- "Slow and Low Progress," or Why American Studies Should Do Technology
Langdon Winner ends his Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought with a corrective to what he believes is an inaccurate popular understanding of the message in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. It is not, he argues, a monster story of the inevitable dangers of technological wizardry. Rather, it is a story of "the plight of things that have been created but not in the context of sufficient care" (313). It is easy to focus on the monster as the problem in the novel: certainly the physical threat he poses illustrates the danger of technological hubris. Looking more closely, however, we discover that the "horror" lies not in the monster's creation but rather in the inventor's failure to take responsibility for his machine. Frankenstein seeks recognition first. Only after his inventor refuses to acknowledge him does he begin to enact the horrors for which the novel is better known.
This essay suggests that scholars in American studies have something to learn from Mary Shelley. We in the United States frequently tell stories of technological redemption and technological damnation. We do not, however, spend much time considering stories of technological stewardship. A legacy of positivism has embedded our political, social, and cultural systems with a disturbing patina of technological "neutrality." And, in many ways, we as scholars have contributed to this legacy of positivism by failing to critique technology as both substance and ideology in American cultural life. The field of American studies has largely left questions of technology to others, in spite of our early leadership in innovative methods of technological analysis and cultural critique. And while discipline-based inquiries into technology have been immensely useful at revealing particular histories and consequences of American technology, they have not been primarily focused on issues of diversity, equity, and justice that are fundamental to our field. Nor have they been written with a particular focus on interdisciplinary connections that embed everyday actions within their larger political and cultural systems.
It is time to revitalize a "technology studies" core within our field. I have three goals for this piece within the broader context of our issue of Rewiring the [End Page 915] Nation: to demonstrate, using books that approach technology from within the field, the importance of an American studies methodological and contextual approach to understanding the place of technology in American life; to provide a primer by which scholars interested in incorporating technology studies into their particular areas of interest can begin to do so using books currently available across disciplines on technology; and to demonstrate that concerns fundamental to our field are inextricably linked to technology.
Defined here as the material or systemic result of human attempts to extend the limits of power over the body and its surroundings, technology has been an essential tool in our ability to feed, clothe, house, and protect our bodies. It has unified individuals across expanses of time and space in a manner that has extended pleasure and prevented pain. Few of us would give up our computers; many of us are lost without our cell phones and Blackberrys (in spite of the incessant work both enable). Airplanes allow us to breakfast in New York and lunch in Los Angeles. Levees allow us, when they hold, to live in spaces deemed uninhabitable by nature. Vaccinations relegate afflictions like polio (in this country) to the pages of history books. Technologies facilitate the very construction of "normal" life as we know it. (Consider, regardless of where you live and what cultures you identify with, how your breakfast this morning would have been changed without this nation's vast, mechanized systems of food production and distribution.) Undoubtedly, technology brings with it an enhancement of our personal pleasures and an elongation of our social networks. Yet beyond our specific points of entry (and often within them), technology also enables the creation, aggregation, and enactment of particular systems of power that imperil our personal pleasures and individual expressions.
Technology is slippery; to understand it one must simultaneously consider the "body" and the "system." Often its most important...