Visions of Technology: A Century of Vital Debate about Machines Systems and the Human World [NOOK Book]


Technology was the blessing and the bane of the twentieth century. Human life span nearly doubled in the West, but in no century were more human beings killed by new technologies of war. Improvements in agriculture now feed increasing billions, but pesticides and chemicals threaten to poison the earth. Does technology improve us or diminish us? Enslave us or make us free? With this first-ever collection of the essential twentieth-century writings on technology, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Richard Rhodes ...
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Visions of Technology: A Century of Vital Debate about Machines Systems and the Human World

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Technology was the blessing and the bane of the twentieth century. Human life span nearly doubled in the West, but in no century were more human beings killed by new technologies of war. Improvements in agriculture now feed increasing billions, but pesticides and chemicals threaten to poison the earth. Does technology improve us or diminish us? Enslave us or make us free? With this first-ever collection of the essential twentieth-century writings on technology, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Richard Rhodes explores the optimism, ambivalence, and wrongheaded judgments with which Americans have faced an ever-shifting world.

Visions of Technology collects writings on events from the Great Exposition of 1900 and the invention of the telegraph to the advent of genetic counseling and the defeat of Garry Kasparov by IBM's chess-playing computer, Deep Blue. Its gems of opinion and history include Henry Ford on the horseless carriage, Robert Caro on the transformation of New York City, J. Robert Oppenheimer on science and war, Loretta Lynn on the Pill and much more. Together, they chronicle an unprecedented century of change.
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Editorial Reviews

Scientific American
[Rhodes] excerpts the writing of many people who either helped to develop technology or pondered its impact; his selections make rewarding reading.
Jeff Pooley
The book reads like a condensed history of technologytold through the strained voices of those who marvel — or cower — at its impact. —Brill's Content
Scientific American
[Rhodes] excerpts the writing of many people who either helped to develop technology or pondered its impact; his selections make rewarding reading.
Karl Giberson
...[A]n eclectic collection of 200 brief excerpts providing a series of chronologically arranged perspectives on the technological advances of the century just ending. The tale is extraordinary, considering the fact that it can all be told within the lifetime of our oldest citizens.
Books & Culture: A Christian Review
Jeff Pooley
The book reads like a condensed history of technology, told through the strained voices of those who marvel — or cower — at its impact.
Brill's Content
Time Digital
...Rhodes has gathered a varied and fascinating set of writings on the 20th century's machines.
Kirkus Reviews
An anthology of short takes on the century's progress in invention/technology, selected and presented chronologically by a prize-winning writer who himself has contributed to the history of technology (e.g., Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, 1995). The result is a mixed bag, leaving the reader frustrated (why this and not that) and querulous (where are we headed? what is the point?). Some selections celebrate moments of discovery; others discourse on the meaning and implications of an innovation, making value judgments. But, as he says at the outset, "The deep truth about the debate that fills this book is that it's a debate among the orthodox. No one, not even the Unabomber, has proposed a return to a Hobbesian garden of the primates." So science and technology (the distinction blurs) emerge as the inevitable fallout of our enlarged brains. As for the limits, turn of the century writers like Henry Adams voiced fear of the dynamo, Samuel Gompers worried that the new industrial efficiencies were "producing wealth but grinding man"-themes that recur as the century develops. In due course, Rhodes gives us Oppenheimer confessing that scientists "have known sin," and Newton Minow lamenting TV's "vast wasteland." There are also the daring visions and realities of the Pill, the transistor, the laser, and the artificial intelligence pursuits of Herbert Simon and Marvin Minsky. In short, the 20th century is a technological dream-or nightmare, depending on your point of view. A serious omission is medical advances (because Rhodes says they are so well attended). Beginning with the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953, molecular biology and its applications have become thetechnological movers and shakers in the late 20th century-and of the century to come. In the end, Rhodes has given us a collection of trees (with some species missing). Pity, because with a little more effort and more than cursory commentary he could have created pathways leading to a forest of ideas.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781439129555
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 9/18/2012
  • Sold by: SIMON & SCHUSTER
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 536,003
  • File size: 6 MB

Meet the Author

Richard Rhodes has published twenty-four previous works of history, fiction, and letters. A Kansas native, he lives above Half Moon Bay, California.
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Read an Excerpt

From Part III, POST-WAR BOOM: 1945-1970


JOHN H. GLENN, JR., 1962

Technology projects human beings into new situations rarely or never experienced before. In the nineteenth century, some observers feared the great speeds that railroading made possible -- fifteen miles per hour and more -- might exceed what the human frame could bear. Orbital spaceflight -- the astronaut continually falling around the earth -- produces extended weightlessness, a condition not previously known on earth. John Glenn recalls the experience from his first historic orbital flight. He fared better than most; more than half the astronauts who followed him into space would experience nausea and vertigo during their first twenty-four hours of weightlessness.

Zanzibar was the next tracking station, and here the flight surgeon who was on duty came on the air to discuss how I was doing physically. I gave him a blood-pressure reading....The doctor also asked me what physical reactions, if any, I had experienced so far from weightlessness. I was able to tell him that there had been none at all; I assured him that I felt fine. I had had no trouble reaching accurately for the controls and switches. There had been no tendency to get awkward and overreach them, as some people had thought there might be. I could hit directly any spot that I wanted to hit. I had an eye chart on board, a small version of the kind you find in doctors' offices, and I had no trouble reading the same line of type each time. After making a few slow movements with my head to see if this brought on a feeling of disorientation, I even tried to induce a little dizzines are no longer merely the calcium and silica and copper and all the rest of the minerals washed out of the rocks and carried in rivers to the sea; they are the synthetic creations of man's inventive mind, brewed in his laboratories, and having no counterparts in nature.

To adjust to these chemicals would require time on the scale that is nature's; it would require not merely the years of a man's life but the life of generations. And even this, were it by some miracle possible, would be futile, for the new chemicals come from our laboratories in an endless stream; almost five hundred annually find their way into actual use in the United States alone. The figure is staggering and its implications are not easily grasped -- 500 new chemicals to which the bodies of men and animals are required somehow to adapt each year, chemicals totally outside the limits of biologic experience.

Among them are many that are used in man's war against nature. Since the mid-1940s over 200 basic chemicals have been created for use in killing insects, weeds, rodents and other organisms described in the modern vernacular as "pests"; and they are sold under several thousand different brand names.

These sprays, dusts, and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests, and homes -- nonselective chemicals that have the power to kill every insect, the "good" and the "bad," to still the song of birds and the leaping of fish in the streams, to coat the leaves with a deadly film, and to linger on in soil -- all this though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects. Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit fo r all life? They should not be called "insecticides," but "biocides."

...Along with the possibility of the extinction of mankind by nuclear war, the central problem of our age has therefore become the contamination of man's total environment with such substances of incredible potential for harm -- substances that accumulate in the tissues of plants and animals and even penetrate the germ cells to shatter or alter the very material of heredity upon which the shape of the future depends.

Some would-be architects of our future look toward a time when it will be possible to alter the human germ plasm by design. But we may easily be doing so now by inadvertence, for many chemicals, like radiation, bring about gene mutations. It is ironic to think that man might determine his own future by something so seemingly trivial as the choice of an insect spray.

All this has been risked -- for what? Future historians may well be amazed by our distorted sense of proportion. How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind? Yet this is precisely what we have done. We have done it, moreover, for reasons that collapse the moment we examine them. We are told that the enormous and expanding use of pesticides is necessary to maintain farm production. Yet is our real problem not one of overproduction? Our farms, despite measures to remove acreages from production and to pay farmers not to produce, have yielded such a staggering excess of crops that the American taxpayer in 1962 is paying out more than one billion dollars a year as the total carrying cost of the surp lus-food storage program. And is the situation helped when one branch of the Agriculture Department tries to reduce production while another states, as it did in 1958, "It is believed generally that reduction of crop acreages under provisions of the Soil Bank will stimulate interest in use of chemicals to obtain maximum production on the land retained in crops."

All this is not to say there is no insect problem and no need of control. I am saying, rather, that control must be geared to realities, not to mythical situations, and that the methods employed must be such that they do not destroy us along with the insects.



The author of Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962, and the same year published his genial report on a trip around the U.S. by camper truck, Travels With Charley, from which these observations on the burgeoning interstate highway system and on interstate trucking are taken.

Trucks as long as freighters went roaring by, delivering a wind like a blow of a fist. These great roads are wonderful for moving goods but not for inspection of a countryside. You are bound to the wheel and your eyes to the car ahead and to the rear-view mirror for the car behind and the side mirror for the car or truck about to pas, and at the same time you must read all the signs for fear you may miss some instructions or orders. No roadside stands selling squash juice, no antique stores, no farm products or factory outlets. When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to Califo rnia without seeing a single thing.

At intervals there are places of rest and recreation, food, fuel and oil, postcards, steam-table food, picnic tables, garbage cans all fresh and newly painted, rest rooms and lavatories so spotless, so incensed with deodorants and with detergents that it takes time to get your sense of smell back....

It is life at a peak of some kind of civilization. The restaurant accommodations, great scallops of counters with simulated leather stools, are as spotless as and not unlike the lavatories. Everything that can be captured and held down is sealed in clear plastic. The food is oven-fresh, spotless and tasteless; untouched by human hands. I remembered with an ache certain dishes in France and Italy touched by innumerable human hands.

These centers for rest, food and replenishment are kept beautiful with lawns and flowers. At the front, nearest the highway, are parking places for passenger automobiles together with regiments of gasoline pumps. At the rear the trucks draw up, and there they have their services -- the huge overland caravans. Being technically a truck, Rocinante [i.e., Steinbeck's camper] took her place in the rear, and I soon made acquaintance with the truckers. They are a breed set apart from the life around them, the long-distance truckers. In some town or city somewhere their wives and children live while the husbands traverse the nation carrying every kind of food and product and machine. They are clannish and they stick together, speaking a specialized language. And although I was a small craft among monsters of transportation they were kind to me and helpful.

I learned that in the truck parks there are showers and soap and towels -- that I cou ld park and sleep at night if I wished. The men had little commerce with local people, but being avid radio listeners they could report news and politics from all parts of the nation. The food and fuel centers on the parkways or thruways are leased by the various states, but on other highways private enterprise has truckers' stations that offer discounts on fuel, beds, baths and places to sit and shoot the breeze. But being a specialized group, leading special lives, associating only with their own kind, they would have made it possible for me to cross the country without talking to a local town-bound man. For the truckers cruise over the surface of the nation without being a part of it. Of course in the towns where their families live they have whatever roots are possible -- clubs, dances, love affairs and murders.

I liked the truckers very much, as I always like specialists. By listening to them talk I accumulated a vocabulary of the road, of tires and springs, of overweight. The truckers over long distances have stations along their routes where they know the service men and the waitresses behind the counters, and where occasionally they meet their opposite numbers in other trucks. The great get-together symbol is the cup of coffee....

Quite often I sat with these men and listened to their talk and now and then I asked questions. I soon learned not to expect knowledge of the country they passed through. Except for the truck stops, they had no contact with it. It was driven home to me how like sailors they were. I remember when I first went to sea being astonished that the men who sailed over the world and touched the ports to the strange and exotic had little contact with that world. Some of the truckers on long hauls traveled in pairs and took their turns. The one off duty slept or read paperbacks. But on the roads their interests were engines, and weather, and maintaining the speed that makes the predictable schedule possible. Some of them were on regular runs back and forth while others moved over single operations. It is a whole pattern of life, little known to the settled people along the routes of the great trucks.

Copyright © 1999 by Richard Rhodes

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Richard Rhodes

The Western world has argued passionately about technology -- what it is, where it's going, whether it's good or bad for us -- throughout the twentieth century, even while inventing it at a ferocious and accelerating rate. This anthology samples that vital debate, drawing primarily on American sources. It's an impressionistic sampling. It had to be, given the sheer volume of statements, articles, books and documents generated across a hundred years. I sorted for variety, for felicity and succinctness of expression, for range not only of subject but also of mood. I looked for humor to balance solemnity, prediction to balance explication, recollection to balance abstraction. I included a share of the canonical texts all of us have heard (or, sometimes, misheard) -- H. G. Wells's prediction of atomic bombs, Arthur C. Clarke's vision of geosynchrony, Murphy's Law, Moore's Law, the silent spring of Rachel Carson. I left out most commentary on medicine, which is regularly attended because of its mortal impact on our lives. Something you think should be here is probably missing; but I hope you will also be surprised by what you find. If my witching methods work, drinking from this particular Pierian spring may at least leave you thirsty to explore the original texts, a mighty river of discourse. Those texts are referenced in the bibliography that begins on page 381.

I could pretend innocence of America's environmental and cultural wars and say that technology is human making. At first inspection, it is that -- from lemon pie to computer chips, from plowshares to gene sequencers. Along with language, it's what distinguishes us from the otheWe swim in technology as fish swim in the sea, depend on it from birth to final hours, but many of us trust it only in its older and more familiar guises. Recent technology is more often seen as a threat -- to our jobs, our health, our values -- than a blessing. Even public health takes its lumps; I've had otherwise decent people, people who donate a share of their worldly goods to feed the poor, tell me that saving all those lives just crowds the planet. Your life too, I argue, and they nod guiltily, embarrassed but unwilling to concede the point.

Technological wariness is an enduring disturbance, with roots in religion. Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humans carries the sense of it; so does the serpent persuading Eve to taste the knowledgeable apple, and the Jewish myth of the Golem, a Frankenstein's monster animated by incorporations of holy words. (Stanislaw Ulam, the Polish mathematician who conceived the design breakthrough that led to the development of the U.S. hydrogen bomb, once told MIT polymath Norbert Wiener that the Golem had been in his family, since he was a descendant of the rabbi supposed to have constructed it; Wiener, thinking of the Bomb, responded, "It still is.") Technology competes with the gods at miracle-working and the gods take revenge: no wonder we're nervous about it. At its most fundamental, our distress probably reflects angst at automata, at organized systems without souls, like nature itself in its destructive and predatory forms -- isn't that why we argue whether computers can think?

C. P. Snow, the English physicist and novelist, identified more specific hostility toward technology among intellectuals, particularly literary intellectual s, in his well-known 1959 lectures on "The Two Cultures." Such hostility becomes obvious when you survey the literature; it's obvious in this book, and not because I biased the sample. To the contrary, appreciation of technology among intellectuals not technologically trained was hard to find. Since many intellectuals are concerned with social justice and not devoid of ordinary compassion, it's surprising that they don't value technology; by any fair assessment, it has reduced suffering and improved welfare across the past hundred years. Why doesn't this net balance of benevolence inspire at least grudging enthusiasm for technology among intellectuals?

Snow traced the conflict to class differences that widened with the progress of the industrial revolution. I've included an excerpt from that discussion at its appropriate place in this book. The landed classes resisted the revolution, Snow notes, since it threatened their predominately agricultural interests. The new industrialists and engineers emerged from the craft and working classes. The landed classes neglected technical education, taking refuge in classical studies; as late as 1930, for example, long after Ernest Rutherford at Cambridge had discovered the atomic nucleus and begun transmuting elements, the physics laboratory at Oxford University had not yet been wired for electricity. Intellectuals neglect technical education to this day. Since most intellectuals aren't from upper-class backgrounds, Snow seems to be implying that their hostility to technology results from aping their betters -- not a very generous assessment.

Given the pervasiveness of the intellectual bias against technology, technologists are probably justified in conclud ing that it derives in some measure from technical and scientific illiteracy as well as jealousy and competition for influence. But such conclusions risk trivializing the debate -- much as do intellectuals' tiresome accusations that greed is the technologist's primary motivation for enterprise. If the record of technological innovation in this century is, on balance, clearly positive, it's also true that technologists have been prodigal at excusing themselves from moral responsibility for weapons of mass destruction, pollution and other well-known horrors.

They do so in part by refusing to acknowledge the extent to which belief systems intrude into their operations. Claims that a "technical imperative" drives technological change, for example, much as an invisible hand is supposed to drive the capitalist marketplace, fall into this category. The recent literary-intellectual assault on science as an arbitrary construction no more anchored in the real world than any other religious or social institution is an extreme but predictable consequence of such denial. The assault has found support precisely because the scientific and technological community has chosen to deny knowledge of its own complicity in installing and maintaining structural violence. Structural violence -- violence such as racial discrimination that is built into the structure of societies -- remains the largest-scale and most intractable form of violence left in a world where knowledge of how to release nuclear energy has foreclosed world war. As methodologies, science and technology are demonstrably objective and effective; but they're unquestionably bound up with power relations as social systems.

All this is to anticipate the v ital and continuing debate I've sampled in this book. I'm reluctant to generalize from my sample. It's designed to be an animated performance of itself, its four parts anchored in the major events that set its terms. Enthusiasm for technology grew among technologists in the first quarter of the century as the expanding mass production of consumer goods, particularly automobiles, created great wealth. But critics attacked the application of technology to industrial production even before the First World War showed how technology could mass-produce slaughter (one theorist described the machine gun, the basic killing tool of the war, as "concentrated essence of infantry"). The Great Depression shifted the debate from industrial to social transformation, borrowing metaphors and solutions from technology even as technology was challenged. By the end of the Second World War the shift from an agricultural to a technological society was essentially complete. The second half of the century filled in the spaces while a new transformation to an electronically based information technology began -- to reach its maturity, presumably, in the twenty-first century now opening.

These tidal highs and lows hardly obscure the persistent, continuing enlargement of the influence of science and technology on human affairs. By whatever measure you choose, science and technology came to dominate the human project in the twentieth century. Public health more than doubled the average lifespan. The discovery of how to release nuclear energy made world-scale war suicidal. Birth control subdued the Malthusian multiplication of human population. Agriculture fed the multitudes. Electronics wired the world and put human communicat ion beyond the reach of tyranny. Manned vessels of discovery cast off beyond the earth; automated voyagers -- notes in high-tech bottles -- even escaped the solar system. At the same time, human activities drove a catastrophic decline in species diversity and began global warming; from a wild place the earth became a garden, well tended in some districts, ruthlessly exploited in others. The evolutionary neural enlargement that spun out technology (which imitates evolution culturally, propagating in memes rather than in genes) is not only open ended; it's also myopic, which makes invention and application acts of faith. The deep truth about the debate that fills this book is that it's a debate among the orthodox, a debate about speed limits and barricades rather than the necessity of the quest. No one, not even the Unabomber, has proposed a return to the Hobbesian garden of the primates.

Visions of Technology originated in discussions among the members of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Technology Book Series advisory committee. In the midst of commissioning histories of major twentieth-century technologies, we realized that there must also be a thick vein of debate about technology to be mined into a book, and that such a book might serve as a meta-history of the effect of technological change on the twentieth-century human world. Fools walk in where angels fear to tread: I volunteered to assemble an anthology provided a professional historian could be found to join me in the work. Elting E. Morison agreed to undertake that partnership. Unfortunately, his final illness intervened before he could contribute beyond reading and approving the initial proposal I drafted. His participation would h ave broadened the range of selections and enriched the running commentary. It wasn't to be. I wish it had been.

I planned at the outset to arrange selections by theme within their roughly quarter-century periods. That plan foundered on the breadth of issues many contributors explore. Finally, chronology alone seemed adequate and appropriate; I try to sketch themes and connections in my introductory comments. Chronology -- usually of publication, occasionally of subject matter -- reveals characteristic preoccupations and repetitions with minimal anachronism. It exposes, for example, the crisis of confidence in technology that arose with the Great Depression, the challenge to technology the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s launched, the recurring testing of links between innovation and job loss.The result is a species of textual archeology, levels exposed from the earliest to the most recent in turn. The index cross-references them; the bibliography points to the original source.

Thanks to Paul Kennedy, who recommended my editorial associate Stephen Kim. Stephen spent two summers sorting through the first half of the century in the stacks and archives of Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University. Jeff Wheelwright then contributed from his own extensive experience and archives as a science writer and from library investigations into the second half of the century. I consulted the distinguished members of the advisory committee and queried Technology Book Series contributors, but minimized overlap with their books. I've been reading about technology since early childhood and reporting and writing about it for more than thirty years, and obviously drew on that knowledge and experience as well.

Here then is a chronological and topical range of twentieth-century assessments of what technology is, who does it, how it works and what values it sustains.


MAY 1993-JUNE 1998

Copyright © 1999 by Richard Rhodes

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