America as Second Creation: Technology and Narratives as New Beginnings (review)
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America as Second Creation: Technology and Narratives as New Beginnings by David E. Nye. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, U.S.A., 2003. 381 pp., illus. Trade. ISBN: 0-262-14081-0.

Thanks to the popularizers of science during the past decade, a fascination with cosmology has led to a widespread rejection of simple causality—at least as far as the formation of the universe is concerned. Arguably, what might be called "high" science not only is seen as a speculative inquiry but is more and more regarded as a branch of philosophy. Perhaps this should make it all the more surprising that despite the best efforts of a generation of solid research and publishing, there is almost without exception a general (and sadly, even academic) acceptance of the notion that technology has agency. Somehow the heavens and all that follows are understood as contingent and even accidental, but the latest memory upgrade, smart bomb or faster car are regarded as an autonomous product of technology. Often masked with the idea of progress, evolution or development, invariably technology is described not only as being "out of control" but also as a determining force in culture. Why such an absurd and unsustainable idea is so persistent becomes clear if one asks in whose interest it is to promote technological determinism. With its historical selectivity and implicit consumer [End Page 262] passivity, it is obvious that financial interests are best served if the determining power of users is eliminated from the question of how and why technology changes.

David Nye is one of the most consistent and articulate exponents of an alternative view of how technology and culture interact. For over two decades he has looked at the way that, in North America in particular, technological determinism cannot account for the ways that human inventiveness produced new things in the universe that intervened in its fundamental operations. America as Second Creation represents the most sophisticated and refined articulation of the idea that technology is a narrative element in the stories that we tell ourselves. Axes, mills, canals and irrigation may appear to have been the products of a material necessity, but among all the possible resolutions to the problem of sustainable expansion, these had a privileged emergence because they were viable tokens in an elaborate narrative of America as a new Eden.

What is especially significant about America as Second Creation, and Nye's work generally, is that it supports its thesis with painstakingly researched evidence of the human imagination as it is expressed in the arts. Literature, painting and scientific speculation are regarded as sustainable evidence of an imaginary reality that technology was "invented" to support. The arts are also seen as the site of the skeptical unconscious that technological growth triggered in the more conservative thinkers. In particular, a brilliant section on Henry Adams draws on his writing to illustrate the key oppositions that the 19th-century U.S. had to reconcile into a coherent whole. In particular, his profound pessimism arises from the very existence of historical awareness. Adams's historical revision was stimulated by the realization that progress was irreconcilable with the idea that entropy was the unavoidable consequence of the transformation of energy. A careful examination of the discourses (or sustaining narratives) of science and technology shows how the investment in a simple (and distorted) notion of evolution sublimated that anxiety by replacing energy with force in the narrative. The impact of this displacement on the forms of technology that were favored carried with them political and philosophical implications that Adams gave most voice to in his polemical Education of Henry Adams. Nye argues that Adams, convinced that there had been a fundamental break in history in his lifetime, attempted to develop a new history in order to reconcile evolution with the laws of thermodynamics. In Nye's argument, the driving force behind some of the technologies that drew Thomas Edison's interest was a belief that somehow technology would overcome the tendency toward entropy by stimulating mental growth.

America as Second Creation is, of course, essential reading for anyone who thinks about technology at all; it is also a pleasure to be in...


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