Bill Joy?s article starts off a bit slowly, but it moves increasingly toward a crescendo.? The last few pages are filled with insights and concerns about how technology shapes and will shape our lives in the future.? Write down two or three of these key insights or concerns and contemplate and/or analyze their significance.
2 Technology and the Future he sees as the right-wing bias of contemporary technology. Finally, Samuel Florman, an engineer and humanist, proposes an
alternative approach, a ?tragic? view that recognizes the role of
technology in human life, including its limits.
The reader looking for unequivocal answers to the problems
posed by technology will not find them here. On the whole, the
articles in this section, like those in the remainder of the book,
raise many more questions than they answer. Does Improved Technology Mean
The concepts of technology and progress have been jirmly linked in
the minds of most Americans for the past 150 years. Only in the
past two decades has the question that Leo Marx asks in his article
?Does Improved Technology Mean Progress?? begun to receive serious
attention in our culture. This question is the perfect starting point for
Technology and the Future. Deceptive in its simplicity, it underlies
most of what follows in this book.
Leo Marx is William R. Kenan Professor of American Cultural
History Emeritus at MIT He is the author of The Machine in the
Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America ( 1964) and
The Pilot and the Passenger: Essays on Literature, Technology and
Culture in the United States (1988). He holds a Ph.D. in history
from Harvard and has taught at that institution and at the University
of Minnesota and Amherst College. He has twice been a Guggenheim
Fellow and was a Rockefeller Humanities Fellow in f983-84. Marx
was born in New York City in 1919.
In this essay (frst published in Technology Review in 1987), he
examines how the concept of progress has itself evolved since the early
days of the Republic and what that evolution means for understanding
the technological choices that confront us today. Improved technology
could mean pogress, Marx concludes, but ?only if we are willing and
able to answer the next question: progress toward what??
Does improved technology mean progress? If some variant of this question had been addressed to a reliable sample of Americans at any time
since the early nineteenth century, the answer of a majority almost
certainly would have been an unequivocal ??yes.? The idea that technological improvements are a primary basis for-and an accurate gauge
of-progress has long been a fundamental belief in the United States. Marx Leo. ?Does Improved Technology Mean
Progress?? Technoloav and the Future Teich,
Albert H (ed.) New York: St. Martin?s Press (1993):
p. 3 - 14. ISBN:031206747 DIT16082103J?DF source: T&nology Review (January 1987), pp. 33-41, 71. Reprinted with permission
from Technology Review, copyright 1987.
lt is a violation of the Iaw to reproduce this selection by any means whatsoever without
the written permission of the copyright holder.
3 -~- . ..-...~..-- -. ..-- -- ---..._...__. --^ -.- .__?. 4 Technology and the Future In the last half-century, however, that belief has lost some of its credibility. A growing minority of Americans has adopted a skeptical,
even negative, view of technological innovation as an index of social
The extent of this change in American attitudes was brought home
to me when I spent October 1984 in China. At that time the announced goal of the People?s Republic was to carry out (in the popular slogan) ?Four Modernizations?-agriculture, science and technology, industry, and the military. What particularly struck our group of
Americans was the seemingly unbounded, largely uncritical ardor with
which the Chinese were conducting their love affair with Westernstyle modernization-individualistic, entrepreneurial, or ?capitalist,?
as well as scientific and technological. Like early nineteenth-century
visitors to the United States, we were witnessing a society in a veritable transport of improvement: long pent-up, innovative energies were
being released, everyone seemed to be in motion, everything was eligible for change. It was assumed that any such change almost certainly
would be for the better.
Most of the Chinese we came to know best-teachers and students
of American studies-explicitly associated the kind of progress represented by the four modernizations with the United States. This respect
for American wealth and power was flattering but disconcerting, for
we often found ourselves reminding the Chinese of serious shortcomings, even some terrible dangers, inherent in the Western mode of
industrial development. Like the Americans whom European travelers
met 150 years ago, many of the Chinese seemed to be extravagantly,
almost blindly, credulous and optimistic.
Our reaction revealed, among other things, a change in our own
culture and, in some cases, in our own personal attitudes. We came
face to face with the gulf that separates the outlook of many contemporary Americans from the old national faith in the advance of
technology as the basis of social progress.
The standard explanation for this change includes that familiar
litany of death and destruction that distinguishes the recent history of
the West: two barbaric world wars, the Nazi holocaust, the Stalinist
terror, and the nuclear arms race. It is striking to note how many
of the fearful events of our time involve the destructive use or misuse, the unforeseen consequences, or the disastrous malfunction of
modern technologies: Hiroshima and the nuclear threat; the damage
inflicted upon the environment by advanced industrial societies; and
spectacular accidents like Three Mile Island. Marx / Does Improved Technology Mean Progress? 5 Conspicuous disasters have helped to undermine the public?s faith in
progress, but there also has been a longer-term change in our thinking.
It is less obvious, less dramatic and tangible than the record of catastrophe that distinguishes our twentieth-century history, but I believe
it is more fundamental. Our very conception-our chief criterion-of
progress has undergone a subtle but decisive change since the founding
of the Republic, and that change is at once a cause and a reflection
of our current disenchantment with technology. To chart this change
in attitude, we need to go back at least as far as the first Industrial
Revolution. THE ENLIGHTENMENT BELIEF IN PROGRESS
The development of radically improved machinery (based on mechanized motive power) used in the new factory system of the late eighteenth century coincided with the formulation and diffusion of the
modem Enlightenment idea of history as a record of progress. This
conception became the fulcrum of the dominant American worldview. It assumes that history, or at least modern history, is driven by
the steady, cumulative, and inevitable expansion of human knowledge of and power over nature. The new scientific knowledge and
technological power was expected to make possible a comprehensive
improvement in all the conditions of life-social, political, moral, and
intellectual as well as material.
The modern idea of progress, as developed by its radical French,
English, and American adherents, emerged in an era of political revolution. It was a revolutionary doctrine, bonded to the radical struggle
for freedom from feudal forms of domination. To ardent republicans
like the French philosopher Condorcet, the English chemist Priestley, and Benjamin Franklin, a necessary criterion of progress was the
achievement of political and social liberation. They regarded the new
sciences and technologies not as ends in themselves, but as instruments for carrying out a comprehensive transformation of society.
The new knowledge and power would provide the basis for alternatives to the deeply entrenched authoritarian, hierarchical institutions
of l?ancien r&me: monarchical, aristocratic, and ecclesiastical. Thus
in 1813 Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Adams describing the combined effect of the new science and the American revolution on the
minds of Europeans: 6 Technology and the Future Marx / Does Improved Technology Mean Progress? 7 Science had liberated the ideas of those who read and reflect, and
the American example had kindled feelings of right in the people. An insurrection has consequently begun, of science, talents,
and courage, against rank and birth, which have fallen into contempt. . . . Science is progressive. I declined it from a principle which has ever weighed with me on
such occasions, namely; viz., that as we enjoy great adwantuges from the
inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others
by any invention of ours, and this we should do freely and generously
[emphasis in original]. Admittedly, the idea of history as endless progress did encourage
extravagantly optimistic expectations, and in its most extreme form,
it fostered some wildly improbable dreams of the ?perfectability of
Man? and of humanity?s absolute mastery of nature. Yet the political
beliefs of the radical republicans of the eighteenth century, such as
the principle of making the authority of government dependent upon
the consent of the governed, often had the effect of limiting those
aspirations to omnipotence.
The constraining effect of such ultimate, long-term political goals
makes itself felt, for example, in Jefferson?s initial reaction to the
prospect of introducing the new manufacturing system to America.
?Let our work-shops remain in Europe,? he wrote in 1785.
Although a committed believer in the benefits of science and technology, Jefferson rejected the idea of developing an American factory
system on the ground that the emergence of an urban proletariat,
which he then regarded as an inescapable consequence of the European factory system, would be too high a price to pay for any potential
improvement in the American material standard of living. He regarded
the existence of manufacturing cities and an industrial working class
as incompatible with republican government and the happiness of the
people. He argued that it was preferable, even if more costly in strictly
economic terms, to ship raw materials to Europe and import manufactured goods. ?The loss by the transportation of commodities across
the Atlantic will be made up in happiness and permanence of government.? In weighing political, moral, and aesthetic costs against
economic benefits, he anticipated the viewpoint of the environmentalists and others of our time for whom the test of a technological
innovation is its effect on the overall quality of life.
Another instance of the constraining effect of republican political
ideals is Benjamin Franklin?s refusal to exploit his inventions for private
profit. Thus Franklin?s reaction when the governor of Pennsylvania urged
him to accept a patent for his successful design of the ?Franklin stove:? What makes the example of Franklin particularly interesting is the
fact that he later came to be regarded as the archetypal self-made
American and the embodiment of the Protestant work ethic. When
Max Weber sought out of all the world the exemplar of that mentality
for his seminal study, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,
whom did he choose but our own Ben? But Franklin?s was a principled
and limited self-interest. In his Autobiography, he told the story of his
rise in the world not to exemplify a merely personal success, but rather
to illustrate the achievements of a ?rising people.? He belonged to
that heroic revolutionary phase in the history of the bourgeoisie when
that class saw itself as the vanguard of humanity and its principles as
universal. He thought of his inventions as designed not for his private
benefit but for the benefit of all. Governor Thomas was so pleased with the construction of this
stove as described in. . . [the pamphlet] that. . . he offered to give
me a patent for the sole vending of them for a term of years; but THE TECHNOCRATIC CONCEPT OF PROGRESS
With the further development of industrial capitalism, a quite different conception of technological progress gradually came to the fore
in the United States. Americans celebrated the advance of science
and technology with increasing fervor, but they began to detach the
idea from the goal of social and political liberation. Many regarded
the eventual attainment of that goal as having been assured by the
victorious American Revolution and the founding of the Republic.
The difference between this later view of progress and that of Jefferson?s and Franklin?s generation can be heard in the rhetoric of
Daniel Webster. He and Edward Everett were perhaps the leading
public communicators of this new version of the progressive ideology.
When Webster decided to become a senator from Massachusetts instead of New Hampshire, the change was widely interpreted to mean
that he had become the quasi-official spokesman for the new industrial
manufacturing interests. Thus Webster, who was generally considered
the nation?s foremost orator, was an obvious choice as the speaker at
the dedication of new railroads. Here is a characteristic peroration of
one such performance in 1847: 8 Technology and the Future It is an extraordinary era in which we live. It is altogether new.
The world has seen nothing like it before. I will not pretend, no
one can pretend, to discern the end; but everybody knows that
the age is remarkable for scientific research into the heavens, the
earth, and what is beneath the earth; and perhaps more remarkable
still for the application of this scientific research to the pursuits of
life. . . . We see the ocean navigated and the solid land traversed by
steam power, and intelligence communicated by electricity. Truly
this is almost a miraculous era. What is before us no one can say,
what is upon us no one can hardly realize. The progress of the age
has almost outstripped human belief; the future is known only to
By the 1840s as Webster?s rhetoric suggests, the idea of progress was
already being dissociated from the Enlightenment vision of political
liberation. He invests the railroad with a quasi-religious inevitability that lends force to the characterization of his language as the
rhetoric of the technological sublime. Elsewhere in the speech, to be
sure, Webster makes the obligatory bow to the democratic influence
of technological change, but it is clear that he is casting the new machine power as the prime exemplar of the overall progress of the age,
quite apart from its political significance. Speaking for the business
and industrial elite, Webster and Everett thus depict technological innovation as a sufficient cause, in itself, for the fact that history assumes
the character of continuous, cumulative progress.
At the same time, discarding the radical political ideals of the Enlightenment allowed the idea of technological progress to blend with
other grandiose national aspirations. Webster?s version of the ?rhetoric
of the technological sublime? is of a piece with the soaring imperial
ambitions embodied in the slogan ?Manifest Destiny,? and by such
tacit military figurations of American development as the popular notion of the ?conquest of nature? (including Native Americans) by
the increasingly technologized forces of advancing European-American
?civilization.? These future-oriented themes easily harmonized with
the belief in the coming of the millenium that characterized evangelical Protestantism, the most popular American religion at the time.
Webster indicates as much when, at the end of his tribute to the new
railroad, he glibly brings in ?Omniscience? as the ultimate locus of
the meaning of progress.
The difference between the earlier Enlightenment conception of
progress and that exemplified by Webster is largely attributable to the Marx / Does Improved Technology Mean Progress? 9 difference between the groups they represented. Franklin, Jefferson,
and the heroic generation of founding revolutionists constituted a distinct, rather unusual social class in that for a short time the same
men possessed authority and power in most of its important forms:
economic, social, political, and intellectual. The industrial capitalists
for whom Daniel Webster spoke were men of a very different stripe.
They derived their status from a different kind of wealth and power,
and their conception of progress, like their economic and social aspirations, was correspondingly different. The new technology and the
immense profits it generated belonged to them, and since they had every reason to assume that they would retain their property and power,
they had a vested interest in technological innovation. It is not surprising, under the circumstances, that as industrialization proceeded
these men became true believers in technological improvement as the
primary basis for-as virtually tantamount to-universal progress.
This dissociation of technological and material advancement from
the larger political vision of progress was an intermediate stage in the
eventual impoverishment of that radical eighteenth-century worldview. This subtle change prepared the way for the emergence, later
in the century, of a thoroughly technocratic idea of progress. It was
?technocratic? in that it valued improvements in power, efficiency,
rationality as ends in themselves. Among those who bore witness to
the widespread diffusion of this concept at the turn of the century
were Henry Adams and Thorstein Veblen, who were critical of it,
and Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, and Frederick Winslow Taylor and his followers, who lent expression to it. Taylor?s theory of
scientific management embodies the quintessence of the technocratic
mentality, ?the idea,? as historian Hugh Aitken describes it, ?that
human activity could be measured, analyzed, and controlled by techniques analogous to those that had proved so successful when applied
to physical objects.?
The technocratic idea of progress is a belief in the sufficiency of scientific and technological innovation as the basis for general progress.
It says that if we can ensure the advance of science-based technologies, the rest will take care of itself. (The ?rest? refers to nothing
less than a corresponding degree of improvement in the social, political, and cultural conditions of life.) Turning the Jeffersonian ideal on
its head, this view makes instrumental values fundamental to social
progress, and relegates what formerly were considered primary, goalsetting values (justice, freedom, harmony, beauty, or self-fulfillment)
to a secondary status. 10 Technology and the Future In this century, the technocratic view of progress was enshrined in
Fordism and an obsessive interest in economies of scale, standardization of process and product, and control of the workplace. This shift
to mass production was accompanied by the more or less official commitment of the U.S. government to the growth of the nation?s wealth,
productivity, and global power, and to the most rapid possible rate of
technological innovation as the essential criterion of social progress.
But the old republican vision of progress-the vision of advancing
knowledge empowering humankind to establish a less hierarchical,
more just and peaceful society-did not disappear. If it no longer inspired Webster and his associates, it lived on in the minds of many
farmers, artisans, factory workers, shopkeepers, and small-business
owners, as well as in the beliefs of the professionals, artists, intellectuals, and other members of the lower middle and middle classes.
During the late nineteenth century, a number of disaffected intellectuals sought new forms for the old progressive faith. They translated
it into such political idioms as utopian socialism, the single-tax movement, the populist revolt, Progressivism in cities, and Marxism and
its native variants. THE ROOTS OF OUR ADVERSARY CULTURE
Let me turn to a set of these late-eighteenth-century ideas that was
to become the basis for a powerful critique of the culture of advanced
industrial society. Usually described as the viewpoint of the ?counterEnlightenment? or the ?romantic reaction,? these ideas have formed
the basis for a surprisingly long-lived adversarial culture.
According to conventional wisdom, this critical view originated in
the intellectual backlash from the triumph of the natural sciences we
associate with the great discoveries of Galileo, Kepler, Harvey, and
Newton. Put differently, this tendency was a reaction against the extravagant claims for the universal, not to say exclusive, truth of ?the
Mechanical Philosophy.? That term derived from the ubiquity of the
machine metaphor in the work of Newton and other natural scientists
(?celestial mechanics?) and many of their philosophic allies, notably
Descartes, all of whom tended to conceive of nature itself as a ?great
engine? and its subordinate parts (including the human body) as lesser
machines. Marx / Does Improved Technology Mean Progress? 11 By the late eighteenth century, a powerful set of critical, antimechanistic ideas was being developed by Kant, Fichte, and other
German idealists, and by great English poets like Coleridge and
Wordsworth. But in their time the image of the machine also was being invested with greater tangibility and social import. The Industrial
Revolution was gaining momentum, and as power machinery was more
widely diffused in Great Britain, Western Europe, and North America,
the machine acquired much greater resonance: it came to represent
both the new technologies based on mechanized motive power and
the mechanistic mindset of scientific rationalism. Thus the Scottish
philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle, who had been deeply influenced by the new German philosophy, announced in his seminal
1829 essay, ?Signs of the Times,? that the right name for the dawning
era was the ?Age of Machinery.? It was to be the Age of Machinery,
he warned, in every ?inward? and ?outward? sense of the word, meaning that it would be dominated by mechanical (utilitarian) thinking
as well as by actual machines.
In his criticism of this new era, Carlyle took the view that neither
kind of ?machinery? was inherently dangerous. In his opinion, indeed,
they represented potential progress as long as neither was allowed to
become the exclusive or predominant mode in its respective realm.
In the United States a small, gifted, if disaffected minority of writers, artists, and intellectuals adopted this ideology. Their version of
Carlyle?s critical viewpoint was labeled ?romantic? in reference to its
European strains, or ?transcendentalist? in its native use. In the work
of writers like Emerson and Thoreau, Hawthorne and Melville, we
encounter critical responses to the onset of industrialism that cannot
be written off as mere nostalgia or primitivism. These writers did not
hold up an idealized wilderness, a pre-industrial Eden, as preferable
to the world they saw in the making. Nor did they dismiss the worth
of material improvement as such. But they did regard the dominant
view, often represented (as in Webster?s speech) by the appearance of
the new machine power in the American landscape, as dangerously
shallow, materialistic, and one-sided. Fear of ?mechanism,? in the several senses of that word-especially the domination of the individual
by impersonal systems-colored all of their thought. In their work,
the image of the machine-in-the-landscape, far from being an occasion for exultation, often seems to arouse anxiety, dislocation, and
foreboding. Henry Thoreau?s detailed, carefully composed account of 12 Technology and the Future the intrusion of the railroad into the Concord woods is a good example; it bears out his delineation of the new inventions as ?improved
means to unimproved ends.?
This critical view of the relationship between technological means
and social ends did not merely appear in random images, phrases, and
narrative episodes. Indeed, the whole of Walden may be read as a sustained attack on a culture that had allowed itself to become confused
about the relationship of ends and means. Thoreau?s countrymen are
depicted as becoming ?the tools of their tools.? Much the same argument underlies Hawthorne?s satire, ?The Celestial Railroad,? a modern
replay of Pilgrim?s Progress in which the hero, Christian, realizes too
late that his comfortable railroad journey to salvation is taking him to
hell, not heaven. Melville incorporates a similar insight into his characterization of Captain Ahab, who is the embodiment of the Faustian
aspiration toward domination and total control given credence by the
sudden emergence of exciting new technological capacities. Ahab exults in his power over the crew, and he explicitly identifies it with the
power exhibited by the new railroad spanning the North American
continent. In reflective moments, however, he also acknowledges the
self-destructive nature of his own behavior: ?Now in his heart, Ahab
had some glimpse of this, namely, all my means are sane, my motive
and my object mad.?
Of course there was nothing new about the moral posture adopted
by these American writers. Indeed, their attitude toward the exuberant national celebration of the r...
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