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BOOK REVIEW

The Fault, Dear Brutus . . .

David Hart

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 issues, too.

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 computer scientists.

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.


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