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Technology and Culture 41.3 (2000) 595-597



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Book Review

The Intellectual Appropriation of Technology: Discourses on Modernity, 1900-1939


The Intellectual Appropriation of Technology: Discourses on Modernity, 1900-1939. Edited by Mikael Hård and Andrew Jamison. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998. Pp. vi+287; notes/references, bibliography, index. $18.

This collection of essays explores the ways in which intellectuals in Western nations interpreted the increasingly contradictory relationship between technology and society during the first four decades of the twentieth century. Rather than making blanket generalizations, the authors have interpreted the intellectual response to the "technology question" in specific national contexts. That this book is largely successful in demonstrating the extent to which debates on the role of technology in society were context-dependent is largely attributable to its cohesiveness and to the unusual (for an edited volume) degree to which the various essays complement one another. [End Page 595]

The book originated as a research project on technology and ideology based at the Department of Theory of Science at Gothenburg University, and its collaborative nature is readily apparent. For example, the editors not only establish the conceptual framework in the introductory first chapter, they also contribute to the main body of essays (Mikael Hård wrote the third chapter, Andrew Jamison wrote the fourth and coauthored the sixth). Cross-referencing between the chapters and an integrated, comprehensive bibliography also help to keep the book tightly focused.

The first two chapters set the parameters within which the subsequent essays approach intellectual responses to technology. Chapters 3-5 flesh out the conceptual skeleton by analyzing the works of influential intellectuals in Western Europe and the United States. Notable here is the authors' recognition that the "first crisis of modernity," as Peter Wagner calls it in Chapter 9, occurred at different times in different countries, the moment being determined largely by a nation's experience in the First World War. Chapter 6 brings in a fresh perspective by studying Sweden, a noncombatant in that war. There, "almost all participants remained true to a basically instrumental and optimistic view of technological development," due to the fact that "Sweden, almost alone among European countries, has been spared the firsthand experience of twentieth-century technological warfare" (pp. 139-40). For the Swedes the true crisis came earlier, in 1905, when the dissolution of the union with Norway called its status as a great power into question. Chapter 7 furthers the argument by studying how household technologies were assimilated along gender lines in America, Germany, and Sweden.

The most effective essay is Dick van Lente's on the response of Dutch harbor workers to the introduction of pneumatic grain unloaders in 1905-7. By using a case study, van Lente shows how intellectual debates were crystallized into ideologies that influenced the way workers behaved in a crisis situation. He clearly documents this relevance of intellectual debate to the broader community, and in so doing demonstrates that the history of ideas need not be dissociated from the history of people.

These strengths notwithstanding, The Intellectual Appropriation of Technology is not without problems. Historiography is always a favorite target for reviewers because we can easily name books that should have been cited but were not. In this case, however, I think there is a historiographic omission significant enough to warrant mention. Wagner tends to accept the Chandlerian paradigm unquestioningly, and in the bibliography there is no mention of authors such as Mansel Blackford, Ulrich Wengenroth, or Philip Scranton, who over the last decade have pointed out the limitations of Chandler's generally outstanding synthesis.

Of greater concern is the inconsistency with dates. Many of the authors draw primary quotations from secondary sources without giving the date of the original source. This makes it difficult for the critical reader to evaluate [End Page 596] the use of primary source material based on chronology, and adding a second date to the citations would have been a fairly simple remedy. The key role of dates in contextualization is evident in Wagner's discussion of Heidegger. His intention is...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1097-3729
Print ISSN
0040-165X
Pages
pp. 595-597
Launched on MUSE
2000-07-01
Open Access
No
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