I started thinking about this in much the usual way: first, asking myself what I thought about that and writing down a few things that came to mind, then thinking about how one might find out about those several linked subjects, starting with books on shelves at home. I started leafing through several of those, thinking about the idea of the cultural, moral, political neutrality of technology, and it occurred to me to look for critics of various specific technologies, like...
That led me to my own past in these realms, and so to the Whole Earth Catalog and its offshoots CoEvolution Quarterly and (CQ's successor) Whole Earth Review, and that sent me to the attic to find the box containing my collection of back issues of the magazine (which was hands-down my favorite through the 1970s and pretty much the 1980s, though I haven't read it much in the last 10 years --it got too New Agey for me). And I found the box with my collection of Whole Earth Catalogs, too.
The first issue of WER I happened to pick up was the 20th anniversary one, with a lot of short articles from former contributors and staffers about what they were doing now (that 'now' was 1989), and it was a fascinating springboard into thinking about and searching for other material to read.
So once again comes the order to "fan out!", to look at a whole lot of things that are more or less related to the question that started the day (?what about Americans and Technology?). I grabbed a couple of books in Leyburn:
In the Absence of the Sacredand hauled them off to peruse.
Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television
and Wendell Berry's The Unsettling of America
It also occurred to me to see what I could find about particular utopians of the 1970s, like Stephen Gaskin, founder of The Farm. Probably not a line I'll follow up, though the strain of utopian thought is certainly quintessentially American, and often has a pretty clear technological bent, one way or the other.
It's tempting to see things as dichotomies, though this sort of view reduces complexities that are often the really interesting arenas. Cowan makes an interesting case for Romanticism as a prominent strain in thinking on and around technology, and it's pretty easy to oppose Thorovian 'machinery-destroys-nature and robs people of skills, creativity, freedom' to the boosterism of technocrats and scientific managers who trumpet Nature tamed, material success, prosperity... And indeed both viewpoints have plenty of proponents. I've extracted some material from Wendell Berry (including some quotations from Thomas Jefferson), and I'm on the lookout for more of that sort of thing.
The notion of Progress, and especially its inevitability, crops up in this connection. Here's a link to a brief digression on the Whig view of history.
One of the trails I could follow (but probably won't just now) has to do with material on the down side of computers and computing. I have encountered several books that seem like they belong in that category --they are at the very least cautionary/debunking, and it's interesting to think about how one might set about making a systematic set of them. There are positive books, too, of course (Negroponte, Rheingold, Dyson might fit into that heading --as does the magazine Wired).
The trip to the library that found that thread also turned up one that I'd seen when it first came out:
AUTHOR Kern, Stephen. TITLE The culture of time and space 1880-1918 / Stephen Kern. PUBLISHER Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1983. SUBJECT Technology and civilization. Space and time. Civilization, Modern -- 19th century. Civilization, Modern -- 20th century. Leyburn Library CB478 .K46 1983This book opens with a passage that's absolutely right on the money of what we're attempting to grapple with in this course:
From around 1880 to the outbreak of World War I as series of sweeping changes in technology and culture created distinctive new modes of thinking about and experiencing time and space. Technological innovations including the telephone, wireless telegraph, x-ray, cinema, bicycle, automobile, and airplane established the material foundation for this reorientation; independent cultural developments such as the stream-of-consciousness novel, psychoanalysis, Cubism, and the theory of relativity shaped consciousness directly. The result was a transformation of the dimensions of life and thought..." (Introduction, pp 1-2)A passage illustrating this general point concerns the telephone:
The effect of the telephone on the past and present was recognized at once --it eliminated the preservation of the past in letters and expanded the spatial range of the present. But there was little recognition of the impact of the telephone on the experience of the future. The historian Herbert Casson, writing in 1910, touched on the subject. He noted that "with the use of the telephone has come a new habit of mind. the slow and sluggish mood has been sloughed off... life has become more tense, alert, vivid. the brain has been relieved of the suspense of waiting for an answer... It receives its reply at once and is set free to consider other matters." Actually it had a far more complex effect. In comparison with written communication or face-to-face visits the telephone increased the imminence and importance of the immediate future and accentuated both its active and expectant modes, depending whenther one was placing or receiving a call. A call is not only more immediate than a letter but more unpredictable, for the telephone may ring at any time. It is a surprise and therefore more disruptive, demanding immediate attention... (91)Incidentally, an excellent source on the perception of the influence of the telephone is:
AUTHOR Pool, Ithiel de Sola, 1917- TITLE Forecasting the telephone : a retrospective technology assessment PUBLISHER Norwood, N.J. : ABLEX Pub., c1983. SUBJECT Technology assessment. Technological forecasting. Telephone. Science Library T174.5 .P66 1983