May 25, 2006


Technology Matters: Questions to Live With. By David E. Nye. MIT Press. $27.95.

     Peppered with pithy comments as it tangles with 10 essentially unanswerable questions, Technology Matters is an intriguing book that seems to be searching for the right audience.  David E. Nye, professor of comparative American studies and history at Warwick University, has the intellect and vocabulary to write an academic study, but not (at least in this case) the temperament.  Yet he has a wealthy-world-centric perspective on technology that prevents his book from reaching out much beyond Ivory Tower circles.

     Thus, some of his questions are simply phrased and should be widely accessible: What is technology?  Is technology predictable? Do new technologies destroy jobs or create new opportunities?  But other questions are phrased with much greater complexity: Is technology inherently deterministic, or is it inflected or even shaped by culture?  Does an increasingly technological lifeworld expand mental horizons or encapsulate human beings in artifice?

     When he speaks of technology, Nye is talking of it as First World countries understand it: although a better water-delivery system is technology of the greatest importance in rural Africa or Asia, Nye is more interested in the effects of children playing with telephones and PlayStations.  Thus, his analysis of technology is by its nature limited.

     Nye certainly expresses himself well when he wishes to: “A tool always implies at least one small story.”  “[Robinson] Crusoe transforms himself from a castaway into the owner of a colony.”  “Do weapons make people safer?  Consider this question on a personal level.”  But he sometimes turns phrases for their own sake: “The factory system undermined the musical aspects of traditional work.”  And he has a tendency to state the obvious as if he is providing a revelation: “In the fifteenth century the new technology of printing was first used to produce Bibles.  Politics itself was not openly discussed in print.”

     Nye does have a big idea, and a valid one: we should subject technology to the same sorts of big-picture questions that we usually reserve for politics and economics, since technology is an equal, if not greater, shaper of society.  Actually, he sees technology and society engaged in a sort of mutual feedback mechanism: technological developments shape society; the newly shaped society makes additional technological developments possible; those new technologies then shape society further, and so on.  This makes sense as a kind of meta-view of technological progress, though it tells us little about how (or if) it is possible to make human adaptations as quickly and effectively as we make technological ones.

     In fairness, it must be said that Nye’s questions may be inherently unanswerable, or answerable with a lot of “both” and “yes, but” comments.  For example, “do advanced technologies make life more secure, or do they expose humanity to escalating dangers?”  The only reasonable answer is “both.”  And what do we do with that answer?  Nye does not know; but then, no one really does.  Nye deserves more credit for raising significant technological questions than blame for failing to find reasonable, much less simple, answers to them.

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