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Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies

From: Technology and Culture
Volume 40, Number 2, April 1999
pp. 411-413 | 10.1353/tech.1999.0067

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Technology and Culture 40.2 (1999) 411-413

Book Review

Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies*

Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies. By David E. Nye. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998. Pp. xii+331; illustrations, notes, index. $25.

David Nye's insightful and provocative books Electrifying America and American Technological Sublime are well known to readers of Technology and Culture for contributing importantly to understanding the contextual history of technology. Now, Nye offers up another not-to-be-ignored synthesis, one built on the propositions of social construction and technological momentum and rejecting whatever vestiges of technological determinism might still be found in conversations among students of technology and society. In this social history of American energy systems and energy consumption, as in his earlier works, Nye paints a broad canvas, assembling the breadth of America's energy-consuming history from concrete and expedient particulars and smartly chosen, insightful anecdotes that sweeten the story.

In tracing America's energy history through six energy systems, from muscle power to "an eclectic bricolage of many technologies and conservation measures, coordinated by computer technologies" (p. 253), Nye nicely blends interrelationships between energy, technology, popular culture, business, labor, the environment, and a number of other topics. His discussion of early America, for example, crisply sums up how animal power, sailing ships, and water- and windmills became "energies of conquest" that, when combined with metal tools and weapons plus European perceptions of the environment, disrupted the Native American world and transformed America's natural resources into commodities. He suggests that the idea of early-American farming self-sufficiency is really a "cherished misconception" (p. 24), highlights the importance of "an industrious revolution" within households that prefaced the industrial revolution (p. 26), and discusses legal changes in labor contracting that undermined craft shop labor traditions, gave rise to the free market in labor, and "marked the end of the era of muscle" (p. 39).

In subsequent chapters, Nye weaves similarly rich tapestries. Discussion of nineteenth-century steam power weaves together factory development, railroads, coal mining, technological risk and responsibility, networked technologies, and issues in energy consumption with ethnicity, race, and social class. In these topics and others, the corporation plays a crucial role. Nye links its rise to America's "high-energy society" and then thoughtfully explores Taylorism and Fordism "as parts of a general process in which work was transformed by the intensified use of energy" (p. 133). Moreover, within the corporate world, "electricity transformed the possibilities for manufacturing" (p. 157). Moving far beyond Taylorism, "electrification eliminated shoveling itself" (p. 138), and in concert with the internal-combustion engine transformed American society (p. 182).

Electricity "energized the popular culture" (p. 157), argues Nye, and while socially defined needs shifted upward, energy-intensiveness (read electrification), not the rise of corporations, premised the culture of consumption. "At every point," he observes, "the consumer society assumed an energy surplus" (p. 169). Meanwhile, the automobile acted as an agent of dispersion, and Americans, unlike Europeans (Nye's implicit control group), reshaped the environment for it. When the energy crisis of the 1970s struck, few Americans understood it in terms of their own high-energy, throwaway society. They "made only grudging, short-term concessions to energy shortages" (p. 222), and they embraced the computer as an energy-controlling tool "which permitted a major reconfiguration of both production and consumption" (p. 218).

Consuming Power is stimulating and provocative. Nye's description of early waterpowered factory towns is especially engaging and very successfully links the technological revolution in water power to companion revolutions in financial and social organization. Equally good is his suggestive exploration of energy use as a social construction in terms of the transformative impact that electricity and the automobile had on American society. And I especially liked Nye's correlating high energy use and American expectations of abundant energy to a classically "liberal, laissez-faire ideology" of self-reliant individualism, a "technological Lockeanism" that empowers Americans with "new fuels and new energy sources" (pp. 236-37).

Yet, all this said, I am unsettled by two aspects of this ambitious work. First, Nye's apparent east-to-west view of American history imbues Consuming Power with a...


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