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BOOK REVIEW

Not Artifacts, but Acts

Emily Thompson

Human-Built World: How to Think about Technology and Culture. Thomas P. Hughes. xii + 223 pp. University of Chicago Press, 2004. $22.50.

In Human-Built World: How to Think about Technology and Culture, Thomas Hughes draws on the breadth and depth of his long career as one of the 20th century's most eminent historians of technology. This concise book not only charts a course through a rich sea of intellectual engagements with the subject, it also implicitly documents Hughes's own intellectual journey.

Human-Built World opens by examining the idea of "technology" as expressed through the history of the word. Its currently popular meaning became fixed only after the Second World War, but even today, Hughes laments, too many people understand the concept too reductively, as the ingenious output of a serial patrimony of heroic inventors, a chronological progression of artifacts, each more outstanding than the one before. For Hughes, technology consists not primarily of artifacts but of acts: It is constituted through the creative actions of people engaging with their natural environment to build a new one; it is an ongoing process that is anything but straightforward. What follows is not really a historical survey of this complex process but rather a thematic and selective pass through the new world that resulted, a story told as much by the writers who have influenced Hughes as by Hughes himself.

The first theme presented is "Technology and the Second Creation." Here Hughes focuses on the 19th-century transformation of America from a natural landscape into a "human-built world." He situates this transformation within a long tradition of Christian culture that ascribed meaning to technology by understanding it as a reenactment of God's own primary act of creation. Hughes then explores variations on this theme by cataloguing the works of a range of writers past and present, enthusiastic and critical, from Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson to historians Perry Miller and David Nye.

With the second theme, "Technology as Machine," Hughes moves into the 20th century and draws equally upon American and German sources to chart the new attitudes toward technology that accompanied the rise of modern systems for electricity, communication and mass production. Hughes notes a pervasive and more secular enthusiasm for the technologies that define this era. He then examines the works of intellectuals such as Oswald Spengler, Lewis Mumford, and Charles and Mary Beard, all of whom looked beneath the gleaming metal surfaces of the Machine Age to plumb the opportunities and dangers inherent in the artificial environment.

The third theme, "Technology as Systems, Controls, and Information," addresses the large-scale complexity that defined engineering in America after the Second World War. Perhaps because the technology in this chapter is more recent, Hughes focuses less on analyses by thoughtful outsiders and more on the ideas of the system-builders themselves. He charts the rise of the military-industrial-university complex and presents the origins of operations research and theories of feedback and control. He surveys the newly pervasive critiques of technology that emerged out of the countercultural movements of the 1960s, and follows with an account of the origins of the information revolution. The chapter closes with an examination of the recent scholarship of Manuel Castells, Paul Edwards and others on the promises and pitfalls of the digital world we inhabit today.

The book then changes tack, returning to the early 20th century to survey how architects and painters in America and Germany have engaged with technology. According to Hughes, architects such as Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright "came tantalizingly close" to developing an architecture that reflected the technological nature of America. But it was left to Germans such as Peter Behrens and the architects of the Bauhaus school to articulate fully the aesthetic possibilities of the Machine Age. Hughes depicts the stark, engineered style of German artist Carl Grossberg and shows how Grossberg's paintings subtly undermined the enthusiasm of his architectural colleagues. Hughes documents how American artists and industrial designers from Marcel Duchamp and Charles Sheeler to Margaret Bourke-White and Raymond Loewy were in­spired by and celebrated the engineered world that surrounded them.

Hughes then shows how a more complex and often contentious relationship to technology characterized the work of postwar artists such as painter Willem de Kooning and musician John Cage. These men reacted against the technological values of order and control, choosing instead to use their art to celebrate the disorder that engineers were dedicated to eradicating. The chapter closes by returning to architecture, arguing that postwar American architects such as Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Frank Gehry have achieved a kind of tenuous balance, embracing the tools of modern technology while simultaneously using those tools to create buildings that celebrate a more humane environment of "complexity and contradiction."

Human-Built World concludes with Hughes's call for technologists to strive for the same kind of balance, to create an "ecotechnological environment" that is sensitive to the diversity and complexity of the natural world. He cites the Everglades Restoration Plan, which calls for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reengineer the region back toward its original state in order to increase the flow of pollution-free water into the Everglades, and he lauds the Central Artery/Tunnel in Boston as an exemplar of an engineering project that is as socially and environmentally responsible as it is technologically ambitious and proficient.

Readers who are new to thinking about engineering as it relates to a larger cultural sphere will find this book—particularly its concluding bibliographic essay—a useful introduction to the works of writers and artists who have been inspired or informed by the accomplishments of engineers. Those already acquainted with Hughes's work will find much that is familiar here. Indeed, Human-Built World can be read as an implicit intellectual autobiography.

Hughes, who originally trained as an engineer, effectively initiated his career as a published historian in 1971 with a biography of Elmer Sperry, inventor of gyroscopic controls. Starting from the then-current (and still pervasive) notion that the history of technology is made up of the accomplishments of exceptional men, Hughes used Sperry to present a more nuanced and complicated account of the rise of systems of feedback and control. In his next major work, Networks of Power (1983), Hughes described the development of electric power in America and Europe, painstakingly elaborating the idea that technology consists fundamentally of systems, not freestanding artifacts. He showed how these systems incorporate not just the technological choices embodied in hardware but also the social choices embodied in politics and other extratechnical factors such as environment. His work opened a rich vein, and a slew of subsequent case studies on the social construction of technological systems resulted, as historians and sociologists mined more fully this valuable intellectual resource. Hughes followed with the popular survey American Genesis (1989), which brought his approach to a wider audience, and he extrapolated his method into the postwar period through a series of case studies of engineering projects published as Rescuing Prometheus (1998).

Many of the scholars who have been inspired by Hughes have led the history of technology in directions that he has chosen not to pursue. Aspects of technology located outside the spheres of activity that were formally codified in the 19th century as "engineering" play no role in his accounts, and he remains a historian of engineering and design. Issues of use or consumption are thus of little interest to him, and his "human-built world" is strictly a man-made world where women have virtually nothing significant to contribute. He also works with a notion of "culture" that is limited to the kinds of things that end up in museums. Technology and culture come together for Hughes primarily when great artists are stimulated by the former to produce the latter in the form of aesthetically significant buildings and pictures. There are many other ways to articulate connections between technology and culture, but they are not encountered in this book.

So be it. Human-Built World is the third book in the University of Chicago Press's series on science and culture, which offers concise works for a general readership that embrace each author's personal vision of his or her subject. Human-Built World is just that, the personal perspective of a scholar who has not only dedicated his career to understanding 20th-century technology, but also exemplified the practice of the history of technology in that century.—Emily Thompson, Visiting Scholar, Program in Science, Technology, and Society, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

 

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