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  • Technology and the Production of Difference
  • David E. Nye (bio)

Just as the linguistic turn once invited all Americanists to consider rhetoric and representation as crucial parts of every analysis, the field of technology is becoming unavoidable for anyone concerned with communications, material culture, labor, capitalism, globalization/Americanization, or the social construction of culture itself. In part, this is because the meanings of an artifact and its design are flexible, varying from one culture to another, and from one time period to another. Henry Petroski, one of the most widely read experts on design, argues that there is no such thing as perfect form: "Designing anything, from a fence to a factory, involves satisfying constraints, making choices, containing costs, and accepting compromises." 1 Technologies, which include all of material culture, are social constructions with political and social implications.

Once one accepts that technology is far more than steam engines, nuclear reactors, and iPods, but also includes spinning wheels, pottery, bras, hand tools, and Neolithic axes, it is difficult to think of any topic that does not have a technological dimension. Many scholars find themselves becoming historians of technology without quite realizing it. No one interested in slavery can ignore prize-winning works in the history of technology such as Angela Lakwete's Inventing the Cotton Gin: Machine and Myth in Antebellum America or Judith Carney's Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas. Who interested in racism can ignore Michael Adas, Machines as the Measure of Man? 2 No one concerned with music or public space will want to miss Emily Thompson's The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900–1933. 3 Studies of technology are indispensable for understanding the social construction of the home, the landscape, the city, the workplace, transport, energy systems, and cultural reproduction. 4

As American studies scholars discover potential synergies with this literature, they will find that few historians of technology believe machines are in the saddle and ride mankind. Instead, various forms of social construction dominate the field's theoretical agenda. 5 Outside the academy, however, technological [End Page 597] determinism is more common than one might suppose; its adherents include optimists such as former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and his colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute. Inspired in part by Alvin Toffler, Gingrich has long been convinced that machines (notably computers) are improving the world. 6 In the same spirit, Nicholas Negroponte declared in a best-selling book of the 1990s: "Digital technology can be a natural force drawing people into greater world harmony." 7 This is nonsense, but widely believed nonsense. No technology is, has been, or will be a "natural force." Nor will any technology by itself break down cultural barriers and bring world peace.

Technological optimists generally believe in the virtues of the "free market," as if a beneficent determinism were the inevitable outcome of "the invisible hand" in laissez-faire economics. In declaring that television, the Internet, or some other device was "inevitable," they seem to believe that these technologies are so appealing that consumers, given the chance, "naturally" will buy them. In contrast, scholars who focus on technology generally reject this view, because they examine not only consumers but also inventors, entrepreneurs, and marketers. They see each new technology not simply as a product, but as part of a larger system of artifacts. If some popular authors (and many politicians) seem to believe that machines determine history, historians generally agree that new technologies are shaped by social conditions, competing products, prices, traditions, popular attitudes, interest groups, class differences, and government policy. 8

Yet, many twentieth-century academics long were, just as a few contemporary authors still are, determinists. They commonly put forward two arguments, each wrong-headed in its own way: (1) advanced technologies are homogenizing the world, dissolving distinctive cultures into a global system, and (2) advanced technologies are driving society toward more choices and greater difference. The second argument emerged with particular force during the Internet boom of the 1990s, when a chorus of stockbrokers and pundits sang the praises of all things digital. Esther Dyson, George Gilder, George Keyworth, and Alvin Toffler...


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pp. 597-618
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