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Technology and Culture 41.3 (2000) 575-576

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Book Review

Meaning in Technology

Meaning in Technology. By Arnold Pacey. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999. Pp. 272; illustrations, notes/references, index. $27.50.

In his introduction to Meaning in Technology, Arnold Pacey writes that he will emphasize "how human purposes, aspirations, and relationships work themselves out in technological contexts over time" (p. 11). He promises to demonstrate how individual engineers, mathematicians, craft workers, women, and men experience technology. In sum, Pacey intends to study the meaning of technology in a radically new way.

Unfortunately, his first chapter, on music as the source of technology, does little to advance this program. Pacey begins with the unsupported claim that humans use machines and other technologies as they do music and musical instruments. The way we work with tools or with our hands, he contends, relates to musical experiences. He documents his thesis by examples of agricultural laborers who increase productivity by singing or working to a drumbeat. He also asserts that a connection exists between hand-tool use, cycling, or piano playing and particular bodily skills and muscular rhythms. Turning to the industrial world, he claims that operators of various mechanical contrivances, from factory machinery to steam engines to motorcycles, become sensitive to the regular rhythms and sounds of their machines.

Pacey next explores the relationship between music and mathematics, repeating the familiar story that begins with Pythagoras and ends with Galileo, Kepler, and Bach. I mention this section because it illustrates a wider complaint I have with the book. All too often Pacey makes side excursions into science that have little or nothing to do with technology. For example, a chapter on visual thinking cites the canonical examples of Anne Roe, Eugene Ferguson, Brooke Hindle, and Bernard Carlson, but then Pacey soon strays to science: Linnaean taxonomy, Faraday's field theory, the Daltonian atom, and early geological sketches. Another chapter, titled "Meaning in the Hands," rightly covers wheelwrights, blacksmiths, and their kind. Yet it also includes geneticist Barbara McClintock as well as an extended section on alchemy and Paracelsus. This chapter closes with some paragraphs on information technology.

At this point I had not yet reached the middle of the book and yet I was ready to give up the idea of reviewing it because of the author's frustrating [End Page 575] inability to maintain control over his elusive subject. My impulse to quit notwithstanding, I went on to read about the social meaning of technology. Although Pacey does not reject the social and political side of technology, he brings the reader back to the personal level of technological activity. He writes about the role of play in technology and ends the chapter with the enigmatic remark that music "is the best metaphor available for experience of technology" (p. 98). For the record, let me say that I admire Pacey's earlier popular books and share his love of music. Nevertheless, I still cannot accept music as a privileged metaphor for the experience of technology.

And so the chapters proceed. In "The Sense of Place" we learn about the experiential response to the environment and about participatory technologies in which artisans have a strong personal involvement with the materials of their craft. The message conveyed is that humans better understand technology when they freely respond to their place in nature. This is an uplifting but hardly fresh observation.

Pacey eventually covers exploration, invention, and the remaking of nature as well as gender and creativity. These are important topics but he offers little that is new in a text that demands careful reading because of his mode of presentation. Consider this example from chapter eight. Pacey relates how a boy who grows up tearing apart plants and animals may feel he has permission as an adult to continue in his ways when warfare becomes a possible expression of his peculiar talents. Then Pacey baldly states: "Much technology has been 'conceived and applied in the context of war and oppression,' yet many . . . think of it is as morally neutral" (p. 172). This is a serious charge to bring...


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