Modernity and Technology (review)
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Technology and Culture 45.2 (2004) 471-473

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Modernity and Technology. Edited by Thomas J. Misa, Philip Brey, and Andrew Feenberg. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003. Pp. vi+421. $40.

Modernity studies deal with some of the fundamental questions of our time: What is it like to be "modern"? Where are the roots of this modern [End Page 471] condition to be found? Are our lives different in an essential way from the lives of our predecessors? To most people, the proposition that modernity is connected to technology is more or less self-evident. Still, the large part of modernity studies pays very little attention to the actual role of technology in modern society and, consequently, the modern condition. This circumstance is one of the starting points for the anthology Modernity and Technology.

As Thomas J. Misa points out in the introduction, technology may be the truly distinctive feature of modernity, and still the modern society outlined by social theorists and philosophers is a theoretical construct surprisingly devoid of technology. This serious critique against modernity theory is accompanied by an equally serious but different critique aimed at technology studies. While modernity theory misses what is modern about technology, technology studies fail to relate their empirical findings to an abstract level and to make far-reaching interpretations about modernity. The relationship may be described as mutual black-boxing.

Modernity and Technology attempts to bridge the gap between these two traditions, to combine the "technological shaping of society" prevailing among theorists of modernity with the "social construction of technology" of historians and sociologists, by adopting the notion of co-construction. This not so modest ambition is carried out in three different sections. The first deals with methodological and theoretical questions about combining studies of technology and modernity. The second is focused on specific technologies and technological systems, transferring the methodological issues to empirical material. The third has a more normative approach, offering critique and suggesting alternate ways of thinking about techno-politics and development.

Several authors confront the notion of a single, general condition describable as "modern." Paul Edwards shows that what we define as modern is, to a considerable extent, governed by our choice of scale. In order to properly understand both technology and modernity, Edwards advocates scholarly work that is multiscalar and gives attention to phenomena on a macro scale as well as on a meso and micro scale. Similarly, Don Slater, writing on the use of Internet in Trinidad, shows how the concept of modernity depends on geographical considerations. To be modern in one part of the world may mean an entirely different thing than it does in another. The dominant Euro-American idea of modernity/postmodernity, as it turns out, is just not applicable to Slater's Trinidad.

Another aspect of the complexity of modernity is touched upon by Junichi Murata in an essay about the introduction of modernization in Japan. Murata shows that the sociotechnical network that conditioned this process had a distinctive dual structure: one "advanced" sector of transferred technology and one domestic sector of traditional technology. Mediation between these was made possible first by artisans and later by [End Page 472] engineers, who translated new technology to traditional society. In modernity, concludes Murata, there is always a dual structure of modern and traditional factors.

Johan Schot examines the development of a "typical modernist practice of technology politics" during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The distinctive feature of this practice was the separation of the initial promotion of technology from its subsequent regulation. In the modernist view, technology in itself is value free, neither good nor bad, and needs nurturing in order to develop. The undesirable effects that new technology may produce are treated as unrelated to the choice of technology, things to be dealt with through regulation. As Schot shows, separating technology from its consequences has repeatedly resulted in conflicts.

This is a much needed book. By bringing an international, multidisciplinary group of historians of technology, sociologists, philosophers, and economic theorists together with experts in gender studies, information, and environmental history, Modernity and Technology gains strength as a whole. Unlike...