In real science, invention often turns out to be the mother of necessity

Technology Matters
December 1, 2006

Science Finds - Industry Applies - Man Conforms." The slogan was coined by the organisers of the World's Fair in Chicago in 1933, but it is still a good summary of one widespread view of our relationship with technology. Not the least virtue of David Nye's little book is that it gives a clear view of why the common notion the slogan sells is usually wrong.

It does a lot more, too. Nye, long one of the most interesting historians of technology, here takes on the serious academic's duty to put the main things he knows into one volume for the general reader. And he does a fine job of distilling a lifetime's scholarly study into a readable set of chapter-length essays.

This is more impressive because the topic is so vast. Newspaper supplements nowadays equate technology with computers, mobile phones and the internet.

There is, of course, much more to it than that. In Nye's vision it spans the first hewing of axes from flints, perhaps one and a half million years ago, and the modern world of immensely complex and ramified sociotechnical systems such as the airline network, the power grid and, yes, the internet.

The term stands for all the ways humans remodel their environments - and themselves - through their powers of invention.

He proceeds with a series of ten questions, each dealt with, though not resolved, in a chapter. They pass from how to define technology through general matters such as whether technology determines social forms or the other way round, and how predictable it is, to recent pressing concerns about ecology, employment and global security.

He closes with a comment on possible futures. The conclusion is that the continuing claims about "inevitable outcomes", whether the result is a uniform globalised culture, an evolutionary succession by intelligent machines, or environmental or military disaster, are all wrongheaded.

History and circumstance constrain, as ever, but there is also always choice.

As this suggests, the view he develops is that technology promotes social evolution but is shaped by social choices. It is easy to perceive it as determining its own deployment because "people become enmeshed in a web of technical choices made for them by their ancestors". But while there may be cases where unstoppable momentum builds in a particular direction, this is always the outcome of choices that the historian can revisit. Often, no one has any real idea what a new invention is good for, and ultimate uses are a surprise. Look at the early head-scratching about what one might do with a phonograph, a telephone or a personal computer, and it becomes apparent that "invention is the mother of necessity". As well as a nifty way with a phrase, Nye is good at presenting just enough detail in his examples to make his point but no more. They are usually examples that lay bare the links between technology, imagination and narrative. Using a tool means being able to conceive of a changed situation and how to bring it about.

"Ultimately, the meaning of a tool is inseparable from the stories that surround it." And he shows how contending stories often attend the early days of new technologies.

He leans more towards physical technologies - electric power, transport, mass manufacture - than chemical or biological ones, and mainly focuses on the 19th and early 20th centuries. But he has also been paying attention to more recent information technology, and to recent developments in technology assessment and attempts at democratic discussion of technical choice such as consensus conference and deliberative polling.

Coincidentally, another doyen of the field has also recently delivered a one-volume distillation of the history of technology. Like Nye, Thomas Hughes, in his even slimmer Human Built World (Chicago, 2004), draws on a wide range of writing about technology, and rejects technological determinism, but he says more about cultural responses to technology, less about specific episodes of technological development. The two are equally erudite and the results nicely complementary. Hughes clearly thinks so as he provides a generous recommendation for Nye's book. Anyone even casually interested in technology, which as it defines so many of the possibilities of human lives must mean just about everyone, will profit from reading both. Students would find either an excellent starting point, though Hughes's bibliographic notes are more useful than Nye's.

The appeal of technology is easy to grasp. So, in this century, is the doubt we may feel about the benefits. Nye sums up the reasons well at the start of the book, in a sentence that also conveys why, despite our efforts at technology assessment, ideas of controlling or managing technology are liable to be frustrated: "Latent in every tool are unforeseen transformations."

Jon Turney is course leader for the MSc in creative non-fiction at Imperial College London.

Technology Matters: Questions to Live With

Author - David E. Nye
Publisher - MIT Press
Pages - 280
Price - £18.95
ISBN - 0 262 14093 4

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