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  • Dominance By Design: Technological Imperatives and America’s Civilizing Mission
  • David E. Nye
Dominance By Design: Technological Imperatives and America’s Civilizing Mission. By Michael Adas ( Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006. 542 pp. $29.95).

The title "Dominance By Design" conceivably might be misread to mean the hegemonic export of advanced technologies, particularly since a self-aligning ball bearing from the Museum of Modern Art dominates the dust jacket. A tiny image of an Apache helicopter hovering over the subtitle more accurately suggests that Michael Adas is concerned with how Americans made technology part of Manifest Destiny as they developed an expansionist foreign policy.

The opening example of Commodore Matthew Perry's mission to "open" Ja- pan shows the potential benefits of this approach. By focusing on the technological gifts presented to the Emperor and the Japanese responses to them, Adas shows that, for both sides, these machines were not incidental but central to the meaning of this event. Americans arrived with a model train, modern firearms, steam engines, the telegraph, and other devices, often supplied at no charge by the manufacturers. They understood these signs of technical superiority as proof of cultural supremacy, and assumed their civilizing mission was to force the Japanese into modernization. In the encounters Adas emphasizes, notably with Native Americans, the Chinese, Filipinos, Vietnamese and Arabs, Americans tried to discern whether a "race" was capable of assimilating advanced technologies. Always the hope was that they could and that democratic government would follow, mimicking an idealized American model of development. In contrast, the Japanese and other nations saw the same "gifts" as a thinly veiled threat. Japan successfully responded with rapid, home-grown industrialization to defend its culture, but not every nation had the means, the time, or the opportunity. Dominance By Design presents this series of confrontations as examples of a disturbing pattern, in which Americans have tried to use technologies to inscribe their values and way of life on others, often without understanding the receivers of these "gifts." In each case, US proponents justified forcibly subduing another nation by invoking the promise of material improvements such as roads, sanitation, dams, factories, and schools. The justification usually included descriptions of undeveloped resources, and often underscored the downtrodden lot of women, depicted as exploited drudges. The latter theme had emerged already in Colonial accounts of bedraggled squaws, and it was an effective part of the rhetoric of technological liberation in the war against Afghanistan. Adas traces linkages between such representations and expansionist ideology, which together expressed a technological imperative that offered an almost deterministic vision of America's role as a "civilizing nation."

How to tackle this enormous subject? Consider the book a flight through 400 years in as many pages. Starting at a high altitude, the first 127 pages cruise from Colonial times through 1900, including the conquest of Native Americans, the Anglo-American embrace of technology as the measure of civilization, rapid western expansion, and early US encounters with China and Japan. The narrative then slows for seventy more detailed pages on the American occupation of the Philippines and the building of the Panama Canal, and then accelerates to [End Page 185] survey, in less than thirty pages, World War I, the 1920s, the Great Depression, and World War II. Adas then slows down to cover half a century in the final 190 pages, divided into three chapters. The first examines the invention and deployment of modernization theory, notably the ideas of W. W. Rostow, in the Cold War, noting its similarities at many points to the communist alternative. The second looks at the failure of US technological systems to win the Vietnam War, either in the guise of development projects of the early years or, later, through the policy of escalating strategic bombing. The third studies the attempt to engineer dominance in Iraq and the Persian Gulf. Adas argues that in the 1991 war, "technologies supplanted humans as the heroes in the victory" (360), further increasing the "technocentrism" of the military and of foreign policy. Americans became ever more (mistakenly) certain that cybertech warfare was surgically precise, while they de-emphasized the constructive, nation-building side of America's mission as...


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pp. 185-186
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