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AMERICAN.COM

A Magazine of Ideas

Technology in America

Friday, April 13, 2012

If America’s ongoing experiment in democracy and economic freedom is to endure, we will need to think again about cultivating the necessary habits of the heart and resisting the allure of the ideology of technology.

Why are Americans addicted to technology? The question has a distinctly contemporary ring, and we might be tempted to think it could only have been articulated within the last decade or two. Could we, after all, have known anything about technology addiction before the advent of the Blackberry? Well, as it turns out, Americans have a longstanding fascination and facility with technology, and the question of technology addiction was one of the many Alexis de Tocqueville thought to answer in his classic study of antebellum American society, Democracy in America.

To be precise, Tocqueville titled the tenth chapter of volume two, “Why The Americans Are More Addicted To Practical Than To Theoretical Science.” In Tocqueville’s day, the word technology did not yet carry the expansive and inclusive sense it does today. Instead, quaint sounding phrases like “the mechanical arts,” “the useful arts,” or sometimes merely “invention” did together the semantic work that we assign to the single word technology.1 “Practical science” was one more such phrase available to writers, and, as in Tocqueville’s case, “practical science” was often opposed to “theoretical science.” The two phrases captured the distinction we have in mind when we speak separately of science and technology.

To answer his question on technology addiction, Tocqueville looked at the political and economic characteristics of American society and what he took to be the attitude toward technology they encouraged. As we’ll see, much of what Tocqueville had to say over 150 years ago resonates still, and it is the compelling nature of his diagnosis that invites us to reverse the direction of the inquiry—to ask what effect the enduring American fascination with technology might have on American political and economic culture. But first, why were Americans, as early as the 1830s, addicted to technology?

We buy our books to give shape to our thinking, but it never occurs to us that the manner in which we make our purchases may have a more lasting influence on our character than the contents of the book.

Tocqueville’s rough and ready quasi-sociological approach led him to conclude that Americans preferred technology to pure science for both political and economic reasons. “Nothing is more necessary to the culture of the higher sciences, or of the more elevated departments of science, than meditation,” Tocqueville explained, “and nothing is less suited to meditation than the structure of democratic society.”2 Theoretical science in his view required aristocratic repose and leisure, and nothing of the sort existed in America. Instead, Americans were promiscuously active. The citizens of democratic nations, according to Tocqueville, “are always dissatisfied with the position which they occupy, and are always free to leave it, they think of nothing but the means of changing their fortune, or of increasing it.”3 Tocqueville, himself an aristocrat, did not think this restless, entrepreneurial climate the ideal habitat of sustained theoretical reflection.

Tocqueville understood what impressed Americans and it was not intellectually demanding and gratifying grand theory. It was rather “every new method which leads by a shorter road to wealth, every machine which spares labor, every instrument which diminishes the cost of production, every discovery which facilitates pleasures or augments them.”4 This was how democratic societies measured the value of science and America was no exception. Science was prized only insofar as it was immediately applicable to some practical and economic aim. Americans were in this sense good Baconians, they believed knowledge was power and science was valuable to the degree that it could be usefully applied.

“It is chiefly from these motives that a democratic people addicts itself to scientific pursuits,” Tocqueville concluded. “You may be sure,” he added, “that the more a nation is democratic, enlightened, and free, the greater will be the number of these interested promoters of scientific genius, and the more will discoveries immediately applicable to productive industry confer gain, fame, and even power on their authors.”5

Technologies not only allow us to act in certain ways that may or may not be ethical, their use also shapes the user and this too may have ethical consequences.

We could summarize Tocqueville’s observations by saying that American society was more likely to produce and admire a Thomas Edison than an Albert Einstein. As a generalization, this seems about right still. The inventor-entrepreneur remains the preferred American icon; Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are the objects of our veneration. This was already evident in the 1830s and Tocqueville eloquently described the distinct blend of technology and economics that we might label America’s techno-start-up culture. But if Tocqueville was right in attributing American attitudes about technology to political and economic circumstances, we should go one step further to ask what might be the political and economic consequences of this enthusiastic embrace of technology.

When we ask questions about technology we often ask about matters such as safety and efficiency or costs and benefits. We don’t often ask, “What sort of person will the use of this or that technology make of me?” Or, more to the present point, “What sort of citizen will the use of this or that technology make of me?” We don’t often ask these sorts of questions because we tend to tacitly endorse a theory about the neutrality of technology, a theory we could call the NRA approach to technology. “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” This slogan nicely encapsulates the view that technologies are ethically neutral and ethical implications attach only to the use to which a technology may be put by individuals.

This notion enjoys a certain commonsensical plausibility, and, as far as it goes, it is true enough. A hammer could be used to build a home or it could be used to injure a person. Nuclear energy could power a city or flatten it. But it is not quite all that can be said on the matter. A fuller account of technology’s ethical ramifications would take into consideration how the use of a technology may inculcate certain habits and engender certain assumptions. In others words, technologies not only allow us to act in certain ways that may or may not be ethical, their use also shapes the user and this too may have ethical consequences. Winston Churchill’s observation about buildings captures this dynamic nicely. “We shape our buildings,” Churchill said, “and afterwards our buildings shape us.”6 He might also have said, we shape our technologies and afterwards our technologies shape us.

Technologies collapse the distance between a desire and its fulfillment by reducing either the time or the effort involved.

Our technologies, of course, are immensely varied and the uses to which they are put even more so. This alone should warn us away from attempting to offer anything like a neat and tidy account of technology’s impact on American society. That said, it may nonetheless be possible to draw some tentative and modest conclusions about general tendencies. One such general tendency might be located in the logic underlying so many of our everyday tools: the often successful effort to collapse the distance between desire and fulfillment.

Technologies collapse the distance between a desire and its fulfillment by reducing either the time or the effort involved. This has long been the point on which new technologies have been marketed, and digital technologies have only augmented a longstanding trend. But they have done so to such a degree that the change may be qualitative. Consider the ease with which we may now locate, purchase, and receive commodities that just a few years ago would have taken us considerably more time and trouble to acquire. The content of a book is only one of a multitude of possible examples, but it illustrates the point remarkably well. Consider what it would have taken to find a relatively rare or out of print work in 1990. What would it have taken to find the book? How much might it have cost to purchase? How long would it have taken to actually have the book in hand? Now consider the same scenario in 2012. The Internet and Amazon together have radically collapsed the time and effort, and most likely the cost. If the book were available electronically, what could have easily taken weeks would now take seconds. This pattern is replicated across the whole spectrum of lived experience. Take a look at the technologies that surround you. You’ll find that many of them similarly collapse the distance between some desire, trivial or otherwise, and its fulfillment.

Theoretical science in his view required aristocratic repose and leisure, and nothing of the sort existed in America. Instead, Americans were promiscuously active.

All of this is marvelous and fascinating and helpful, but cranks, and I’m not always above being a crank, might point out that making something effortless and instant simultaneously renders it ephemeral and trivial. If you eliminate the effort and time involved in realizing a desire, you also diminish the satisfaction and joy that attends the fulfillment. Beyond this, however, there is also the matter of habits and assumptions and how these in turn shape individuals who together comprise the political and economic culture of the nation. What sorts of habits, then, are inculcated by a technological environment ordered around this general tendency?

Certainly not the kind of habits that sit well with the venerable notion of delayed gratification. Nor, it would seem, would these habits leave one well suited for the demands of citizenship. The framers of our political order knew that its success would hang on what they understood as classical republican virtues—thrift, hard work, a measure of austerity, moderation, self-sufficiency, and self-government. It is easy to imagine how different our current political and economic circumstance might be if these virtues were in greater supply—perhaps too easy and facile as well.

For one thing, economic and political forces have themselves been complicit in the erosion of civic virtue. For another, it would be misleading to suggest that our use of certain technologies alone shapes our character or drives economic and political history. But the technological factor should not be underestimated. Technology is a pervasive and ubiquitous dimension of lived experience. It would be foolish to imagine that it plays no part in making us the sort of people we become over time. Unfortunately, we are idealists when it comes to moral formation. We imagine that we are shaped mostly by the ideas we believe. It is true, of course, that ideas have consequences. It is also true, however, that we are shaped by habitual patterns of behavior. We buy our books to give shape to our thinking, but it never occurs to us that the manner in which we make our purchases may have a more lasting influence on our character than the contents of the book.

Tocqueville gave us a wonderful phrase when he described what sustained the American experiment in democracy. Alongside public-spiritedness and religious practice, Tocqueville pointed to what he called “habits of the heart.” Media scholar Quentin Schultze riffed on Tocqueville by speaking of “the habits of the high-tech heart.”7 This latter set of habits threatens to undermine the classic set of civic virtues long associated with the practice of both economic and political liberty.

Americans were in this sense good Baconians, they believed knowledge was power and science was valuable to the degree that it could be usefully applied.

But it is not only through the shaping of our habits that technology affects our political and economic culture. When Tocqueville came to America he may very well have witnessed cases of what historians have called the American technological sublime. Perry Miller was the first to note in passing the almost religious veneration that sometimes attended the experience of new technologies in the early republic. He found that in the early 19th century “technological majesty” had found a place alongside the “starry heavens above and the moral law within to form a peculiarly American trinity of the Sublime.”8 Technology’s cultural ascendancy, he suggested, was abetted by an aspect of awe and wonder bordering on religious reverence.

David Nye followed up on Miller’s observation with a book-length treatment of the technological sublime in America.9 He wove together a series of case studies illustrating the wonder, awe, and trepidation that attended the appearance of technological artifacts including the railroads, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Hoover Dam, skyscrapers, the electrified cityscape, and the atomic bomb. In each case Americans responded to these technologies, either because of their scale or their dynamism, in a manner that can best be described as a nearly religious experience of the sublime. This experience, when wedded to the notion of inevitable progress, came to function as a distinctly American ideology of technology.

Belief in inevitable progress is usually associated with the Enlightenment and is assumed to have characterized European and American assumptions about history until the outbreak of World War One. During that time, however, the idea experienced a subtle but significant evolution. Earlier proponents viewed technological advance as a necessary but not sufficient cause of progress, and progress was understood to include moral and political considerations. By the late 19th century, technology had come to be seen as the leading cause of progress and technological advance overshadowed its political and moral corollaries. Progress came to be understood as the advance of technology for technology’s sake.

The inventor-entrepreneur remains the preferred American icon; Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are the objects of our veneration.

Two 19th-century paintings wonderfully illustrate these developments: John Gast’s “American Progress” from 1872 and Christian Schussele’s “Men of Progress” from 1863. Gast was commissioned by publicist George Crofutt, who tasked Gast with painting a “beautiful and charming female … floating westward through the air, bearing on her forehead the ‘Star of Empire.’”10 The beautiful female was to carry a book in her right hand symbolizing the “common school—the emblem of education” while with her left she “unfolds and stretches the slender wires of the telegraph, that are to flash intelligence throughout the land.”

gast

John Gast’s “American Progress”

Gast’s painting allegorically captures the ethos of the emerging ideology of technology. The goddess Liberty has become Progress, and progress has been exclusively identified with the advance of technology. A similar narrative emerges when we compare John Trumbull’s famous (if not quite accurate) painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence with Schussele’s “Men of Progress.”

Schus2

Christian Schussele’s “Men of Progress”

The two paintings are linked by the image of Benjamin Franklin who, in Trumbull’s painting, is positioned prominently before the Declaration of Independence by the side of John Hancock. In Schussele’s work, he appears in the top left corner of the scene watching approvingly over the 19th-century men of progress, including Samuel Colt, Cyrus McCormick, Charles Goodyear, Elias Howe, and Samuel Morse. We might safely call this the American Pantheon, and may not be too far off the mark to conclude that the reverence paid the Founders had been, by the middle of the 19th century, transferred to these men of progress.

Trumbull

John Trumbull's "Declaration of Independence"

Russell Kirk famously suggested that “conservatism is the negation of ideology,” but the ideology of technology is one that has garnered bi-partisan support. It may be one of the few unspoken assumptions shared by most Americans regardless of political affiliation. The problem with such ideologies, as Kirk well knew, is that they threaten to blind us to important dimensions of reality, a danger inherent in the ideology of technology no less than any other. In this case, it may be that we have been blinded to the irreducible necessity of public virtue. We speak of technological innovation as if it alone could cure our economic and political ills. We forget that our economic and political culture is finally composed of individuals whose actions are driven by character, and character is in large measure the product of habitual patterns of action. It would be one of history’s great ironies if under the cover of the ideology of technology, we allowed our use of technology to erode the habits of the heart essential to the health of our society.

In the middle of the turbulent 1930s, with Nazism, Fascism, and Stalinism flourishing, T. S. Eliot wrote of men who dreamed “of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.”11 The ideology of technology tempts us in a similar manner. In the end we always find that such dreams yield nightmares that are all too real. If America’s ongoing experiment in democracy and economic freedom is to endure, we will need to think again about cultivating the necessary habits of the heart and resisting the allure of the ideology of technology.

Michael Sacasas is pursuing a PhD in the University of Central Florida's "Texts & Technology" program. He blogs on technology and culture at thefrailestthing.com and teaches at Belhaven University.

FURTHER READING: Daniel Akst discusses “Science and the Chattering Classes.” Kenneth P. Green and Hiwa Alaghebandian observe “Science Turns Authoritarian.” John Steele Gordon questions, “The End of the Book?” David Shaywitz contributes "Forget Bulls And Bears: Why Are So Many Investors Boors?" David Shaywitz says "Leaders of Science-Driven Businesses Should Understand...Science." Michael Barone offers “Obama’s Antique Vision of Technological Progress.”

Footnotes:

1. Marx, Leo. “Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept,” Technology and Culture 51:3 (July 2010).

2. Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America, p. 554.

3. Democracy in America, p. 557-558.

4. Ibid, 558.

5. Ibid.

6. Churchill made this comment in a speech to the House of Commons on October 28, 1943.

7. Quentin Schultze’s Habits of the High-Tech Heart appeared in 2002.

8. Miller, Perry. The Life of the Mind in America, 1965, p.291.

9. Nye, David E. American Technological Sublime, 1996.

10. Quotations from Merritt Roe Smith’s “Technological Determinism in American Culture,” in Does Technology Drive History?: The Dilemma of Technological Determinism, edited by Merritt Roe Smith and Leo Marx, 1994.

11. This line is found in “Choruses from ‘The Rock’” written in 1934.

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group