My review of Tom Misa’s Leonardo to the Internet came out in the latest American Scholar. Since the Scholar doesn’t have a Web site, I’m taking the liberty of publishing the review here. (The editors at AS, all of whom are leaving or are being forced out– a fact that I still have a hard time getting my mind around– made some improvements to it; this is really the draft.)
[To the tune of The Beatles, “Let It Be,” from the album 1.]
Thomas J. Misa, Leonardo to the Internet: Technology and Culture from the Reanaissance to the Present. Xxii + 324 pp., illus, tables. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2004.
It is a fact universally acknowledged that technology looms large in today’s world. There’s no pressing issue that isn’t influenced, sometimes decisively, by technology. Globalization as we know it would be impossible without computer and telephone networks, international financial systems, low-cost shipping, jet air travel, and cheap electronics; nor would the anti-globalization movement survive long without the Internet to publicize their criticisms and coordinate cross-border campaigns, or cell phones and SMS (short messaging service) to mobilize quickly at demonstrations. Global warming, agriculture, education, cultural divides, political activism, even our sense of what it means to be human are all affected by technology.
It is thus surprising that technology gets short shrift in elite culture. Science is recognized as a critical part of modern life, thanks to the efforts of generations of literate scientists like Jacob Bronowski and Stephen Hawking. (The growing opaqueness of contemporary elite culture has helped, too. If you need a graduate degree to make sense of John Cage and Matthew Barney, quantum physics and molecular biology seem a little less far out.) Educated people should know a little science—or at least feel guilty that they don’t—but no one who can’t read a circuit diagram feels uncultured.
Why is this? Several things work against technology’s public image. In contrast to science, engineering is an analytical activity rather than an imaginative one; like accounting, it isn’t supposed to be creative. Technology is either just applied science, a byproduct of what happens in the laboratory, or inspired tinkering done by visionary (and often solitary) geniuses. Finally, technologies strictly follow the rules of economics: the winner are always the cheapest or most efficient, and make us more productive.
These assumptions drive historians of technology nuts. Thomas Misa’s Leonardo to the Internet gently aims to demolish each one, and to give readers a more nuanced view of technology’s role in history. The best historians of technology have recognized that their underdog position forces them to be more explicit about technology’s role in history, and to make bold claims on their subject’s behalf. Thomas Hughes, the elder statesman of the history of technology (and Misa’s dissertation advisor), argued in his 1989 American Genesis that the achievements of American engineers were equal to those of Greek philosophers, Florentine artists, or Stuart playwrights. Technology isn’t just a part of American history, Hughes argues; it is American history. Leonardo to the Internet follows Hughes’ model of combining an engaging historical narrative with deeper lessons about technology. Technology, Misa argues, has played a central role in Western history since the Renaissance. But that influence is not uniform: different eras have distinct technological styles, each with its own logic and imperatives.
In some cases, political interests shaped technological styles. Renaissance inventors and engineers, like Leonardo da Vinci and Francesco di Giorgio, worked for patrons who “were not much concerned with labor-saving industrial technologies or with profit-spinning commercial ones.” (32) For all their ruthless efficiency in politics and statecraft, figures like Ludovico Sforza and Cosimo di Medici were interested in devices that would bring them success in battle, reflect and enhance their glory, or be entertaining: a court engineer might have to work simultaneously on siege engines, water-driven automata, and theatre equipment. Similarly, nineteenth-century European engineers who “addressed the unparalleled problems of far-flung overseas empires” (97) were less concerned with economic development than political control. Railroads accelerated integration of colonial possessions into imperial economies, and telegraph systems kept metropolitan powers informed of events in colonies; the economic benefits were less important to designers than the military and political concerns. More recently, the Cold War-era “military-industrial complex” (as president Dwight Eisenhower described it) placed economic concerns far behind strategic goals and tactical needs.
In other cases, economics have been more important in shaping technology, but economic imperatives, and the technological styles they produced, varied substantially. The seventeenth-century Dutch Republic, for example, was the center of a vibrant, globe-spanning trading network supported by a variety of technologies. A substantial percentage of European commerce move through Amsterdam and Rotterdam, the Dutch East India Company inserted itself in the Asian silks and spice trade, while its West Indian counterpart moved Swedish copperware to Africa, African slaves to Brazil, and Brazilian sugar to Europe. Supporting these activities were the factory-like herring busses and globetrotting cargo fluyt, which lowered transportation costs enough to make such global traffic economically viable, and a variety of manufacturing innovations aimed at producing high-quality finished goods. The distinctive Dutch technological style, Misa argues, was capitalist but not industrialist, focused on “carrying goods cheaply [and] processing the profitably.” (34) A century later, in contrast, English engineers in London and Manchester focused on technologies that cut cost and allowed high-volume production. Steam power, large centralized manufacturing centers (most notably London breweries and Manchester cotton mills), and dense networks of skilled workers and secondary industries supporting large enterprises were the defining features of British industry. In the late nineteenth century, engineers working in large enterprises like General Electric and AG Farben directed their energies to extending electrical grids, chemical plants, and other large systems. Their style traded the “creative destruction” of innovation for incremental improvements that would yield technological and commercial stability– industrial but not capitalist.
Science, in contrast, plays a less important role than economics or politics in Misa’s story. The notion of science as an activity distinct from technology or philosophy is a recent one; indeed, the term “scientist” is a nineteenth-century invention. A better understanding of physical and chemical laws helped spur the rise of the electrical and chemical industries, but by the late 1800s and early 1900s, scientific research itself was being industrialized and rationalized. Industrial research laboratories at General Electric, AG Farben, Bell Labs, and elsewhere were idea factories, organizing large groups of scientists to create knowledge that satisfied the needs of corporate sponsors. In other words, science itself becomes a kind of technology.
Culture can also play a guiding role in technological styles. In the early twentieth century, advances in mass-production of steel and glass allowed the likes of Filippo Marinetti, J. J. P. Oud, and Walter Gropius to create a new, explicitly modern style in housing and industrial design. This style rejected the historical references and ornament of academic, Beaux Arts design (Viennese architect Adolph Loos famously declared that “ornament is crime”), and sought to create new architectural forms appropriate to urban industrial civilization. More recently, national and regional cultures have adapted global technologies to suit local needs. Japanese and Finnish teens have created subcultures around the mobile phone, a technology originally aimed at busy executives. McDonalds, the exemplar of homogenizing global culture, is being subtly remade as it moves into Asia: Chinese families use it as a cheap banquet hall, while students in Hong Kong and Singapore spend hours there studying. So much for fast food.
Wait. What’s McDonalds doing in a history of technology? There’s a deep point here: fast food is a triumph of technology, a highly efficient system for producing and delivering low-cost goods to mass markets. (Critics would say that like any factory system, it is also ecologically destructive and socially disruptive.) Hamburgers and fries aren’t the first industrialized food: in the nineteenth century, the British brewing industry was so enamored of steam power, large-scale production, and centralized facilities that, according to Misa, porter “deserves full recognition as a prototypical industrial-age product alongside cotton, iron, and coal.” (65) More broadly, a view of technology that focuses exclusively on the most visible products of industrial civilization—hardware, factories, computers—is profoundly incomplete. Instead, one must think in terms of technological systems, which can include hardware, facilities and production techniques, people, technical standards, knowledge, financial and legal institutions. Financial systems help define how large technological systems; copyright and patent law plays a huge role in structuring high-tech marketplaces; users often reinvent technologies, finding uses for them that their creators never intended.
The interdependency that defines systems helps explain why technological changes have unintended consequences. For years, economists puzzled wondered why technologies like the dishwasher and washing machine didn’t dramatically reduce the amount of time women spent cleaning house. It turns out that even as the time required to do any specific task—wash a shirt, got to the store—declined, other changes in the household absorbed those savings. Standards of cleanliness rose, so clothes were washed more often; stores stopped home delivery; household chores that had been done by men devolved to women. Likewise, the computer hasn’t led to the paperless office, because many users find hard copy easier to work with and preserve, and because electronic documents haven’t had the legal status that printed ones do. The interdependency of artifacts, actors, and institutions also means that any problem can have a legal, economic, or technological solution. This is why the record industry, shocked by the popularity of file trading systems like Kazaa, is suing downloaders, lobbying Congress to tighten copyright, and pressuring electronics companies to build digital rights management technology into their products.
Thinking in terms of systems rather than individual artifacts also reveals the degree to which technologies are products of historical contingency, and technological change is susceptible to influence by users. While this is important for understanding the history of technology, it is absolutely critical for shaping its future. For example, the contrast between Dutch and English technological styles suggests that recent movement to create low-polluting “green” technologies and businesses that work with rather than exploit nature may be onto something. Creating such alternatives will not be not easy—a systems view shows that it will require everything from low-energy manufacturing methods, to accounting techniques that can measure (and hence make visible) the social and environmental costs and benefits of business decisions—but it is possible. As Misa puts it, “if technologies come from within society and are products of on-going social processes, we can, in principle alter them… even as they change us.” (xi) This, ultimately, is the strongest reason for taking technology as seriously as science or culture: not because it influences us, but because we can influence it.