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  • IntroductionRewiring the "Nation": The Place of Technology in American Studies
  • Siva Vaidhyanathan (bio)

In early July 2006 the government of North Korea tested a long-range ballistic missile that was supposed to be able to deliver a nuclear warhead as far as Alaska. The missile test did not go well for North Korea. The long-range missile fell into the sea just minutes after launch. 1 President George W. Bush's reaction to the news of the test was to boast that the freshly deployed (albeit limited) U.S. missile defense system would most likely have been able to protect the western continental United States from such a missile. "Yes, I think we had a reasonable chance of shooting [the North Korean missile] down," Bush said at a news conference in Chicago two days after the failed Korean test. "At least that's what the military commanders told me." 2 Just the day before, Bush had reinforced his commitment to a missile defense system. "Because I think it's in—I know it's in—our interests to make sure that we're never in a position where somebody can blackmail us," Bush said at a news conference in Washington, D.C., after meeting with Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper. "And so we'll continue to invest and spend. And since this issue first came up, we've made a lot of progress on how to—toward having an effective system. And it's in our interest that we continue to work along these lines." 3

In these statements, Bush expressed a dangerous level of faith in an unproven technology. Since a missile-defense system first emerged as a vision of President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, the U.S. government has spent from $2 billion to $10 billion dollars per year on various systems that would track intercontinental ballistic missiles through the stratosphere and send small intercepting vehicles up to disable or destroy the incoming warhead. This plan gathered enough enthusiasm among defense contractors to justify development and experimentation for more than a decade, despite the ease with which any potential attacker could simply evade even the best system (overwhelming the defense with "dummy" or multiple warheads, shifting warheads to low-flying cruise missiles, relying instead on human carriers to deliver warheads in luggage, [End Page 555] etc.). Every test of every part of every prototype of missile defense has failed. 4 After repeated embarrassing failures and news accounts of them, the United States merely opted in 2002 to cease testing the system. Despite having no evidence to suggest it might work, the Bush administration activated elements of a system over Alaska and California in response to tensions with North Korea in June of 2006. 5

Does it matter that the technology is neither empirically viable nor theoretically effective? Such faith in technology in the absence of critical analysis or empirical support is an example of "techno-fundamentalism," the belief that we can, should, and will invent a machine that will fix the problems the last machine caused. It's an extreme form of technological optimism or Whiggishness. Techno-fundamentalism assumes not only the means and will to triumph over adversity through gadgets and schemes, but the sense that invention is the best of all possible methods of confronting problems. Techno-fundamentalism is not the exclusive property of any one political ideology or agenda. Both Thorstein Veblen and Friedrich Hayek expressed unhealthy faith in technologies to solve complex social problems. Veblen, an anticapitalist iconoclast, believed that putting important decisions in the hands of engineers was the surest path to human fulfillment. Hayek, a free-market economist and inspiration for modern conservatism, believed that distributed knowledge and unfettered competition would unleash technological creative forces that would mold human society justly and democratically. 6

In the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century we pay a heavy price for techno-fundamentalism. We build new and wider highways under the mistaken belief that they will ease congestion and speed traffic. 7 We rush to ingest pharmaceuticals that might alleviate our ills with no more effectiveness than placebos. 8 We invest based on self-fulfilling phenomena such as...


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pp. 555-567
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