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Technology and Culture 41.3 (2000) 597-598

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Book Review

Der Optimismus der Ingenieure: Triumph der Technik in der Krise der Moderne um 1900

Der Optimismus der Ingenieure: Triumph der Technik in der Krise der Moderne um 1900. Edited by Hans-Liudger Dienel. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1998. Pp. 168; illustrations, tables, notes/references, bibliography, index. DM 68.

"Fin de siècle" is a well-known term in intellectual history. Originally the title of an 1888 play by F. de Jouvenot and H. Micard, it has become shorthand for the feeling of pessimism and resignation that allegedly afflicted urban Europeans at the end of the nineteenth century. Although not plagued by anything like Y2K problems, people in cities such as Paris, Berlin, and Vienna are depicted as sensing that steady improvement had reached a peak and that the future would not necessarily bring further progress. They are said to have viewed the twentieth century with resignation and foreboding.

By contrast, many scholars who have considered the relationship between technology and culture a century ago emphasize the prevalence of different sorts of emotions. As Stephen Kern did in The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983), Joachim Radkau has more recently focused on the rapid changes that took place in what he has termed this "era of nervousness" (Das Zeitalter der Nervosität [Munich: C. Hanser, 1998]). Instead of depicting an inward-looking and stagnant culture, Kern and Radkau depict a society struggling to come to grips with novelty and modernity. In a similar vein, Michael Salewski has claimed that most Europeans were hardly affected by depression and misgivings, but rather felt a sense of optimism and even euphoria--especially when it came to things technical.

Salewski made this assertion in an essay included in an anthology he [End Page 597] edited along with Ilona Stölken-Fitschen, Moderne Zeiten, that was published by Franz Steiner Verlag in 1994. Now, from the same publisher, we have Der Optimismus der Ingenieure, which complements Moderne Zeiten nicely. In his introductory essay, Hans-Liudger Dienel argues that at least in Germany "the overwhelming majority of the population looked into the 20th century with huge expectations" (p. 16). Paradoxically, many representatives of the engineering profession still nourished an apprehension of being misunderstood and not taken seriously, and as a result they developed a visionary stance that combined utopian and redemptive elements in relation to technology and society. Hence the title, "The Optimism of the Engineers."

All the contributors to this volume argue more-or-less explicitly that leading German engineers and scientists fused the technical with the social in their optimistic views of the future. This is most forcefully set forth by Maria Osietzki, who draws on Donna Haraway's concept of "hybrid" to designate phenomena with both natural and artificial characteristics. Osietzki shows how, after 1900, there materialized the age-old vision of an energetically perfect machine that could escape the agony of heat death--a true fin de siècle dystopia--by means of cybernetics. In a manner that reminds one of Thomas Hughes's work on sociotechnical systems (although without relating or referring to Networks of Power), Norbert Gilson implies that visions of an integrated Prussian electrical network were decisively influenced by politically centralist ideas, primarily developed during the First World War. Focusing on water pollution, Jürgen Büschenfeld describes the fight by physicians and physiologists for the establishment of emissions standards for industrial waste. And, in the final chapter, literary historian Sigrid Lange analyzes the social role of engineers and the cultural meaning of technology in plays and novels (Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain and Robert Musil's Man without Qualities) from the first decades of the twentieth century.

By focusing on the decades around 1900 and on the social and technical visions of engineers and scientists, this slim volume attains a thematic cohesiveness. Each chapter makes for interesting, and in a couple of cases quite exciting, reading. However, much more effort could have been put into the...


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