- Technology Matters: Questions to Live With
The first five chapters of Technology Matters are a must for all libraries and a perfect undergraduate reader for all students whose studies have anything to do with technology, which means all undergraduates. They are also a must for anyone who needs to think about technology in his or her daily life and has not given much thought to the idea that technology might not shape culture. It poses the key questions that technology as an idea presents and proposes strategies for thinking about the answers. Each chapter opens a new question: e.g. "Can We Define Technology?"; "Does Technology Control Us?"; "Is Technology Predictable?"; "How Do Historians Understand Technology?"; etc. These first four are the best and most clearly argued, sober and thoughtful. So far so good. The difficulty with such an accessible book is that it lacks subtlety and at times reiterates the slippery method of apparent causality and ill-founded assumptions that characterizes the slack argumentation that David Nye's thesis opposes.
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Quite early in Technology Matters, Nye reminds us that one of the great problems for scholars reflecting on technology is quite where retailers and librarians put books like his. As he points out on page 9, bookstores may have a section on the history of science, but histories of technology are often scattered "through many departments, including sociology, cultural studies, women's studies, history, media, anthropology and do-it-yourself." This, he suggests, reinforces the misconception that "technology is merely a working out of an application of scientific principles." It is a misconception, he argues, because in general the sequence is reversed: Theory (science) is a strategy for making sense of practical results. Based on empirical evidence, it is difficult to argue against this view, at least as far as the 19th and early 20th centuries are concerned. Of course, we know what he means, but there is a slippery logic to his argument that characterizes what is a clear and profoundly valuable book dismantling technological determinism, which is all the more valuable by virtue of being simply written.
Technology is a working out of scientific principles, of course. I mean this not in the hierarchical sense that Nye opposes, that technology is the worldly handmaiden of an abstract philosophical system called science, but in a more holistic sense (which I am sure he supports): Technology is, indeed, often a working out of science not yet articulated or understood. Nye more or less argues this point in the subsequent passage, in which he suggests that the way we approach art may be a better way of thinking about technology. Artists, interesting artists at least, have always been worth listening to, not for their understanding of topics outside their practice, which is often woefully uninformed, but because art (interesting art) is an expression of ideas yet to be codified. For this reason we have always engaged with artists not for what they intended to express but what they expressed unintentionally. Without this bifurcation between the painter and the viewer, art becomes "picture-making" (or market making) and viewing becomes trainspotting. In the same way, technology as it appears in the world is text to be read as a partial understanding of what is to become rather than (as I am sure Nye would agree) the culmination of a scientific endeavor. For this reason, the history of technology should be understood as an enterprise very different from, say, [End Page 405] the history of science or the history of art. Sooner or later, all bookstores will have a section called the history of ideas, and until that time histories of technology should be scattered throughout the store as an antidote to the materialist complacency that informs most histories of technology, science or art. Technology, science (abstract systematic thinking) and art are only occasionally things in the world; they are, first and foremost, aspects of human curiosity, intimately implicated in desire and on which we...