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Technology and Culture 41.3 (2000) 615-616

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Book Review

Weiße Elefanten: Anspruch und Scheitern technischer Großprojekte im 20. Jahrhundert

Weiße Elefanten: Anspruch und Scheitern technischer Großprojekte im 20. Jahrhundert. By Dirk van Laak. Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1999. Pp. 304; maps, notes/references, index. DM 39.80.

The claims and failures of large-scale technical projects are the subject of Jena historian Dirk van Laak's "White Elephants." Originating in developmental aid, the term describes the ruins of ambitious attempts at modernization left to the Third World. In most cases such claims seem to van Laak to have been vastly exaggerated. Unfulfillable expectations provide a theme for his examination of various projects. In dealing with these projects, however, van Laak is not searching for the detailed causes and conditions responsible for failure; rather, he constructs a synopsis of technocratic thinking that has not before existed in this form, at least not in German.

Van Laak primarily addresses large-scale projects that were intended to "combine ambitious technology with politics and alleged massive economic gain" (p. 10). The focus is justifiably directed toward the projects' expansive objectives, which had far-reaching impacts on society as a whole. While all of these projects were marked by enormous costs and long periods of planning and construction, van Laak does not succumb to the temptation to become fascinated by sheer size. Rather, he looks at these projects' role in the fundamental reshaping of the human environment and, thus, finally, of society.

The conditions leading to the rise of macroplanning in the twentieth century are thoughtfully and logically explained in an introductory chapter. Most important as motivating forces, according to van Laak, were perceptions concerning an increasingly precarious ratio of space and population, the distribution and security of diminishing natural resources, and the future availability and increase of energy resources. While his outline of these concerns is brief, the associated explanations about thermodynamics, about the development of increasingly comprehensive concepts of political order and state administration, and about Taylorite notions of efficiency could have done without the rather fashionable appeal to Foucault.

In the following 150 pages van Laak sets a long parade of white elephants marching: first come the big transport projects, with their bridges, tunnels, and transcontinental highways; next comes energy development and electrification; following behind is the planning and building of entire new cities, such as Brasilia and Canberra. Large-scale colonization and land-development projects often had even wider-reaching repercussions, the most prominent example being the Tennessee Valley Authority initiated under the New Deal. Apart from academic literature, van Laak makes use of the daily and weekly press as source material. Occasionally, a limitation of the broad sweep in favor of more analytical depth would have been desirable. [End Page 615]

As ideal examples of technocratic megaprojects the reader is finally presented with the Atlantropa project and the Dawydow plan. The former was aimed at lowering the Mediterranean Sea with the help of a dam at Gibraltar, in order to gain new land and inexhaustible hydroelectric power as well as to achieve the technical and political unification of Europe. The latter aimed to divert three rivers in Eastern Siberia southward into the Aral and Caspian Seas instead of letting them flow "uselessly" into the Arctic Ocean. Riding upon the endless kilometers of canals necessary for this diversion were hopes for huge harvests and the moderation of the continental climate. Van Laak's convincing cultural-historical interpretation is in no way diminished by the fact that both projects never went beyond planning stage.

In a concluding "anatomy lesson" van Laak considers the white elephants in terms of their commonalities: the motives and rationale of their advocates, their inherent dynamics, the distinctions between technical and political approaches to problem-solving, and the self-images cultivated by engineers. Here he exposes the currents of technocratic hypertrophy that more or less pervade the twentieth century. Van Laak has produced a witty and intelligent analysis of hitherto neglected areas in the history of ideas. With this successful synthesis...


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