Johns Hopkins University Press
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  • Leonardo to the Internet: Technology and Culture from the Renaissance to the Present by Thomas J. Misa
Leonardo to the Internet: Technology and Culture from the Renaissance to the Present Third edition. By Thomas J. Misa. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2022. Pp. 424.

inline graphic First published in 2004, this influential book by Tom Misa is now in its third edition, updated and enlarged. The work is located within a trend of long-term works, attentive to the suggestions of cultural and material history that have emerged in the last two decades. The author rejects the thesis of technology as an incremental history of innovations as well as the "linear model," which sees a link of direct filiation of technology from science, reducing the former to the role of applied science.

The great social, economic, and cultural changes in their complex intersections with technology are at the heart of the narrative. The central assumption is that this multifaceted relationship is historically and spatially defined: far from any technological determinism, the book builds a two-way influence. The culture and characteristics of each specific society lead to the identification of the most desirable objectives and the acceptable means to achieve them; conversely, the technologies implemented influence the forms of development of society.

To investigate these developments in the long term, the author uses representative technologies of each age, dividing the more than six centuries analyzed into distinct "eras." The first is that of the Renaissance courts, which moved toward civil constructions, military equipment, and spectacular entertainment, leaving behind two fundamental technologies for the representation and communication of knowledge: the three-dimensional perspective and movable-type printing.

The following two eras represent the development of capitalism. First was commercial capitalism, based on multicentered exchanges of commodities, maritime technologies (the famous Dutch fluyts), and banks and stock exchanges best exemplified by the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic. Next came the British Industrial Revolution, with its specialized industries and [End Page 220] savings on costs and labor thanks to economies of scale, shifting the emphasis from quality to quantity of products (cotton, iron, and coal, but also beer, rightly indicated by the author as a typical production of the time). Then a further development: imperialist capitalism, which used steamboats, telegraph communications, and railways to expand and consolidate the British Empire, allowing the rise of cities such as London, the global financial capital, but also Chicago and New York.

The Second Industrial Revolution founded on science-based technologies began in 1870, exemplified by the development of the chemical industries in Germany and the epic of electricity, which highlighted the complexity of the relationship between science and technology. Similarly, Misa examines the relationship between aesthetics and technology through the use of materials such as glass and steel in modernist urban architecture, a theme already dealt with in an exemplary fashion by the author in Modernity and Technology (2003). The chapter on military technologies in the twentieth century is intriguing: continuing the red thread of the role of power groups in orienting technological choices, the author underlines the weight of the military apparatuses not only in World War II with the Manhattan Project but also subsequently in the climate of a Cold War characterized by closed and centralized research systems.

A very different situation emerged in the age of globalization (1970–2001), when a wave of optimism pushed toward open and user/consumer-oriented structures. It was the moment of the global diffusion of McDonald's—with its different ways of local hybridization—and above all of the internet. It is indicative of the situation today that the new sections of this edition (chs. 9 and 10) are almost the reverse of the "Whig history" and its faith in progress. Precisely in the case of digital technologies, the author accompanies us in the transition from a first phase of euphoric and apparently autonomous growth to a phase of increasing intervention by states (internet sovereignty) and private institutions—officially for security purposes, in reality for control purposes (in 2016 alone, there were fifty-six multiday internet shutdowns in the world, mainly for political reasons) (p. 317).

The final reflections on the role of technology in today's society conclude a book that represents an important and updated contribution to the history of technology, full of original food for thought and endowed with a lively narrative style, which is well reflected in the fascinating biographies of both illustrious and lesser-known personalities. This book is indispensable and exciting reading for both scholars and a wider audience. [End Page 221]

Emanuela Scarpellini

Emanuela Scarpellini is a professor of modern history at the University of Milan. She is the author of Italian Fashion since 1945: A Cultural History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).

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