding the founding of Salomon’s House make clear the Christian context of its charter. In their audience with the esteemed visitor from the science institute, the narrator and crew are told:
We have certain hymns and services, which we say daily, of laud and thanks to God for His marvellous (sic) works. And forms of prayers, imploring His aid and blessing for the illumination of our labors; and turning them into good and holy uses (Bacon New Atlantis 137).
This passage illuminates two elements crucial to understanding Bacon, and ultimately, to understanding the place of science in Western culture generally. First, since the works of the brothers of Salomon’s House are in fact the “marvellous works” of God, humanism and human endeavor are contained within, rather than opposed to, the divine context. Second, the value of their works depends on whether the technologies produced can be turned to fruitful and practical use. Bacon saw science as rightfully rooted in practical application, and explicitly said that truth and utility were one and the same thing (Mumford Pentagon 106). More to the point, scientific knowledge was essential to humanity’s attempts to recover paradise – removal of the Idols paved the way so that “access to the kingdom of man, which is founded on the sciences, may resemble that to the kingdom of heaven” (Bacon Aphorisms #68).
Thus, at the onset of the Enlightenment, the technological pursuits were seen as inherently sacred and utilitarian, and these twin impulses have continued to serve as the foundations for Western culture’s utopian ideology of science and technology, finding expression most recently in the ongoing Internet debate.
Postman clearly looks at Bacon’s construction of the project of science and sees an attempt to disempower the moral traditions of pre-technocratic society. While this is an intriguing view, Postman’s quest for symmetry sacrifices a great deal in nuance. The power of theological beliefs isn’t necessarily linked to the culture’s technical progress (that is, strength of theocracy does not vary inversely with strength of developmental impulse), for instance, but his assumption would lead us to expect greater technological development in cultures with weaker theocracies. This is a difficult proposition to demonstrate, especially given a) the overwhelming power of the Church during the period leading up to the Enlightenment in Europe, and b) how little effect it ultimately had in hindering scientific development. Most importantly, the powerful forces driving technological development in the West were themselves devoutly theological (if not conventional), and Bacon’s writings, as innovative and influential as they were, were thoroughly grounded in Christian traditions already several centuries old.
Perhaps the better interpretation is that Bacon did not seek to undermine legitimate moral foundations, but was instead bent on correcting “superstition, and a blind and immoderate zeal for religion” (Bacon Aphorisms #89) through a well-meaning revision of the place of human intellect in society. True science, he insists, reflects divine method: “…in the true course of experiment, and in extending it to new effects, we should imitate the Divine foresight and order. For God, on the first day, only created light, and assigned a whole day to that work, without creating any material substance thereon” (Aphorisms #70). Bacon criticizes those who fail to understand science and religion in this proper context, suggesting that God is not glorified by ignorance.
In short, you may find all access to any species of philosophy, however pure, intercepted by the ignorance of divines. Some, in their simplicity, are apprehensive that a too deep inquiry into nature may penetrate beyond the proper bounds of decorum, transferring and absurdly applying what is said of sacred mysteries in holy writ against those who pry into divine secrets, to the mysteries of nature, which are not forbidden by any prohibition. Others, with more cunning, imagine and consider that if secondary causes be unknown, every thing may more easily be referred to the divine hand and wand; a matter, as they think, of the greatest consequence to religion, but which can only really mean that God wishes to be gratified by means of falsehood. Others fear from past example, lest motion and change in philosophy should terminate in an attack upon religion. Lastly, there are others who appear anxious lest there should be something discovered in the investigation of nature to overthrow, or at least shake religion, particularly among the unlearned. The two last apprehensions appear to resemble animal instinct, as if men were diffident, in the bottom of their minds, and secret meditations, of the strength of religion, and the empire of faith over the senses; and therefore feared that some danger awaited them from an inquiry into nature. But any one who properly considers the subject, will find natural philosophy to be, after the word of God, the surest remedy against superstition, and the most approved support of faith. She is therefore rightly bestowed upon religion as a most faithful attendant, for the one exhibits the will and the other the power of God (Aphorisms #89).
Properly understood, then, the institutions of science were not intended as a challenge to received cultural traditions in the way Postman imagines. The science which emerged early in the Enlightenment sought no quarrel with the Church, nor did the principle scientific minds of the time imagine that their pursuits were at odds with Christianity. Quite the contrary – these were devoutly Christian men and their programs of study were intended to strengthen the religious foundations of the culture by ridding it of ignorance, which went in service to evil. In the place of small-mindedness, petty superstition, and blind obeisance science meant to install knowledge and reason, which together represented the truest path to God.
Regardless of Bacon’s intent regarding the place of religion in cultural life, however, he helped set the stage for one of Western culture’s most titanic ideological battles – the 18th Century struggle over the secularizing of science. In Ziolkowski’s view science remained largely subordinated to the authority of theology through the century (55), while Noble dates the “inevitable secularization” of science to the same period (Religion of Technology 4). Despite the early Enlightenment/Baconian notion that science went in service of the natural divine order, ultimately its work couldn’t help posing a threat to the political primacy of the Church. Without the sanction of those charged with speaking for God, it was necessary that science evolve a non-theological foundation to govern its progress if it was to have any hope of surviving in a culture that remained devoutly Christian. What emerged was the now-routine assumption of a value-free scientific method which produced results immune to bias and ideology. According to Ziolkowski, science “gradually liberated itself” from theological domination until, during the nineteenth century, it finally “attained the romantic goal of a value-free science” (55). Aronowitz argues that this increased autonomy owes in part to the to the corresponding ascendancy of Protestantism and the rise of capitalism, which were by nature more agreeable to the demands of science.
The great denominations of Protestantism relinquished that which Catholicism has struggled to retain: a claim on epistemological as well as ontological truth. However, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the triumph of world capitalism over the remnants of the old feudal aristocracy in eastern and southern Europe forced even the recalcitrant Catholic and other orthodox churches to accommodate to the new order (Science as Power 9).
Central to this liberation project was the spread and entrenchment of the scientific ideology of truth, which spoke to the research industry’s need for absolute independence in order that knowledge not be tainted by the demands of religious ideology (Ravetz Scientific Knowledge 1971).
Still, despite appearances, the ideological divide between science and theology was far from complete. While acknowledging that science underwent a dramatic process of secularization, spurred by the development of professional ideologies, Noble also reminds us that religion continued to play a crucial role in the development of technics early in the 19th Century, especially in the New World (Religion of Technology 1998).
In the United States…industrialization and its corollary enthusiasm for technological advance emerged in the context of the religious revival of the Second Great Awakening. As historian Perry Miller once explained, “It was not only in the Revival that a doctrine of ‘perfectionism’ emerged. The revivalist mentality was sibling to the technological” (5-6).
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The Mechanical Arts and Christianity
Noble’s thesis argues that, in fact, science and religion never have been truly opposed, and the appearance of conflict between the two is more a temporary deviation driven by professional ideology than by any substantive differences. In an elaborately detailed history, he examines the origins and development of the “mechanical arts” in the Middle Ages, establishing as he does the central role played by Christian theology in the early days of what we now call science. Contemporary science and technology, he demonstrates, trace their lineage back a millennium to the “formation of Western consciousness,”
to the time when the useful arts first became implicated in the Christian project of redemption. The worldly means of survival were henceforth turned toward the other-worldly end of salvation, and over the next millennium, the heretofore most material and humble of human activities became increasingly invested with spiritual significance and a transcendent meaning – the recovery of mankind’s lost divinity (6).
Early Christianity marveled at the mechanical arts, but prior to the Middle Ages technology was valued mainly for its worldly character. Augustine lauded “astonishing achievements” in “cloth-making, navigation, architecture, agriculture, ceramics, medicine, weaponry and fortification, animal husbandry, and food preparation…mathematics, astronomy, philosophy…language, writing, music, theater, painting, and sculpture.” But in these observations he was “thinking only of the nature of the human mind as a glory to this mortal life, not of faith and the way of truth that leads to eternal life” (Noble 11-12).
Four centuries later, in what Noble calls a “turning point in the ideological history of technology,” philosopher John Scotus Erigena asserted a connection between the worldly and celestial, “technology and transcendence.” The “useful arts” were, in his view, part of humanity’s “original endowment” as a creation in the God-image. The technological character of humanity has been obscured by the Fall in Eden, but through study that innocent perfection could be at least partially recovered. The useful arts were, in Erigena’s view, “man’s links with the Divine, their cultivation a means to salvation” (Noble 14-17). The idea of perfect Adamic knowledge lost in the Fall would prove a powerful one, surviving at least as far into the Enlightenment as Newton and Boyle (Noble 59).
Due largely to the influence of the Benedictines, a “mechanism-minded” world-view which extolled a spiritualized conception of the useful arts became the norm during the 12th Century, a period which saw the development of awesome new technologies like watermills, windmills, advanced metallurgical technologies, and the mechanical clock. A Benedictine metallurgist and craftsman named Theophilus wrote a treatise which provided elaborate details for the construction and appointment of a church. For Theophilus and other artisans of the age, “the arts were exalted because of their association with spiritual devotion.”
The monastic mechanization of the crafts, as well as major construction projects such as the building of churches and aqueducts, has indeed become, and was clearly recognized as, “holy labor” (Noble 18-19).
The application of technological arts to projects like church construction was important for its immediate value – in a real and profound sense technology became a process of worship, and the edifices themselves provided magnificent reminders to the populace of the grandeur of God – but in the 13th Century it began to more centrally reflect a millenarian sense of redemption, as the utilitarian impulse was subordinated to an artistic expression of spirituality. The “work of countless cathedral-builders, the most advanced artisans of their time,” produced “silent stone images” which suggested “a preoccupation with divine judgement at the world’s end” – which many, if not most, believed was near at hand (Noble 26-27). As Arnold Pacey notes, “they were reaching forward to meet an eternal order, a new Jerusalem, which the cathedral itself symbolized” (Maze of Ingenuity 58).
At the end of the 15th Century the theological impulse toward applied mechanical arts led directly to the discovery of the Americas. Christopher Columbus fancied himself a “divinely inspired fulfiller of prophecy,” and saw his voyages to the New World as part of a larger millennial mission that would eventually lead to the recapture of Jerusalem.
Columbus, master of the marine arts, thus identified his epoch-making technical achievement with the ultimate destiny of mankind. To his eyes, the discovery of the New World signaled the imminent End of the World, and hence the promised recovery of perfection (Noble 33).
Once the Americas had been discovered, paradise took on a new and more tangible sense of place – Columbus himself had decreed that the New World was the Garden of Eden, and this gave rise to “a new kind of apocalyptic vision of salvation that was as much the result of human ingenuity as faith: utopia.” New Atlantis, as well as the utopias of More and Cervantes, “had made their paradise themselves, through their piety, their monastic discipline, their fraternal communalism, and their devotion to the useful arts” (Noble 38).
Utopian ideologies found practical expression in the great scientific institutes of the age – especially in the Royal College of London, founded in 1660. For Robert Boyle, “the father of both experimental science and modern chemistry” and one of the most prominent leaders of the College, “empirical investigation was a form of spiritual experience, and knowing was at once a form of worship and an anticipation of millenarian resurrection.” Other founders of the Royal Society possessed similar beliefs. John Wilkens saw science as a means of recovering from the Fall, as did Robert Hooke. Thomas Sprat believed natural philosophy could help establish grounds for man’s redemption, and Joseph Glanvill’s writings expounded on the perfection of Edenic humanity (Noble 60-61).
The Christian Colonization of Science and the Continued Sway of Theology
Noble notes the emergence in recent years of a heightened technological “enchantment” in our culture and a simultaneous revival of religious expression, and points out that these phenomenon often go hand in hand: religious organizations use the new technology to spread their message even as “scientists and technologists increasingly attest publicly to the value of their work in the pursuit of divine knowledge” (4).
What we experience today is neither new nor odd but, rather, a continuation of a thousand-year-old Western tradition in which the advance of the useful arts was inspired by and grounded upon religious expectation. Only during the last century and a half or so has this tradition been temporarily interrupted – or, rather, obscured – by secularist polemic and ideology, which greatly exaggerated the allegedly fundamental conflict between science and religion (Noble Religion of Technology 4).
In language that strongly echoes the writings of Bacon over three and a half centuries earlier, Noble says that
modern technology and modern faith are neither complements nor opposites, nor do they represent succeeding stages of human development. They are merged, and always have been, the technological enterprise being, at the same time, an essentially religious endeavor.
This is not meant in a merely metaphorical sense, to suggest that technology is similar to religion in that it evokes religious emotions of omnipotence, devotion and awe, or that it has become a new (secular) religion in and of itself, with its own clerical caste, arcane rituals, and articles of faith. Rather, it is meant literally and historically, to indicate that modern technology and religion have evolved together and that, as a result, the technological enterprise has been and remains suffused with religious belief (5).
By way of example, Noble argues that most of the cutting-edge technological development in the U.S. today is driven by people of pronounced religious faith. Religious concerns “pervade the space program at every level,” he says, while Artificial Intelligence researchers “wax eloquent about the possibilities of machine based immortality and resurrection”. More to the current point, he characterizes “the architects of virtual reality and cyberspace” as exulting in the “expectation of God-like omnipresence and disembodied perfection” (5).
The importance of religion to the scientific enterprise extends well beyond professions of overt theology, however. While 150 years of obscuring professional ideology may be but a blip when weighed against a thousand-year-old tradition, a great deal of internalization and rationalization can occur in seven or eight generations, and the simple reality is that the theological impulse within the technological community often seeks covert, even unwitting, means of expression.
Beyond the professed believers and those who employ explicitly religious language are countless others for whom the religious compulsion is largely unconscious, obscured by a secularized vocabulary but operative nonetheless. For they too are the inheritors and bearers of an enduring ideological tradition that has defined the dynamic Western technological enterprise since its inception (Noble 5).
These theological impulses have survived the secularization of science because of a subtly symbiotic ideological system within the Western mind. Recalling the words of the visitor from Salomon’s House in New Atlantis, we remember that science was measured largely by its utilitarian value. These devout brothers sought to glorify God by the good works of men – “the effecting of all things possible” – and a technology was valorized to the extent that it improved the lot of human society. With Christianity holding powerful sway over the public mind during the early phases of the Enlightenment, it was a relatively simple thing to associate “good works” with some divine undertaking; it’s comparatively more difficult to construct such associations in contemporary culture, where the dominant view of science remains ostensibly secular. Through the early Enlightenment, then, Christianity colonized science as thoroughly as the European monarchies of the day were colonizing new worlds around the globe, and Bacon’s New Atlantis and Novum Organum were like the standard of the One True King planted on the sandy beach of a newly discovered continent. Utilitarian resolve was a powerful tool in the colonization process, because science’s benefits were clear and immediate and its promise for the future seductive. As Postman says, science has been a good friend.
By the time the battle for secularization was fully joined in the 18th Century, the ideological marriage of utilitarian and sacred impulses was complete and thoroughly ingrained in the Western (sub)consciousness. The first and most obvious result was the powerful utopianism attached to the technological enterprise, a persistent irrationality surviving and thriving in what should have been an inhospitably rational ideological environment.
The legacy of the religion of technology is still with us, all of us. Like the technologists themselves, we routinely expect far more from our artificial contrivances than mere convenience, comfort, or even survival. We demand deliverance. This is apparent in our virtual obsession with technological development, in our extravagant anticipations of every new technical advance – however much each fails to deliver on its promise – and, most important, in our utter inability to think and act rationally about this presumably most rational of human endeavors (Noble 6).
The second result was more subtle. It can be argued that the secular contravention came too late – by the 18th Century the utilitarian and sacred impulses informing the scientific endeavor had become intertwined into something like a symbiotic system, leaving the secularists no effective way to completely extricate the idea of divine enterprise from the larger public idea of science. This is especially true given the broader Christian theology of the culture. While science was allegedly conquered by secularism during the 18th Century, Christianity remained (and remains) a powerful force in the West. As such, the popular tendency to associate “goodness” with “God” has remained strong. The overwhelming power of the Christian metanarrative, with its claim to creation, salvation, and eternity, provides a handy ability to co-opt perceived social blessings. Thus, if society benefitted from the bounty of science, then it was blessed de facto by God, secularizing rhetoric on the part of scientists notwithstanding. The authority of Christianity in the broader cultural sphere has therefore provided shelter for science’s theological urge. Applied to Noble’s thesis, what is suggested is that through 150 years or so of “secular cleansing” the sacred impulse of science has lain more or less dormant within the safe confines of our dominant utopian/utilitarian ideologies. The secularization process, then, was left with little way to root out the “disease” of theology infecting the body of science, and has had to settle for strategies aimed at suppressing the symptoms.
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The Utilitarian Character of Western Science
Whereas the theological component of Western science has in the last century or two sought more covert means of expression, its utilitarian complement found in the popular mind a rich and fertile ground for the cultivation of utopian ideologies. In almost every way imaginable applied science appealed to the emerging culture of America, the continent which earlier European thinkers had identified as the Garden of Eden. And America courted the machine, says William Kuhns, giving industry “everything it needed to thrive: a sympathetic economic system, a period of inventiveness perhaps never before equaled in history, room to grow, and a cheerful willingness to adapt, within limits, to the requirements of new industries. By the turn of the [20th] century technology had become as deeply imbedded in the American mind as any of the earlier ideals” (Post-Industrial Prophets 1). Willard Rowland says that technology, for its part, promised progress and prosperity through individualism and free enterprise, the cornerstones of the American political/economic order.
A practical, applied science implied progress through invention and more sophisticated technology. Moreover, rising in the service of a free enterprise, commercial order, that science and its products were imbued with aspects of private property requiring both protection and promotion. Identified with a new style of intellectual inquiry, American science became as well a commodity and a form of industrial and political organization (Rowland “Politics of TV Violence” 35).
In “The Mythos of the Electronic Revolution,” Carey and Quirk situate the utopian character of this utilitarianism in a distinctly American Edenic theology. As we see above, Noble traces the “techno-Edenic” impulse to the latter part of the first millennium, but Carey and Quirk here describe a novel naturalistic component that only emerged upon arrival in the Americas, a land that dreamed itself outside history.
A vital and relevant tradition in American studies…has traced the recurrent theme of “the machine in the garden.” This was a unique American idea of a new dimension in social existence through which people might return to an Edenic estate through a harmonious blending of nature and manufactures…. America was, in short, exempt from history: from mechanics and industrialization we would derive wealth, power, and productivity…. (Carey and Quirk “Mythos” 118-119).
These ideologies powerfully informed the emerging American character, at once influencing cultural development and being reinforced by it. No institution was exempt from the technotopian dream. The nation’s teaching and research systems, for instance, were and still are dramatically influenced by a utopian faith in the transformational power of applied science. To be sure, America developed and nurtured some of the finest Liberal Arts schools in the world: we think immediately of private schools like Harvard, but some of these schools were publicly funded (like the University of North Carolina, the first state-sponsored university in the country). But while the society tolerated the belief in education for its own sake, it also invested more heavily in the idea of applied education than perhaps any culture in Western history. John Dewey, one of America’s most insightful commentators on education, justifies the utilitarian approach, arguing that science is only honorable in application.
Since “application” signifies recognized bearing upon human existence and well-being, honor of what is “pure” and contempt for what is “applied” has for its outcome a science which is remote and technical, communicable only to specialists, and a conduct of human affairs which is haphazard, biased, unfair in distribution of values…. Science is converted into knowledge in its honorable and emphatic sense only in application. Otherwise it is truncated, blind, distorted. When it is applied, it is in ways which explain the unfavorable sense so often attached to “application” and the “utilitarian”: namely, use for pecuniary ends to the profit of a few (Dewey Public and Its Problems 174).
He contends that the split between pure and applied science is artificial, with the result being a damaging application of science to human affairs instead of an integration within them. This “knowledge divided against itself” fuels the “enslavement of men, women and children in factories in which they are animated machines to tend inanimate machines.”
The glorification of “pure” science under such conditions is a rationalization of an escape; it marks a construction of an asylum of refuge, a shirking of responsibility. The true purity of knowledge exists not when it is uncontaminated by contact with use and service. It is a wholly moral matter, an affair of honesty, impartiality and generous breadth of intent in search and communication. The adulteration of knowledge is due not to its use, but to vested bias and prejudice, to one-sidedness of outlook, to vanity, to conceit of possession and authority, to contempt or disregard of human concern in its use (175-176).
The ultimate institutional expression of utilitarianism in American education is found in the Morrill Land Grant Act. The original Act of 1862 initiated a movement which saw a second Act in 1890 and 1994 legislation aimed at developing educational resources on Native American lands, and has to date resulted in the chartering of over a hundred public universities in all 50 states and several territories (USDA).
In more complex terms, the land-grant movement is the expression and diffusion of certain political, social, economic, and educational ideals. The motives typically attributed to the movement involve the democratization of higher education; the development of an educational system deliberately planned to meet utilitarian ends, through research and public service as well as instruction; and a desire to emphasize the emerging applied sciences, particularly agricultural science and engineering (Williams Origins of Federal Support 1).
The Land Grant movement’s ultimate goal, though, was far broader than the simple production of technically expert farmers and engineers. Its early supporters were intent on shaping these institutions into comprehensive centers devoted to “the liberal, scientific, and even civic education of well-rounded men and women” (Williams 7). Land-grant colleges and universities were designed to be closely connected to the daily life of the communities they served. The scholars produced by these schools were groomed to be productive and pragmatically-minded members and leaders of the society, and to that end the schools’ research missions were unambiguously utilitarian.
We see the legacy of the Land Grant Act today in universities across the country, in programs designed for the application of science and technology to working class and community life, and we see the same ethic reflected at secondary levels of education in both vocational curricular offerings and the activities of pre-professional and pre-vocational societies such as Future Farmers of America, Distributed Education Clubs of America, and Junior Achievement. These curricular and extracurricular programs are consistent with the Baconian vision of a society built upon applied knowledge. They also strongly reflect American Protestant ideals, which instruct adherents with lessons such as the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25: 14-30), making clear that knowledge is a divine gift to be used productively, lest it be rescinded by God.
Romanticism and the “American Ambivalence”
And the Iron Horse, the earth-shaker, the fire-breather, which tramples down the hills, which outruns the laggard winds, which leaps over the rivers, which grinds the rocks to powder and breaks down the gates of the mountains, he too shall build an empire and an epic. Shall not solitudes and waste places cry for gladness at his coming?
– Statistics and Speculations Concerning
the Pacific Railroad
Leo Marx’s expansive history of technology in the New World, The Machine in the Garden, notes the central place of technology in the American Eden. It also manages to capture the verve of popular rhetoric during the 19th Century.
It is technology, indeed, that is creating the new garden of the world. “The great Mississippi valley,” says a writer in DeBow’s Review in 1850, may emphatically be said to be the creation of the steam engine, for without its magic power…what centuries must have elapsed before the progress of arts and of enterprise could have swept away the traces of savage life. The railroad is the chosen vehicle for bringing America into its own as a pastoral utopia (Marx Machine in the Garden 225).
Popular rhetoricians weren’t the only ones intrigued by technology, however. The literature of American Romanticism reflected the same fascination with the machine (even if it was sometimes a morbid fascination), contributing to a view of technological development that we might call the “American ambivalence.” The work of these writers – a company that includes figures like Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne – shed light on a complex love-hate relationship with progress that shows no signs of fading even as we turn toward a 21st century fraught with technological uncertainty.
In essence, the New World Romantics wanted it both ways – the power of the locomotive, for instance, signified the innovativeness of the American mind and the grandeur of the frontier spirit. It was a machine as mythical as the land it was rapidly conquering, and even industrialism’s harshest critics could hardly deny the exhilaration aroused by the sheer might of the engine blasting its way across the landscape. However, there was likewise no denying the reality of technology’s intrusion upon the pastoral calm of the countryside. Machines were usually noisy, often smoky and foul-smelling, and represented an unarguably alien presence in the garden that was 19th Century America.
The spirit of American Romanticism was thus besieged by conflicting impulses, torn between forces that each held a valid ideological claim on the popular mind. We can see this tension at work in a number of places. Whitman, who was noted for his enthusiastic celebrations of the natural world, illustrates the psychic conflict in one of his most famous poems, “To a Locomotive in Winter.” In this short ode, the locomotive embodies modernism and progress in a patently transcendent vision – the engine is depicted as “the emblem of motion and power – pulse of the continent.” Whitman is mesmerized by the workings of the machine, its “measur’d dual throbbing,” its “ponderous side-bars, parallel and connecting rods,” its “great protruding head-light.” But despite his rapt awe at the thing, it remains alien, unnatural. His imagery throughout opposes the mechanics of the locomotive with the natural landscape in which it operates. He bids the machine to serve the Muse “For once,” indicating how little inclined it is toward a natural aesthetic.
Roll through my chant with all thy lawless music, thy
swinging lamps at night,
Thy madly-whistled laughter, echoing, rumbling like an
earthquake, rousing all,
Law of thyself complete, thine own track firmly holding… (Leaves of Grass 362).
The machine is at first “lawless,” in this conception signifying its lack of harmony with and deference to the natural order. Almost immediately, though, it becomes a law unto itself; the locomotive’s power and momentum forge a new order, which is then imposed on the landscape. The train of cars (which the reader might presume to be loaded with people, the citizens of the culture in transformation, as well as the materials by which the industrial order will be constructed) trail “behind, obedient, merrily following.”
If we can read in the corpus of Whitman’s work a dismay with the course of progress, we must understand that the poet was equally sincere in his awe for the machine. In his last years Whitman observed:
I am not sure but the most typical and representative things in the United States are what are involved in the vast network of Interstate Railroad Lines – our Electric Telegraphs – our Mails (post office) – and the whole of the mighty, ceaseless, complicated (and quite perfect already, tremendous as they are) systems of transportation everywhere of passengers and intelligence. No works, no painting, can too strongly depict the fullness and grandeur of these – the smallest minutiae attended to, and in their totality incomparably magnificent (quoted in Nye American Technological Sublime 71).
Emerson, likewise, appears to have been torn between the pastoral and mechanical. His writing tended to credit the human genius behind the accomplishments of technology, but he also noted that progress characteristically took away with one hand as it gave with the other. In “Self-Reliance,” he astutely points to what humanity has lost in the wake of progress.
The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of muscle. He has a fine Geneva watch, but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by the sun. A Greenwich nautical almanac he has, and so being sure of the information when he wants it, the man in the street does not know a star in the sky. The solstice he does not observe; the equinox he knows as little; and the whole bright calendar of the year is without a dial in his mind. His note-books impair his memory; his libraries overload his wit; the insurance-office increases the number of accidents; and it may be a question whether machinery does not encumber…. (Emerson 279-280).
Still, he firmly believed that the pursuits of science and technology would ultimately serve a higher, more transcendent calling. In the same series of writings, Essay XII (“Art”) argues that the sublime impulse isn’t restricted to the antiquities, but instead seeks to make holy the artifacts of progress as well.
It is in vain that we look for genius to reiterate its miracles in the old arts; it is its instinct to find beauty and holiness in new and necessary facts, in the field and road-side, in the shop and mill. Proceeding from a religious heart it will raise to a divine use the railroad, the insurance office, the joint-stock company, our law, our primary assemblies, our commerce, the galvanic battery, the electric jar, the prism, and the chemist’s retort, in which we seek now only an economical use (Emerson 440).
He allows in “The Method of Nature” that “We hear something too much of the results of machinery, commerce, and the useful arts,” but admits that he is not unimpressed by what human technological endeavor has wrought:
I do not wish to look with sour aspect at the industrious manufacturing village, or the mart of commerce. I love the music of the water-wheel; I value the railway; I feel the pride which the sight of a ship inspires; I look on trade and every mechanical craft as education also (Emerson 115).
He noted the prophecy of progress bound up in the locomotive’s whistle, calling it “the voice of the civility of the Nineteenth Century” (Marx 17), but it isn’t the technics themselves that represent the true value of the enterprise.
There is in each of these works an act of invention, an intellectual step, or short series of steps taken; that act or step is the spiritual act; all the rest is mere repetition of the same a thousand times (115).
Emerson’s ambivalence toward progress is wholly Romantic, as Romanticism manifested itself within the American context. But the nature of that context insisted on a more optimistic (if we might cautiously use that word) reading of industrialism than we find among the Europeans of the era. While it sounds like a cliché to the contemporary critical ear, the “frontier spirit” permeating the settlement of the continent was, at least early on, more real than we might now imagine. Certainly Americans have always loved the image of the bold pioneer, the Columbuses, Davy Crocketts, Daniel Boones, Lewises and Clarks, and John Glenns of our history, but there is in fact a strong element of fact informing the myth of the frontier. The American character was a self-selected phenomenon, issuing from an obvious dynamic. Put simply, people who pull up roots and sail across a vast ocean to colonize a wild and largely untamed continent are by definition a very different breed than the sorts of people who consider their options and decide to stay put. Americans were pioneers, or at least the descendants of pioneers, and the ethos of the society was therefore inherently more open to new ideas and adventures. It also lent a characteristic euphoria to the tone of the age.
All of the writers of our first significant literary generation – that of Emerson and Hawthorne – knew this tone. It was the dominant tone of public rhetoric. They grew up with it; it was in their heads; and in one way or another they all responded to it…. In its purest form we hear the tone in Emerson’s more exuberant flights; but it also turns up in Thoreau’s witty parodies, in Melville’s (Ahab’s) bombast, in Hawthorne’s satires on the age, and in Whitman’s strutting gab and brag (Marx 193).
The British Romantics, by comparison, managed to overcome their momentary lapses into ambivalence quite effectively. William Wordsworth, for example, toyed with an American-like intrigue with the possibility of the machine, although his initial dystopian instincts eventually won out. He had explicitly “protested the building of a railroad through the lake country,” and wondered in a sonnet if “no nook of English ground” was “secure / From rash assault.” In fact, English revulsion toward the “ugliness, squalor, and suffering” of industrialism was evident as early as Blake (Marx Machine in the Garden 18), whose Songs of Innocence, published in 1789, sets in motion a critique of industrialism that reaches a crescendo in the subsequent Songs of Experience. Innocence poems like “The Chimney Sweep,” a dark portrait of exploitative child labor, and “Holy Thursday,” in which destitute children are scrubbed and paraded past the barons of industrialism who founded their schools (and who are largely responsible for the general economic condition), serve as early and keenly prophetic warnings about technology, noting not merely the direct impact on the human whose life is lived in close contact with the machine, but also intimating an economic corruption of a scope rarely seen in pre-industrial society. At this point in history, however, America remained a largely agrarian society, and even a century later Whitman lacked the first-hand experience with technology that drove his British contemporaries to a consistently darker view of the machine.
By the Victorian period of the late 19th Century, which corresponded to the literary heyday of Whitman, British writers like Tennyson had largely abandoned the High Romantic dream of natural transcendence, often finding their strongest voices in poems like “The Lady of Shalott,” a vignette where the dark and many-towered world of “Camelot” is central to the strife and degeneration of the culture. Innocence is impossible to maintain in the face of the industrial, which has destroyed the garden and slain the beauty of nature. In the Victorian industrial society, whatever happiness there is to be found must be attained despite the machine, not because of it.
The Persistence of the Sublime
American writers remained ambivalent about technologies, but the culture at large was positively agog, at first over the railroad, and later over the automobile.
The invention of the steamboat had been exciting, but it was nothing compared to the railroad. In the 1830s the locomotive, an iron horse or fire-Titan, is becoming a national obsession. It is the embodiment of the age, an instrument of power, speed, noise, fire, iron, smoke – at once a testament to the will of man rising over natural obstacles, and yet, confined by its iron rails to a pre-determined path, it suggests a new sort of fate…. Stories about railroad projects, railroad accidents, railroad profits, railroad speed fill the press; the fascinating subject is taken up in songs, political speeches and magazine articles, both factual and fictional (Marx Machine in the Garden 191).
The magazine articles to which Marx refers invest in the machine an ultimate faith “in the unceasing progress of mankind.” For the first time, the “dream of abundance” could actually be realized. Other hopes as well — “for peace, equality, freedom, and happiness” – likewise came to depend upon technological progress (Marx 192). The Romantic era eventually waned and the nation grew more accustomed to the marvel of the railroad, but the turn of the century provided the nation with yet another artifact of progress to celebrate. The automobile, which was in the latter half of the 20th Century to play a major role in the restructuring of public life, was a major hit from the start.
In 1899 an automobile trip from Cleveland to New York was such a novelty that it merited extensive daily press coverage, and crowds turned out all along the route. When the car arrived in New York, a million people turned out to see it (Nye 130).
It was against this popular backdrop that American writers of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries worked. The New World had been, by 1900, thoroughly conquered by technics, and just as the noise of the Iron Horse screeched through the pastoral trope of Walden, the presence of the machine now echoed through seemingly all the literature of the nation. American writers remained vividly aware of the fact that the machine was an intruder in the Garden.
The ominous sounds of machines, like the sound of the steamboat bearing down on the raft or the train breaking in upon the idyll at Walden, reverberate endlessly in our literature. We hear such a sound, or see the sight which accompanies it, in The Octopus, The Education of Henry Adams, The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, “The Bear” – and one could go on. Anyone familiar with American writing will recall other examples from the work of Walt Whitman, Sarah Orne Jewett, Henry James, Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather, Eugene O’Neill, Robert Frost, Hart Crane, T.S. Eliot, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway – indeed it is difficult to think of a major American writer upon whom the image of the machine’s sudden appearance in the landscape has not exercised its imagination (Marx Machine in the Garden 15-16).
Despite its intrusions upon the serenity of the garden, though, the machine is often received with a wide-eyed wonderment by American writers, both during the Romantic period and after.
Still, America continued to want it both ways, continued to be a culture caught between two powerful world views, and we would eventually see romanticized technics somehow emerging unscathed from the ugliest technological moment in the world’s history to that point, the first World War. Hart Crane’s epic verse effort, “The Bridge,” published in 1930 as a rebuttal to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” illustrates the essential hopefulness of the technological vision in the early stages of the new century. From the opening stanza the poem bursts with technological imagery and allusion: the Statue of Liberty, elevators, cinemas, traffic lights, subways, piers, and finally, towering above it all, the Brooklyn Bridge. In the “Waste Land” of American expatriate Eliot, London Bridge was “falling down falling down falling down,” bespeaking the age, infirmity, and decay of the old country.
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet (Eliot 53).
Europe had declined as industrial modernism fed on the eroding moral authority bound up in the institution of the Church. Across the Atlantic, however, Crane saw the Brooklyn Bridge as a metaphor for a culture destined for salvation. Technology was a bridge from the old world to the new, from degeneration to redemption, from this world to the next. In the section entitled “The River,” the railways flow seamlessly into the eternal waters of the Jordan.
And Pullman breakfasters glide glistening steel
From tunnel into field – iron strides the dew –
Straddles the hill, a dance of wheel on wheel.
Oh, lean from the window, if the train slows down,
As thought you touched hands with some ancient clown,
– A little while gaze absently below
And hum Deep River with them while they go (Crane 60).
“Patience! And you shall reach the biding place,” we’re told, and where the train/river meets “the Gulf, hosannas silently below” (61).
Crane’s ambitious attempt to integrate the machine seamlessly into the garden is sometimes regarded as a “grand failure” as poetry, but as ideological project it stands as a remarkable artifact. If nothing else, “The Bridge” realizes Crane’s desire to cement the symbolic relationship between the nation, technology, and destiny. The writer himself described the book-length ode to the bridge as “a mystical synthesis of ‘America.’”
The initial impulses of “our people” will have to be gathered up toward the climax of the bridge, symbol of our constructive future, our unique identity, in which is included also our scientific hopes and achievements of the future (Crane 124-125).
He was perhaps more successful than either he or his critics might have imagined, because the poem thoroughly embodies the American Technological Sublime. Its very enthusiasm, its gushing tone and uncritical celebration of the utopian spirit, inadvertently illustrates the true character of the technophilic impulse. If it fails as poetry, it succeeds admirably as what we might term “cultural meta-auto-psychoanalysis.”
Thus, while the messianic ideology of technology, of science destined to deliver humanity through the gates of the millenarian shining city, New Jerusalem, was succored in Europe, it found new life and vitality in the terminally Romantic public (un)consciousness of the New World, a culture still too young to be much concerned with the darkening history of the Old World.
The Electrical Sublime
A particular fascination has historically surrounded the technologies of electricity and power, and in many ways the utopian rhetoric of electricity typifies the American view of technologies generally. Carey and Quirk’s extended analysis of the rhetoric surrounding the electronic revolution examines a diverse collection of contemporary thinkers and artists. McLuhan, Brzezinski, Teilhard de Chardin, Fuller, Cage, Toffler and Feigenbaum
all convey an impression that electrical technology is the great benefactor of mankind. Simultaneously, they hail electrical techniques as the motive force of desired change, the key to the re-creation of a humane community, the means for returning to a cherished naturalistic bliss. Their shared belief is that electricity will overcome historical forces and political obstacles that prevented previous utopias (“Mythos” 115).
Carey and Quirk’s thesis contends that the messianic language attending our latest technological revolution – the electronic age, illustrated in the preceding chapter – represents nothing new, and as such there’s no real reason to expect significant improvement in the human condition as a result of these technologies. To illustrate the point, they backtrack into the 19th Century and analyze the public pronouncements accompanying the development of electrical power. This view of power Carey and Quirk call “the electrical sublime,” and in it they see the reformulation and reapplication of the Edenic impulse.
“Electricity promised, so it seemed, the same freedom, decentralization, ecological harmony, and democratic community that had hitherto been guaranteed but left undelivered by mechanization” (“Mythos” 123).
The Industrial Revolution had offered its own technophilic vision, of course – the “mechanical sublime” promised abundance and freedom but delivered instead “overcrowded cities, industrial pollution, social fragmentation, and a growing division of labor” (Kester). Electricity would deliver us from these evils, though, by providing
universally high standards of living, new and amusing kinds of jobs, leisure, freedom and an end to drudgery, congestion, noise, smoke, and filth. It can overcome the objections and problems of a steam civilization. It can bring back many of the mourned virtues of the handicraft age without the human toil and curse of impending scarcity that marked the age (“Mythos” 130).
By way of example, the authors cite a 19th Century author for whom electricity became a metaphor for democratic society itself:
The actual relation of each and every member of a community as giver and receiver, teacher and learner, producer and consumer is positive and negative by turns and relatively to every difference of function and force in his associates, the whole mass constituting a great electric battery to which each individual contributes his pair of plates. Perfect circulation being established as a consequence of perfect development of all individualities, the economic force flows smoothly through every member of the body politic, general happiness and prosperity, improved mental and moral action following in its train…. (The Unity of Law, cited in Carey and Quirk “Mythos” 122).
Echoing Rowland’s observations on applied science and the American character, Kester explains that the electrical metaphor is strongly linked to several facets of the Liberal tradition which informed the American character.
Electricity here functions as a kind of Adam Smith-ian ”invisible hand” providing a providential coordination of the otherwise disparate and self-interested actions of individual citizens. This statement is emblematic of the close relationship between free-market ideologies and notions of individualism and democratic freedom in the American liberal tradition. It is also significant because of the curious relationship these first two have with technology. A technological form, in this case, electricity, takes on a metaphoric relationship to systems of economic value and to a model of democratic will formation (Kester).
It seemed like the ones who benefitted the most from electricity were the power and light companies, the authors argue, and when utopia failed to emerge, it was the corporatizing influences and not power, per se, that got the blame.
The Great Depression witnessed a dramatic resurgence of the electrical sublime, as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a devout technotopian, saw power as the key to a new age of social prosperity. His New Deal “seized upon the motif of a ‘New Power Age’” to justify its creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). In a 1936 address to the World Power Conference, Roosevelt asserted that electrical energy could lead to an industrial and social revolution that “may already be under way without our perceiving it,” and he once went so far as to call the TVA a “social experiment” (Carey and Quirk “Mythos” 130-131). Whether Roosevelt was aware of the sophistication of this statement or not, the idea that technics are inseparable from their cultural and administrative dimensions (Pacey Culture of Technology) was insightful. As will be discussed later, the concept of technology as value-neutral pervades the popular mind, and Roosevelt’s words acknowledge what certainly the poets Whitman and Crane recognized – that far from being value-neutral, technologies are instead powerful physical manifestations of a culture’s values. A society’s machines are, in a very real way, its values incarnate.
The Informational Sublime – A Brief Note on “Post-Industrial” Society
We hear the term “postindustrial” tossed around quite casually these days, so much so that journalists, pundits, and public semi-intellectuals seem to take the passing of industrialism as a given. Daniel Bell pronounced industrialism dead over 25 years ago (The Coming Post-Industrial Society), arguing that the contemporary age was marked by shifts in certain axial principles – that, in essence, the rules which historically applied to industrial society were no longer applicable. The Federal Government has now institutionalized the concept.
Replacing an industry classification that has existed for 60 years, the U.S. Commerce Department has introduced a new system that recognizes this leap into the information age…. The government developed the new classification system because “in an information-based economy, the quality of information determines the quality of policy” (Gehl & Douglas 1999).
We see this thinking broadly reflected in the technotopian rhetoric from the previous chapter, and merely pause here to note that the euphoria surrounding the information economy is not confined to the popular sphere.
Among Bell’s more powerful claims was the assertion that growth in the information sector resulted necessarily in prestigious knowledge-based employment. Information sector jobs were depicted as better-paying and more fulfilling. Kester implicates Bell in his critique of current Net-related technotopianism (Kapor, Perelman, Rheingold, etc.), highlighting the info-centric belief that capital will “cease to play a central role in shaping social or economic conditions.” Of interest is the point where the
…Silicon Valley anarcho-liberalism of publications such as Mondo 2000 meets Daniel Bell’s vision of a postindustrial society in which the industrial working class is entirely supplanted by cadres of highly-trained “knowledge workers.” The traditional limitations of industrial capitalism; oppressive working conditions, chronic unemployment, poverty, pollution, class conflict, etc. will disappear in the clean, post-industrial information economy. As for those who seem to be left out of this utopia (the poor, displaced industrial workers, service workers, and the global labor force), we need only provide them with the proper “information environment” to ensure their economic “empowerment” (Kester).
Vice President Gore and the NIITF reports examined in the preceding chapter seem informed by Bell’s claims, at least indirectly. The informational sublime is certainly in evidence when Gore asserts that “approximately 60 percent of all U.S. workers are “knowledge workers” and that eight out of 10 new jobs created by the Administration’s policies will be in “information-intensive sectors of our economy” (Gore 1994).
If the Internet seems to represent possibilities that are profoundly and generally unprecedented, our attempts to explain the disconnect should note that there are two layers of insulation between America’s technotopian idealism and the socio-economic realities of history. First, as Carey and Quirk note above, the perception that we are “exempt from history” is fundamentally American, and while America isn’t the only nation online, it is the predominant nation online. Our embrace of the Net, then, is characteristically unconditional, appealing as it does to so much we already hold dear. Second, information itself is portrayed as transcending some of the most the basic assumptions of history by rendering obsolete concepts like class and capital. It’s as though Marx never existed. Writers like Bell no longer have to argue over what really happened historically – they can simply say that whatever it was, it’s not that way now, thanks to information technologies.
The Myth of Value-Free Science & Technology
At a glance, the conception that science and technology are value-free propositions appears to dismiss the technotopian/dystopian dialogue as irrelevant. If we accept the popular premise that scientific method produces results that are truly free from the biases of human researchers, and if machines themselves are simply inert things whose ultimate value to society depends on how they are used by (inherently fallible) humans, then the question of utopian or dystopian technology is a phantasm. However, if we dissect the neutrality argument, we ultimately reveal it for a technophilic misdirection. Only by understanding the structure and power of the idea of value-neutrality can we fully appreciate its central function: the maintenance of technophilic ideology in Western culture.
Technology’s full impact in shaping society is obscured if we consider only its technical dimension – that is, if we equate technology with machines – and see human agency as being distinct from the technics themselves. This is precisely what commonly happens, however, and it’s a requisite condition for the idea of value-neutrality. As Mumford points out, there exists in our culture a powerful “tendency to identify tools and machines with technology; to substitute the part for the whole” (Myth 4). David Sarnoff, in accepting an honorary degree from Notre Dame, offered a striking example of technology/technics conflation when he told the audience that, “We are too prone to make technological instruments the scapegoats for the sins of those who wield them. The products of modern science are not in themselves good or bad; it is the way they are used that determines their value” (McLuhan Understanding Media 11). What Sarnoff fails to perceive is that technics and human agency are extensions of each other – instead of being separate things, they are related dimensions of the same thing.
McLuhan rebuts this notion in his famous “The Medium is the Message.” In McLuhan’s formulation, any new medium – that is, any technological extension of humanity – inevitably alters the pre-existing “patterns of human association.” Some of these alterations are positive, others negative, but the critical piece of the equation is the understanding that the change issues not from the “content” of the technology, but from the technology itself (Understanding Media 7-8). He dismisses Sarnoff’s assertion that technology is neither good nor evil in itself, arguing that the notion ignores the power of the medium to do more than simply add to the existing sum of culture (Understanding Media 11). In fact, new technologies often result in massive revisions of cultural structures, practices, and relations.
Drawing on the perspective of de Tocqueville, McLuhan explains how understanding the difference between the United States and the English hinges on the different places typography occupied in the histories of the two countries. The printing press exerted comparatively little influence on the English, who clung to “the power of the ancient oral traditions of common law,” whereas the effect of print on the United States was so profound that, if one could merely find “the center” – the single principle from which all laws emanated – everything else would be “revealed at a glance” (Understanding Media 14-15).
The grammar of print cannot help to construe the message of oral and nonwritten culture and institutions. The English aristocracy was properly classified as barbarian by Matthew Arnold because its power and status had nothing to do with literacy or with the cultural forms of typography (15).
Any medium “has the power of imposing its own assumption on the unwary,” he says, and we must understand “that the spell can occur immediately upon contact, as in the first bars of a melody” (15). The medium is thus invested with a supremely organic character, and its effect on the human audience functions quite differently from the corresponding effect of content. Whereas the audience’s reaction to the medium is autonomic, the impact of content, or message, requires introduction into and presumably consideration by the mind, resulting in a slower and more conscious interaction than is described relative to contact with the medium.
The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance (Understanding Media 18).
In McLuhan’s formulation, the idea of value-neutrality is rejected because it hinges on the distinction between tool and user, with agency invested in the user. The neutrality construction makes the user synonymous with message, while medium is envisioned as a mere conduit for action and effect. As he demonstrates, however, the medium exerts a powerful agency which is entirely independent of the intent of the user or the content within the channel. It matters not what message the user attempts to pumps through the medium – the revision of cultural practice and pattern is already effected. Since agency and effect therefore reside beyond the bounds of the user/message dyad, the medium is implicated in all the larger value issues attending technological development.
In The Culture of Technology, Pacey begins his consideration of sci/tech’s presumed neutrality by examining the history of the snowmobile, a machine whose varied uses vividly illustrate the multiple dimensions comprising technology in contemporary society. In addition to the several recreational functions with which Americans usually associate the machine, Pacey notes that it has served significantly different purposes in other cultures: reindeer herding in Swedish Lapland, fox trapping by Canadian Banks Island tribesmen, prospecting by multinational oil companies, and hunting by Native Americans. In some respects, the case of the snowmobile seems to support the idea that the technology is neutral – regardless of how it’s used, it remains essentially the same machine, he notes, and in the case of the Lapps its use seems to have had no effect on basic cultural values.
So is technology culturally neutral? If we look at the construction of a basic machine and its working principles, the answer seems to be yes. But if we look at the web of human activities surrounding the machine, which include its practical uses, its role as a status symbol, the supply of fuel and spare parts, the organized tourist trails, and the skills of its owners, the answer is clearly no. Looked at in this second way, technology is seen as a part of life, not something that can be kept in a separate compartment. If it is to be of any use, the snowmobile must fit into a pattern of activity which belongs to a particular lifestyle and set of values (Culture of Technology 3).
“Technology,” then, actually represents substantially more than the popular understanding of the term, which Pacey calls the “restricted” sense. Essentially, the machine itself – the technical dimension, is only a part of the whole picture. He advances the concept of “technology-practice” as a way of distinguishing the application of technology from the science which underpins its development. Using the field of medicine to illustrate the idea, he explains that medical science designates the purely technical considerations of medicine, while medical practice denotes the larger body of concerns relating to values, ethics, and culture. For example, while the Hippocratic Oath is of critical importance in the practice of medicine, it in no way touches on the actual science of healing. Pacey therefore defines “technology-practice” in terms which seek to understand technology not simply as technics, but as the larger web of concerns which surround the development, administration, and uses of the machine per se.
The model of “technology-practice” is expressed graphically as an inverted triangle. The bottom point Pacey calls the “technical aspect,” which includes “knowledge, skill and technique; tools, machines, chemicals, liveware; resources, products, and wastes” (6). This lower third of the equation, the “restricted meaning,” is what most people mean when they use the term “technology.” The “general meaning,” however, incorporates the top two corners of the triangle, the “cultural aspect” and the “organizational aspect.” The cultural includes “goals, values and ethical codes, belief in progress, awareness and creativity.” The organizational signifies “economic and industrial activity, professional activity, users and consumers, trade unions” (6).
[T]echnology-practice is thus the application of scientific and other knowledge to practical tasks by ordered systems that involve people and organizations, living things and machines (6).
By this construction, Pacey distinguishes the technological from the merely technical, and in making clear that the technical aspect of technology is inherently bound up with the cultural and administrative aspects, he makes a powerful argument against the naive idea that technology is or can conceivably be taken as neutral.
In The Technological System (1980), Jacques Ellul goes well beyond Pacey and McLuhan, ultimately arguing not only that technology is a value-laden proposition, but that in the modern world the values of society are direct artifacts of technology. He contends, in a masterpiece of technological determinism, that there has arisen within society a technological system that has become almost wholly determining of the culture’s history. The system is not the society, but exists within and beside it. He details the ways in which technology has grown, diversified, and decentralized, to the point where it is so thoroughly integrated into society that, in practical terms, it cannot be separated from it. Even human agency is subsumed by the system.
[T]he system presupposes a more and more thorough integration of each element, including man, as an object. Man can no longer be a subject…. Nothing can have an intrinsic sense; it is given meaning only by technological application. Nothing can lay claim to action; it is acted upon by technological process. Nothing can regard itself as autonomous; it is the technological system that is autonomous…. (Technological System 12).
Even capitalism has been swallowed whole, and as a result questions of commodity have been rendered relatively unimportant. The “technicized object” has replaced the commodity as the important concept, and the term signifies anything which the system can appropriate and turn to its use, including humans.
All the things making up the societal life – work, leisure, religions, culture, institutions – all the things forming a loose, complex whole, enclosing real life and giving man both a reason to live and an anxiety – all these things were “torn apart and more or less irreducible to one another.” And it is easy to state that they are now technicized, homogenized, and integrated into a new whole, which is not the society. No more meaningful political or social organization is possible for this ensemble, every part of which is subordinate to the technologies and linked to other parts by the technologies. “All that reigns is the eternal substitution of homogenous elements” (Ellul 15).
The “megamachine” which results – the technological society, which is a society “in which a technological system has been installed” (18) – is a completely and totally deindividuating force, which, curiously, is the state of grace in the technological society. We assume that by this Ellul means it is this state of deindividuation which signifies perfect harmony and integration with the system, and we further presume that it is people in this state who receive the greatest blessings the system has to bestow. This is precisely consistent with all the utopias of the past, Ellul says, because each has “been an exact repetition of an ideal organization, a perfect conjunction between the various parts of the social body” (19).
Pacey, Postman, McLuhan, and Ellul leave us with no real footing from which to assert that technology (technics, the restricted sense in Pacey’s model) can be abstracted from the social, political, economic, and cultural factors which attend its development and use. Still, development speeds ahead, mindful of little besides the promise of commerce. In the case of the Internet, we see occasional dissenters, but their cautionaries, even when voiced by a source as credible as Stoll’s, have little noticeable impact on the pace of progress. Even less concern is given to the cultural and administrative issues associated with Pacey’s expanded definition of technology or with the overwhelming implications of Ellul’s Technological System, in which the system has stripped all agency and autonomy from the individual, the collective, and the economic base.
Pacey and Ellul may recognize the deeper concerns, but the developers of the Information Superhighway clearly do not. Tracey aptly characterizes the rhetoric of Internet development, noting a shallow and short-sighted obsession with
the market not the society, the consumer not the citizen, the want not the need, the quantity not the quality, the price not the value, the globe not the nation (“Whatever It Is…” 210).
What results is a myopic, almost pathologically commercializing development policy that punctuates Pacey’s call for full-scale cultural revolution aimed at infusing public debates over technology with a critical discussion of basic societal values.
[T]he central preoccupation of any modern cultural revolution must surely be centered on what one university engineer has described as “the mainspring of technological misdirection.” This is the impulse to go on inventing, developing and producing regardless of society’s needs. The result is that we create systems of organized waste in electricity supply, consumer goods and food production, and above all, in the arms race.
But conventional world views disguise much of this and make it seem logical and necessary; they hide the real nature of the technological imperative. Thus the most important part of any cultural revolution – the biggest shift in perceptions and paradigms – could be a reconstruction of world views so the irrationality of our present pattern of technological progress is no longer hidden (Culture of Technology 171-172).
In short, not only are the cultural and organizational dimensions invisible to the popular eye, the “technological imperative” depends on this invisibility for its continuation. The belief that technology is neither good not evil, but is merely a tool in the hands of people who may be good or evil, is essentially technotopian – without it, the current mode of technological development would die.
Value-neutrality – the perceptual disconnect between technology and the sorts of cultural concerns noted by Pacey, Postman, and Ellul – results from two factors acting together. First, the association of mechanical arts with the divine has a history that’s over a millennium old, so Westerners have been long conditioned to associate technology with goodness. And, as Postman points out, our lives have in reality been significantly improved by the fruits of applied science, making the association an easy one to accept. However, this history of successes nurtures a feedback cycle. Jonas says that when we consider the successes of our technologies, we begin to see how there evolves a closed loop of perception and signification, of perceived necessity and technical success, where technological triumphs reinforce the messianic tilt of the culture and language, which in turn privileges the cause of further technological endeavor, and so on.
This positive feedback of functional necessity and reward – in whose dynamics pride of achievement must not be forgotten – assures the growing ascendancy of one side of man’s nature over all the others, and inevitably at their expense. If nothing succeeds like success, nothing also entraps like success (Jonas Imperative of Responsibility 9).
Second, the concept of human fallibility runs deep in Christian cultures – born in original sin and unworthy of grace, humans are inherently imperfect creatures, Christianity teaches. When machines fail, it’s only natural that Westerners, socialized to a Christian world-view, look to the humans who build and operate them for the cause, especially given how commonplace technical functionality has become. The reliability of machines is such that, as Postman indicates, we have almost forgotten what it is to be amazed. Also, just as there is truth to the idea that machines have been our friends, there is likewise a basic truth to the proposition that technological disasters often occur in the presence of human error. In the popular view, Chernobyl wouldn’t have happened had a plant employee not dumped a Coke on the control board, and we’d never have heard of the Exxon Valdez if the captain hadn’t been drinking. The overtness of human fallibility effectively distracts the public from the deeper questions Pacey and Jonas would ask about the direction of our technology policies. Certainly human fallibility is an important part of the equation, but the sort of dramatic policy reformulation these critics call for requires that we re-envision human action and agency as indigenous elements of the system. If human fallibility is a problem, then perhaps the answer isn’t training and safeguards. Perhaps the answer becomes a revision of policy to eliminate the development of technologies that allow human error to annihilate populations.
This disconnect, then, absolves science and technology of their sins, and serves a critical purpose for the utopian ideology of science and technology: by misdirecting blame aimed at the failings of sci/tech from policy to people, the doctrine of value-neutrality proofs the mechanical arts against any taint which would otherwise feed dystopian critiques and hinder development. If the public mind did see technology in the way Pacey says it must if there is to be a “reconstruction of world views” concerning wasteful and destructive technologies – if the concept of value-neutral sci/tech ceased to exist, in other words – then it’s likely the technophilic view would be far less powerful in contemporary America. Certainly we have seen countless technological failures of varying magnitude in our history, and if each one fed the technophobic plaint we might well live in a culture with far more thoughtful and balanced policies surrounding technical development.
Communication and Technotopia
The centuries-old utopian ideologies of technology are alive and well in the Information Age, as we see in the first chapter, but the attachment of these beliefs to communications technologies specifically also has a long history. As noted above, Lippman was concerned with how the press might be improved, in hopes of bringing public opinion more in line with the actualities of the complex world. Dewey, his contemporary, centralizes the role of communication technologies in the fostering of productive community relations (The Public and Its Problems). In his view, communications technology was the only thing enabling the existence of a republic as racially diverse and geographically dispersed as the United States.
Our modern state-unity is due to the consequences of technology employed so as to facilitate the rapid and easy circulation of opinions and information, and so as to generate constant and intricate interaction far beyond the limits of face-to-face communities…. The elimination of distance, at the base of which are physical agencies, has called into being the new form of political association (Public and Its Problems 114-115).
However, Dewey saw the public as being “in eclipse” due to the sorts of massive complexities described by Lippman. The local community “has been invaded by forces so vast, so remote in initiation, so far-reaching in scope and so complexly indirect in operation, that they are, from the standpoint of the members of the local social units, unknown,” he argued. These conditions make impossible any kind of coherent, self-aware civic action by the citizenry (131). America had lost all sense of itself in the homogenizing forces of rapid growth and technology.
[T]he machine age has so enormously expanded, multiplied, intensified and complicated the scope of the indirect consequences, have formed such immense and consolidated unions in action, on an impersonal rather than a community basis, that the resultant public cannot identify and distinguish itself (Dewey Public and Its Problems 126).
The failure of self-identify gave rise to a number of maladies. The public was rendered unable to engage in productive political action, and the individual found the quest for meaningful expression increasingly difficult because such actualization could only occur within the workings of a healthy community. The key to the Great Community, which in turn keyed the Great Society, was communication technologies, which existed as never before.
Without such communication the public will remain shadowy and formless, seeking spasmodically for itself, but seizing and holding its shadow rather than its substance. Till the Great Society is converted into a Great Community, the Public will remain in eclipse. Communication can alone create a great community. Our Babel is not one of tongues but of signs and symbols without which shared experience is impossible (Public and Its Problems 142).
The Great Community sounds a lot like Bensalem, but the key difference is that the Great Community emerges less from material wealth, the boon of production technologies, than it does from the sense of community resulting from communications. As we recall Dewey’s thoughts on the application of science from above, we note that communication is essential to the formation of public opinion because of its role in transmitting the “results of social inquiry” (177). Communication is the conduit of the application of science and the means by which an informed public emerges from eclipse, gains a true sense of itself and its values, and becomes a Great Community.
In recent times communications has taken the central role in the “postindustrial revolution” as an increasingly large percentage of U.S. national income is devoted to the generation and dissemination of information (Christians “Communications and Technology” 233). Christians undertakes a detailed examination of the research surrounding communications technologies, and notes the ways in which these developments are linked to social change, both now and in the future. Almost exclusively, he notes, this work exhibits a “preoccupation with the hardware,” rarely pausing for critical reflection.
Perhaps this phenomenon is to be expected. A culture rooted as deeply in the utilitarian as ours would be expected to produce pragmatic, rather than critical, analysis, especially in cases where research monies issue from federal agencies, which are practically-minded and often co-opted by partisan influences, and private foundations, which are often tied directly to corporations or which depend heavily on corporate giving for their budgets. Further, the tendency Christians portrays is probably worse now, several years after the publication of his review. During the intervening decade the Internet’s potential to educate, enrich and empower has evolved from nifty idea to basic assumption, and while electronic R&D is being funded as never before, the monies nearly always go to projects expressly aimed at proving or expanding upon the benefits of the technology. Chapter 1 shows us examples of the dystopian critique, but these voices issue from the periphery, not the mainstream, and they rarely attract significant federal or corporate research dollars.
Christians’ conclusions are quite in line with the arguments Dewey made decades earlier. In lobbying for a normative theory of technology (a la Jonas and Pacey, whom he cites) he notes that these technologies are inextricably embedded in the very processes they are called on to interpret:
Communications technologies represent the meaning-edge of the technological process. While exhibiting the structural elements of all technical artifacts, their particular identity as a technological form inheres in their function as a bearer of symbols. Information technologies thus represent the properties of technology while serving while serving as the agent for interpreting the meaning of the very phenomenon they embody (249).
While Christians has before him a dramatically different technical terrain than did Dewey – who could scarcely have imagined the World Wide Web, let alone MUDs, MOOs, or alt.sex.unnatural-acts.jesse-helms – his centralization of communications technology to the cultural process could almost have been lifted directly from The Public and Its Problems.
…communications media are the connective tissue in human culture-binding, the territory where meaning and purpose are formed. The media sketch out our world for us, organize our conversations, massage our self-identity, and influence our decision-making (Christians 149).
In the end, while the players and the details of their pitches have evolved, moving from the industrial technologies of production to the electronic technologies of information, the essential commitment to better living through technology remains.
…while the symbols of technological progress have changed – satellites, spaceships, computers, and information utilities, having replaced steam engines and dynamos – the same style of exhortation to a better future through technology dominates contemporary life. This exhortation to discount the present for the future has therefore been a particular, though not peculiar, aspect of American popular culture (Carey and Quirk “History” 177).
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Pictures of Technology: The Illustrative Case of LIFE Magazine
What should be emerging by this point in the discussion is a picture of a culture in psychic conflict. On the one hand the West is dedicated to the application of science to the improvement its physical world, if not the salvation of its collective soul. On the other, it’s prone to deep-seated, yet profound, misgivings about its ability to accomplish either, and in fact wonders if it might not be engineering the means of its own annihilation. In the first chapter we saw ample evidence of both tendencies extant in the Internet debate, and in this chapter we have seen the long histories from which the utopian contribution to that debate flow; the following chapter will be examining more deeply the traditions which fuel the dystopian reaction. The final section of this chapter will be devoted to a brief study of one of the 20th Century’s most substantial popular records, LIFE Magazine.
An ambitious attempt to capture the richness of American society, LIFE succeeded so brilliantly because it refused to shy away from the complexities the culture faced during the middle of the century. While it routinely tackled events and issues which were more obviously controversial and divisive (Civil Rights, for instance), perhaps no topic ever presented more of a challenge than technological development. Just as America was a culture conflicted, negotiating its way back and forth between its utopian dreams and dystopian nightmares, so also were the editors of LIFE conflicted, as their portrayals of machinery wavered, celebrating in one issue and expressing subtle fears the next.
The following pages will examine the utopian portion of the LIFE equation, and a review of the dystopian counterweight will be undertaken in Chapter 3.
“…to see and be amazed”: The LIFE and Times of Technology in America
During its 36-year run, LIFE traversed a period of technological innovation and peril unsurpassed in the recorded history of humanity (to that point, anyway). As the first issue was released in November 1936, a resurgent Germany was constructing the most awesome war machine the world had yet seen, a development that literally threatened the future of the hemisphere. LIFE’s final issue went to press at the end of 1972, roughly three weeks after NASA’s last manned mission to the moon, Apollo 17, closed the books on a program that proved humanity was not inevitably bound to this planet. The technical distance between these two moments is mind-boggling. Nazi engineers working on the development of rocketry could perhaps, just barely, envision a trip to the moon, but for most everybody else such an idea remained the stuff of pulp science fiction. Nonetheless, human technology did traverse this distance, and it did so in the almost impossibly brief period of 36 years. LIFE Magazine, a publication designed to depict American life at this particular moment in history, could hardly have avoided becoming a mirror for our vast, and often troubled, technological agenda.
LIFE occupied a privileged place in the popular mind through the middle of this century. With an average circulation peaking at 8.5 million, it was the most widely disseminated publication of its kind in history (van Zuilen). LIFE’s pass-along rate is difficult to compute, but Kozol estimates its total reach in the 1940s and 1950s to have been around 20 million (LIFE’s America). Figures compiled by van Zuilen afford a reach estimate that is a bit higher, perhaps even exceeding 25 million readers during the mid-1950s. If accurate, these figures suggest that during its postwar peak LIFE probably reached better than 20 percent of the population aged 15 and older each week.
The extent of the impact LIFE exerted through its editorials and photo-essays is impossible to estimate, although ample evidence indicates that the magazine was influential among its readers. The editors and photographers employed by LIFE took their mission seriously, tackling the major issues and events facing the U.S., no matter how controversial, and often risking their lives in the process. We can safely assume that devoted readers of such a publication would share its ethic, and countless letters to the editors support this assumption. LIFE readers routinely took the editors to task for various decisions and policies, but the tone of such correspondence usually acknowledged, at least implicitly, the significance of the event in question. The essential concern was that the stories in question be covered “properly.” We have no way of knowing if the letters LIFE published constituted a representative sample of all the letters the editors received, nor can we assume that the letters written provided a fair sample of overall public opinion. However, a publication that didn’t fairly reflect the interests of its readership could hardly have posted LIFE’s three-and-a-half decade record of success, so a significant accord must have existed between the magazine and its readers.
Second, anecdotal evidence indicates the anxiousness with which subscribers anticipated LIFE’s weekly arrival and the degree to which they cherished its pictures. Former subscribers talk with fondness about specific issues they remember and the pictures they hung on their walls. Baby boomers recount photo-essays that helped attune them to the Civil Rights Movement or “The ‘60s” – and this seems especially true for those who grew up in “culturally remote” areas, far removed from places like Berkeley or Selma, the places where “things were happening.” Words like “community” are used to describe how the magazine drew people together, establishing through its words and pictures the centrality of particular cultural issues in the life of the society. Stories like these speak to a compelling mystique about LIFE’s relationship with its readers and the culture generally.
Finally, van Zuilen cites market research suggesting that magazines contributed significantly to overall knowledge and provided “usable ideas” to “the nation’s citizens and consumers” (74). These findings are of indeterminate value, though, since they seem to focus exclusively on the “consumer” half of “citizens and consumers.” Whether magazines were equally influential on political and cultural ideas remains unclear. Still, as with the anecdotal and speculative evidence above, a degree of influence is indicated.
LIFE at the Outset: The Construction of Technology
Montana’s monolithic Fort Peck Dam dominates the cover of LIFE Magazine’s inaugural issue. This image serves as an apt and prophetic commencement, for over the next 36 years LIFE would catalogue, through photographs, diagrams, technical drawings, artist conceptions, and editorial commentary the steady forward march of technology, both at home and abroad. Just as the Fort Peck Dam towered over the landscape and people beneath it, so would LIFE’s vision of progress tower over the imagination of wartime and postwar America.
Many readers may not even have initially recognized the picture for what it was – the rampart-like architecture is more suggestive of a citadel than any dam most Americans had ever seen. However, the perspective of Margaret Bourke-White’s photograph powerfully conveys two important things. First, the minute human figures at the dam’s base signal the immensity of the structure. The photo is intended to inspire awe, and probably succeeded. Second, the photo signals human agency. What the figures are doing is unclear, but their posture suggests that they are inspecting something at the base of one of the tower-like segments. They are bent at the waist, both to approximately the same degree, and would appear to be focused on the same point in the structure. Obviously the edifice is manmade, but the aspect of examination assumed by the two figures implies the act of construction, centralizing the role of the builders in the photo’s narrative. Hence, in the most literal sense, LIFE’s very first impression on the American public was of the immensity and grandeur of technology, and the first humans depicted by the magazine, the two anonymous figures inspecting the Fort Peck Dam, were conspicuously dwarfed by their own (we presume) creation.
To what degree was LIFE’s use of this image deliberately geared toward the glorification of technology, and more broadly, to what extent were LIFE’s portrayals of technology and science through the years the result of an editorial agenda, either explicit or implicit? These questions, like those above concerning LIFE’s influence, are difficult to answer. As Kozol notes, LIFE defies categorization. Trends and tendencies can be identified and examples can be produced in support of countless hypotheses, but in the end the magazine’s inherent heterogeneity confounds even the most patient scholar. Cultural truths and textual themes revealed in one issue and supported by close readings of several others are dispensed with the following week, almost as if the editors were intent on contradiction. And in a sense perhaps they were, for LIFE set out to depict American society, which is frequently self-contradictory. It is therefore with great trepidation that this or any other study of LIFE Magazine goes searching for overarching themes.
Still, some of LIFE’s identifiable tendencies are stronger than others, and despite the contradictions we occasionally find evidence of what might be characterized, if only cautiously, as an agenda. One such example occurs, appropriately enough, in the editorial introduction to the first issue.
Photographer Margaret Bourke-White had been dispatched to the Northwest to photograph the multi-million dollar projects of the Columbia River Basin. What the Editors expected – for use in some later issue – were construction pictures as only Bourke-White can take them. What the Editors got was a human document of American frontier life which, to them at least, was a revelation.
Having been unable to prevent Bourke-White from running away with their first nine pages, the Editors thereafter returned to the job of making pictures behave with some degree of order and sense (11/23/36, 3).
A clearer and richer statement of an editorial intent is hard to fathom, especially where the elusive LIFE staff is concerned. Several points are worth noting. First, before LIFE ever published a single page, it had assigned one of its crack photographers the task of shooting construction, indicating the exceptional newsworthiness of these projects in the minds of its editors. Second, the editors make clear that they dispatched Bourke-White with certain expectations – they knew what they were after, and were fully anticipating that she would deliver the goods. Significant here is the degree of preconception to which the magazine admits. Substantively, if not literally, a story has already been written about these construction projects, and the editors only need their photographer to fill in the pictorial details.
Third, while the real story Bourke-White encountered was, in the editors’ estimation, a “human document,” the cover nonetheless featured a technology photograph, one that was thematically at odds with the photo-essay inside the covers. That story concerns life in Roosevelt’s New Deal boomtowns, an existence which the magazine depicts as dirty and degenerate, and which is typified (in the editors’ view) by a toddler sitting on a bar as the Saturday night bacchanalia rages around him. The decision to put the dam on the cover despite its seeming irrelevance to the more compelling “human document” perhaps reflects the editors willingness to privilege their admitted “expectations” over the substance of the field photojournalist’s findings.
Still, what is intriguing is that LIFE does tell the human story, and in doing so unwittingly (we assume) acknowledges the point Pacey, Jonas, McLuhan, Postman, Ellul, and others make about technology’s inherently cultural character. The editorial expectation as they dispatched their crack photographer Westward was in line with Pacey’s “restricted” view of technology – when they told Bourke-White to go photograph technology, they intended her to concentrate on the technics of America’s vast project of progress. Instead, her camera insisted on a more critical and sophisticated view, instinctively seeking out the cultural dimension and documenting the ways in which social practices and patterns were being reinscribed in the looming shadow of technical development. The result, the editors admit, was a “revelation”.
Amidst the complexity and seeming contradiction that characterized the editorial process at the magazine from the outset, we’re probably wise to pay special attention to the closing words of the passage above – “making pictures behave with some degree of order and sense.” The pictures can’t be expected to make sense on their own, evidently, and it’s the mission of the editors to make the pictorial record “behave.” Despite the adage that “pictures never lie,” the implication is that truth is not safely self-evident from the visual record. While the tone of the comment is light, almost joking, the words remain, and can be read as a surprisingly honest acknowledgment of the inherently constructive process involved in the production of a LIFE-sized photographic record.
The “later issue” in which Bourke-White’s Columbia Basin construction photographs were to be showcased finally arrived almost eleven months after the Charter Issue. Entitled “Roosevelt Builds the Biggest Dam And Envisions a New Society” (10/11/37, 34-39), the photo-essay details the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam in central Washington. Roosevelt is called “one of the greatest builders of all time” and the dam, “his mightiest work,” is “the world’s biggest building job.” The essay is replete with specifications, capacities, dimensions, and six pages of majestic photography – as Bourke-White’s pictures stretch toward the horizon, they illustrate how aggressively technology is filling the landscape, leaving the reader little room to doubt the sheer magnificence of the undertaking.
The editors employ a startlingly utopian vocabulary in describing President Roosevelt’s project, centering on his “vision of the new society which he expects [the dam] to help create,” (35) and wondering aloud whether “Roosevelt the Builder laid in Grand Coulee one of the foundation stones of a new society, or left behind him a monument as colossally wasteful as Cheops’ pyramids” (39).
Immediate purposes of the Grand Coulee project are two. One is to generate nearly 2,000,000 kilowatts of power per year which, added to the production of Bonneville Dam further down the Columbia, will electrify the homes and farms of the Pacific Northwest, spur the industrial development of its vast natural resources. Other is to turn Grand Coulee into a 23-mile reservoir from which waters will sluice down on the 1,200,000 rich but arid acres of the Columbia River Basin to the south, creating new homes for 30,000 drought-stricken farm families.
Beyond these aims lies President Roosevelt’s long-cherished vision of a whole new U.S. society based on Power. For when drudgery-relieving Power is almost as cheap and abundant as sunlight, he believes, free citizens will have leisure and dignity enough to make democracy really work (35).
The Grand Coulee Dam was built to electrify the Northwest and spur industrial development, presumably resulting in higher employment and an improved standard of living; allow the irrigation of currently unproductive land, boosting agricultural output and providing work for thousands of Depression-sacked families; and most importantly, afford through “Power” the “leisure and dignity” necessary to engender a genuinely successful democracy. In short, the general condition of the nation would be improved as direct result of technology – here manifested in the dam project, which is depicted not as a panacea for the country’s ills, but rather as a representative piece of F.D.R.’s larger technological agenda.
There’s no mistaking the importance of the Grand Coulee project in the debate over technology or LIFE’s framing of that debate; note how in the passage above the mundane, lower-case “power” of line two has been mystically transformed by the second line of the following paragraph into the personified (deified?), upper-case “Power.” Even if this shift is read as sarcasm on the part of a conservative editorial staff that didn’t especially like Roosevelt or his progressive politics, it nonetheless acknowledges the reverence with which society viewed the electrical sublime. Whereas “power” denotes the simple application of electricity, “Power” confers agency, imbuing applied electricity with will and purpose and charging it with the task of ending the Depression, providing for the economic welfare, advancing agricultural productivity, and enabling at last the full, utopian realization of democracy. This was the highwater mark of the electrical sublime in the 20th Century, the place where the rhetorical rubber met the road. Now we would see, LIFE suggests, whether electricity could deliver on its promises.
The centrality of technology to LIFE’s editorial mission was firmly, if implicitly, established in the first year of the magazine’s existence; the fact was made explicit by the editorial decision within a few months of the launch to offer a weekly Science and Technology section. LIFE’s treatment would not be unitary, predictable, or unproblematic, but it recognized the importance of technology to the country’s future. Founder Henry Luce recognized the critical place his new magazine occupied in the emerging technological order, noting that LIFE itself was “based on technology, paper technology, photographic technology” (van Zuilen 264). Once again, LIFE proved unusually sophisticated for a popular publication, as Luce here hinted at the point Christians’ would make over three decades later – to wit, that communications technologies “represent the meaning-edge of the technological process,” embedded as they are in the very processes they are here interpreting (Christians “Communications and Technology” 249).
LIFE and the Medical Morality Play
LIFE’s coverage of medical technology began early and covered, through the decades, the research, development, and application of treatments for a variety of diseases and disorders. Vivid, often grotesque photography illustrated everything from cancer treatment to brain and open heart surgery, but the magazine’s 1937 photo-essay on cancer demonstrated the optimism with which LIFE viewed medical technology.
Entitled “U.S. Science Wars Against an Unknown Enemy: Cancer” (3/1/37, 11-17), the essay establishes in the first page the lush photographic techniques that would become the magazine’s trademark method of illustrating complex technical issues in succeeding years. A 7”x9” photo of “Crocker Laboratory’s 1,250,000-Volt X-Ray Machine” dominates the center of the page; like much of the emerging technology of its time, nothing in its design visually signals the method or purpose of its use. A huge, barrel-shaped machine with several cannon-like appendages extending in all directions, the “Biggest Gun in the War Against Cancer” could have been selected by the editors for the technomystical impact of its appearance alone.
The title of the essay reflects the status accorded science – “U.S. Science,” personified like “Power” in the Grand Coulee photo-essay, is the subject, the agent of action. Science marches off to war against the enemy, cancer. Reinforcing the soldierly agency of inanimate science is LIFE’s mention, in the second sentence of the text, of the American Society for the Control of Cancer’s U.S. Cancer Week motto: “Fight Cancer With Knowledge” (11). The photo-essay describes the work of human scientists, of course – LIFE wasn’t consciously bent on dehumanizing the process, and through the years would do much to deify the scientist-hero – but the editorial decision to lead with the archetype, couched in a metaphor of war, lends a certain epic character to the struggle, the language implying a timeless quality that transcends the mortality of human agency. The outcome of the battle is foreshadowed in the duality of the enemy, cancer, which is described both in terms focusing on its effectiveness as a killer and in terms emphasizing its curability, if found and treated in the early stages of development. Viewed from this perspective, LIFE’s portrayal of medical progress takes on the aspect of morality play. The triumph of Good/Science is prefigured, but the audience, socialized to the cultural beliefs and practices of the technocratic community, understands what awaits those who stray from the path of scientific righteousness.
In the following pages LIFE runs the gamut, valorizing the “Captains in the Cancer War”; showing microscopic photography of both healthy and cancerous cells; depicting scientists at work; describing the role of mice in laboratory research; illustrating the effectiveness of x-rays in finding cancer; and reinforcing the earlier assertion that cancer is curable if detected early. This last element is the key to the essay. Cancer, like science, has been personified – it is “the enemy.” Explicitly clear in the morality play is a convention of the culture: the Evil/Cancer enemy cannot stand against the ingenuity and integrity of the Good/Science hero. This is the moral end of the tale. But the intervening pages of illustration, explanation, and detail tell a story, and are essential means to the end, for it is in these characterizations that the utopian essence of science is to be found. Cancer research is highly technical, and microscopic photographs of diseased cells alone would denote nothing to the lay reader. But contextualized within the frame of epic struggle – Science warring against the unknown enemy – the arcane clinicality of the photographs and accompanying text reassure the reader, who is socialized into a culture that has for centuries deified the applied arts.
Perhaps most important is the moral of the story, implicitly prescribed for the reader, who most certainly didn’t want to be afflicted by a disease like cancer. If early detection promised curability, then the reader was well advised to get routine cancer checkups. Science, ever vigilant, could and would save the faithful from the unknown enemy within.
WWII and the Dawn of the Atomic Age
The war years and the coming of the atomic age highlighted the internal conflict surrounding technological development, for it was during this period that America finally saw the monster by the full light of day. Images of the German and Japanese war machines, and later of atomic bombs cracking the skies over Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Bikini Atoll, established once and for all the existence of the monster – the task now was how to domesticate it.
LIFE’s images of the pre-war and war years are among the most complex in our culture’s visual record. Technology the demon, the physical manifestation of the Frankenstein Complex, appears side by side with technology the savior, and often the only way the reader could tell the difference was through subtle (and not-so-subtle) cues introduced by the editorial staff. After all, a tank is a tank is a tank, a heavy armored track-wheeled vehicle whose purpose is the annihilation of the enemy force. But a tank could be either utopian or dystopian in the thematic narrative, depending entirely on whose tank it was. For this reason, LIFE’s depictions of the technology of war provided the reader with a plethora of contextual cues, a tactic which both illustrated and obfuscated the deeper cultural and organizational questions about the role of the machine in society. The point Jonas, Christians, and Pacey make about the invisibility of values in the formulation of our machine-centric development policies is illustrated here because of the very need to cue the viewer – the normative theory Christians calls for would respond to these images by wondering about the machine’s role in a culture clearly devoted to war. However, the need for a critical reevaluation of development is obfuscated because the necessity to have good and evil visually or textually cued feeds the ideology of value-neutrality almost by design: If the machines are all more or less the same, then the only distinguishing factor remaining – the only locus of morality, as it were – is the agency of the humans who design, build, deploy, and operate them.
With this duly noted, the bulk of the magazine’s coverage of World War II is better considered within the framework of the dystopian impulse, and will therefore be taken up in the following chapter.
LIFE and the Space Race
LIFE’s portrayal of the space race represented, in most respects, a logical extension of its war coverage. Many of the space program’s early goals were military in nature, and as in World War II, technology was once again both demon and messiah, depending on whether it was theirs or ours.
. . .Sputnik proved that there were great military, as well as scientific, advances in the U.S.S.R. Getting their heavy satellite up meant that Russia had developed a more powerful rocket than any the U.S. had yet fired and substantial Soviet claims of success with an intercontinental missile. Putting Sputnik into a precise orbit meant Russia had solved important problems of guidance necessary to aim its missiles at U.S. targets. The satellite could also be the forerunner of a system of observation posts which would watch the U.S. unhindered and with deadly accuracy (10/21/57, 24).
Space promised many nonmilitary boons, insisted the experts (10/21/57). Satellites could answer questions about conditions in space that affected flight; about weather patterns, that could tremendously benefit agriculture; and about other planets, the sun, and the stars. Scientists also envisioned space-based communications, and to their credit, the space program’s research mission has provided beneficial and applicable information on all these concerns.
Still, most of the compelling reasons to get into space were related to national defense, and as such space perhaps became a measuring stick for assessing where we stood in the Cold War. The race to get the first man into orbit was especially symbolic. When Yuri Gagarin accomplished this feat in April of 1961, it was a landmark event not only in human history, but also in the public relations war between the Soviet Union and the United States. Much was at stake geopolitically, as developing nations around the globe debated with which axis to align themselves. A Soviet victory in the race into space was viewed by many as a sign of Soviet superiority in Science and Technology, a crucial factor for developing nations whose future well-being and viability often rested on the ability of technologies to improve the quality of their conditions.
Ultimately, then, the benefits accrued via the space program were many and varied, but were perhaps less defined than the sort of scientific goals attached to, say, cancer research. Some space program goals – astronomy’s interest in distant stars, for example – fell within the realm of pure research, and as knowledge for its own sake, its utilitarian benefits for society were difficult to describe in immediate terms. We also get the sense that many specific research goals, however well defined, eventually faded into the background of public consciousness: For many Americans, the goal became simply to win the race into orbit because it signaled our superiority, scientifically and culturally, over our enemy, the evil Soviet Union.
LIFE’s letters to the editor tended to support this idea. While not necessarily representative of the views of all Americans, the letter from one M.G. Butterworth concerning Gagarin’s historic flight summed up the sentiments of many: “In my opinion a Russian slave in orbit isn’t as wonderful as a free American walking in the street” (5/12/61, 8).
Nonetheless, LIFE assiduously chronicled both American and Soviet achievements and failures (although Russia’s refusal to acknowledge failures made reporting on them virtually impossible). LIFE photographed the heroes and their families; published detailed drawings and diagrams illustrating various elements of space missions and programs; eulogized the fallen, like Astronauts Grissom, White, and Chaffee, who were incinerated in an accident aboard the Apollo 204 spacecraft on January 27, 1967; and aggressively criticized the government when it fell behind the Russians – which, in LIFE’s estimation, seemed to be most of the time. It celebrated the Apollo 11 mission with a special issue devoted to the moon’s gravitational effect on both the human environment and imagination. Even when beset by contradictory, vague, and/or confusing technological developments, LIFE remained diligent in its coverage of these events.
“One last fiery hurrah”: LIFE’s Final Issue
How appropriate that a publication whose launch was dominated by photography of the technological wonder of the day should end its run with an equally impressive tribute to mankind’s latest technological accomplishment. As noted earlier, LIFE’s final issue was released a scant three weeks after Apollo 17, NASA’s last trip to the moon, and in the magazine’s concluding essays it found a fitting kinship with that mission. Both LIFE and the Apollo program remained physically strong to the last – many regard Apollo 17 as the most successful of all the moon landings (12/29/72), and while LIFE was awash in red ink, its failures arguably related more to mismanagement than to substantive textual issues (in 1969 the magazine had reached an all-time circulation high of 8.5 million) (van Zuilen). Both were, in the end, overcome by financial difficulties and a lack of institutional will to carry on.
The Apollo program and LIFE each accomplished their final missions with distinction. The moon shot returned with a rich geological payload, and LIFE did a remarkable job summing up The Year in Pictures, deftly reviewing the Apollo program; a presidential election campaign that was addling enough to elicit Hunter Thompson’s brilliant Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail; and yet another year of pointless mayhem in Vietnam. Perhaps most daunting of all, the editors had to manage some concise concluding statement of LIFE’s own long and storied history.
The photo-essay on the end of the Apollo program asks a number of good questions, and as was so often the case with LIFE, comes tantalizingly close to broaching a deeper critical discussion of technology’s place in American society. Four pictures of the mission’s spectacular night launch dominate an across-the-fold spread, with the caption “One last fiery hurrah for Apollo” introducing these reflective comments:
In 1961, when President Kennedy launched a national effort to send a man to the moon, the goal seemed incredibly far away. But 11 years and $26 billion later, the last chapter of man’s spectacular first venture into space began in a blaze of glory as Apollo 17 left the earth and rose through the Florida night like a roaring beacon, lighting up the sky for hundreds of miles around. Over the years of Apollo, a dozen men landed on the lunar surface and returned safely to earth, and with such efficiency that moon travel had come to seem almost routine. Each mission added to scientific knowledge, and Apollo 17 turned out to be the most fruitful of all, with a professional geologist aboard for the first time and a homebound payload that will keep the experts busy for years. With the ending of the Apollo program, the moon will be left undisturbed for the next decades – at least by Americans. Apollo 17’s splashdown prompted again an old question: Had the whole stupendous undertaking been merely an expensive digression from more pressing terrestrial concerns? Or was it justified by technologies learned, by knowledge gained and – as important – by man’s inspiring urge, in Tennyson’s words, “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”? (7).
The editors fittingly invoke Kennedy, the man to whom the American space program owed its life. They note the cost and difficulty of the task, and the eloquence of the language employed pays fitting tribute to the grandeur of the accomplishment – whether we were being duly critical of technology or not, the simple fact remains that the Apollo program presented humanity with one of the most remarkable achievements in the history of the species. American expertise is praised, for what we once thought impossible came to be executed with such ease and efficiency that going to the moon and back became commonplace, routine (Apollo 13 notwithstanding, we assume). And of course, the quest for scientific knowledge is invoked, in true Baconian fashion, and then is questioned, in typical LIFE fashion. Not only have we gained knowledge, but the Apollo program has been so successful that scientists on Earth will be tied up for years trying to study it all.
Most fascinating, though, is this editorial question: “Had the whole stupendous undertaking been merely an expensive digression from more pressing terrestrial concerns?” Longtime LIFE readers had heard words like these before: they conjured images of a vastly expensive technological program initiated by a popular, progressive president, and the expenditures were questioned in light of other significant national priorities. Ironically, the final words of the passage appealed to antiquity, employing Tennyson in the construction of a standard by which the program might be judged. The editors’ technique is not unlike that used 36 years earlier by their predecessors, who shared similar concerns about F.D.R.’s Grand Coulee Dam. The latest crop of editors quote Tennyson, while the original staff invoked the specter of Cheops, but in each case the point is the same: historians will revisit these moments, and the great decisions of great leaders will be judged, perhaps in ways we cannot fathom at present. To be sure, the Apollo program comes off better – LIFE liked the space program, even when its value was obscured by other national concerns. Tennyson’s words are inspirational, while Cheops’ ghost was intended as a cautionary.
From its first cover to its last, LIFE spent 36 years promoting the progress of science and technology as surely as any of its contemporary publications. That it did so as honestly and intelligently as perhaps any popular vehicle of its kind this century is to its eternal credit.