How to get the best of us into our creations

Human-Built World
March 4, 2005

Few academics have obeyed Marx's call to change the world, rather than just interpret it. Thomas Hughes, the doyen of technological history, despises "Marxist moral arrogance", but he is a man with a mission. Human-Built World is a manifesto designed to educate the "technologically illiterate" and goad them into decision-making. Good citizens, asserts Hughes, must exert control over long-term planning processes and ensure that the right values are embodied in our environment.

He urges us to take responsibility for our overly complex techno-society, in which systems managers have become mess managers, unable to prevent "normal accidents" - cascading series of failures with potentially catastrophic outcomes, such as Chernobyl and Challenger .

Although dealing with technology, this book avoids technical details and includes far more pictures of people than machines (including a photograph of Chartres Cathedral to illustrate Henry Adams's comparison of the Virgin Mary with an electric dynamo). Writing with a guru's confidence, Hughes distils 50 years of distinguished research into prescriptions for improving our surroundings - and hence our lives. He is at his best depicting technology as a Janus-faced being that may successfully convert deserts into new Gardens of Eden, but can also display a Mephistophelian disregard for humanity. Henry Ford was celebrated by US capitalists, but he also became an inspirational figurehead for Hitler and Lenin as they sought to realise their own, very different, dystopian visions.

Hughes berates "technological fixes" that are financially profitable but ecologically ruinous. His prime example of how such schemes can be reversed is the Kissimmee River Restoration Project in Florida. In the 1960s, although engineers managed to reduce floods by constructing a massive canal complex, they precipitated an unforeseen catalogue of environmental disasters. Recently, stimulated by public concern, administrators have enrolled ecologists to help launch a ten-year plan to undo the human-wrought damage.

Sandwiched between his polemical introduction and conclusion lie four chapters summarising 150 years of "techno-logy as a creative process involving human ingenuity". Rather than focusing on structures, Hughes concentrates on attitudes towards them, outlining sociologists'

pronouncements as well as artists' representations. He drives his narrative by presenting mini-accounts of scholars and artists, which results in a book that feels compressed yet contains superfluous biographical information about these elite commentators while revealing little about the individuals building and using machines.

A more accurate title for this book would be Human-Built America, with a Little Bit about Germany . This is not just a Eurocentric gripe, but a regret that in what appears to be his life statement, Hughes did not reflect on the differing attitudes towards technology in the US and Europe, especially England, that developed during the 19th century. The inventor Thomas Edison appealed to an American work ethic by remarking that "genius is 1 per cent inspiration, 99 per cent perspiration". Britons, however, reserved the accolade of genius for brain power rather than engine power.

They celebrated Faraday not for fathering the electrical industry, but because he climbed from his artisan origins to create the abstract theory of electromagnetic fields: profiteers got their hands dirty and made machines, but progress was achieved by pure thinkers who rose above mundane ambitions.

Perhaps techno-scepticism (or snootiness?) still flourishes on this side of the Atlantic. One pleasure of reading this book is that it articulates so cogently what green Europeans already desire: buildings and machines that make people feel better through creating a healthier environment for them to live in.

Patricia Fara is a fellow of Clare College, Cambridge.

Human-Built World: How to Think about Technology and Culture

Author - Thomas P. Hughes
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Pages - 223
Price - £16.00
ISBN - 0 226 35933 6

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