The Fault, Dear Brutus . . .
Technology Matters: Questions to Live With. David E. Nye.
xvi + 282 pp. The MIT Press, 2006. $27.95.
The chapter titles of David Nye's new book pose a series of big
questions: "Can We Define 'Technology?'," "Does
Technology Control Us?," "Sustainable Abundance, or
Ecological Crisis?" These three examples (of 11 total chapters)
convey the book's flavor and ambition. Nye takes the reader on an
exploration of a wide range of issues that perplex anyone who has
thought hard about the world humanity has built in the years since
our distant ancestors first sharpened arrowheads.
Nye provides insights, not answers—these are "questions
to live with," after all. Fortunately, he is eminently well
placed to tackle his queries. Last year, he was awarded the Leonardo
da Vinci Medal by the Society for the History of Technology for a
life-time of scholarly achievements, including his prize-winning
1992 book, Electrifying America.
Technology Matters encapsulates decades of debate among
historians of technology on Nye's big questions. Nye also engages
re-lated disciplines such as philosophy and cultural studies, and he
considers how the world beyond the ivory tower thinks about these
At the book's core lies an argument against technological
determinism, the view that society must follow a narrow path laid
down by the requirements of the tools it uses. The slogan of the
1933 Chicago "Century of Progress" Exposition expressed
the determinist view pithily: "Science Finds, Industry Applies,
Man Conforms." (Or as Karl Marx put it, "The handmill
gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with
the industrial capitalist.") Nye notes that determinists may be
opti-mists who delight in the inevitable march of progress or
pessimists who anticipate imminent catastrophe. Both are equally
wrong. There are, he concludes, many possible outcomes, not just
one; the future will be what we, not our machines, make it.
Nye cites a wealth of historical examples to demonstrate that
diverse social arrangements are compatible with similar
tech-nologies and that technologies evolve in response to society,
rather than vice versa. Take the bicycle. As it moved from being a
toy for the wealthy to a tool of the masses in the late 19th
century, it simultaneously became a vehicle for gender equality. Nye
quotes Susan B. Anthony: "Bicycling . . .
has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I
stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel."
More recently, Denmark (where Nye worked for many years) has
selected social institutions and technological sys-tems that
facilitate transportation by bicycle. In the United States, on the
other hand, lawmakers and planners have marginal-ized bikes in favor
of cars, in part because of unfounded beliefs about the
inevitability of "progress" in transportation technol-ogy.
Nye, following his fellow historian Thomas P. Hughes, accepts that
technologies, especially large systems, can gain mo-mentum, making
them hard to resist. Clearly, the United States cannot choose to
abandon its automotive-centered transpor-tation system
precipitously. Too many people rely on it for too many reasons. Yet,
Nye reminds us, surprises are possible, even for technologies with a
lot of momentum. The builders of systems rarely anticipate all of
the ways in which their crea-tions will be employed and, perhaps
more importantly, what they will come to mean in the eyes of users.
Indeed, as Nye discusses, the record of technological prediction and
forecasting is rather dismal.
Given Nye's celebration of the creativity of designers and users of
technology and his adamant espousal of social choice over
technological determinism, the later chapters of the book, in which
he takes up contemporary hot-button issues and strays furthest from
his domain of expertise, are disappointing. The titles frame
questions simplistically—"Cultural Uni-formity, or
Diversity?" and "More Security, or Escalating
Dangers?," for example—and his responses lose their
subtlety. He sometimes relies on pop culture sources that he
criticizes elsewhere in the book and even conflates fictional
representa-tions with real-world analysis. For instance, in his
chapter "Expanding Consciousness, or Encapsulation?," Nye
discusses artificial intelligence as it has been imagined by
science-fiction writers such as Philip K. Dick and William Gibson,
rather than as it has been realized—rather poorly—by
This section of the book would be stronger if Nye had a more
sophisticated view of the process of technological choice and
engaged more seriously with scholarship in political science and
economics. He writes glowingly of the now-defunct Congressional
Office of Technology Assessment, for example, without analyzing its
marginal role in legislative decision-
making. He calls for more regulation of new technology without
considering the prospect of "capture" by regulated
inter-ests that may use their power to stifle competitors. (Breaking
the hold of "Ma Bell" over its regulators, for instance,
has led to rapid price decline and far greater consumer choice in
telephone service in recent decades.) He criticizes the market as an
institution for making technological choices without a careful
appraisal of its strengths as well as its weaknesses. For a
historian of his erudition, Nye too often falls into the trap of
generalizing when nuance and specificity are called for.
So, in one sense, at least, Technology Matters achieves its
goal of providing a fair introduction to discussions of technology
within history and the humanities more broadly. Like these debates,
the book is both enlightening and maddening.