October 16, 2012

Technology: America as Second Creation

After the American Century

Some years ago an American magazine interviewed me about America as Second Creation (MIT Press, 2003), but in the end decided not to publish the interview. Here it is with only slight revisions to hide the identity of the magazine.

Tell me about your background, and what led you to write about technology.
I had a good education, first at Amherst and then Minnesota for my Ph.D.  I was lucky that my father is an engineer, who never tired of explaining to me how things worked. Because of him, even as a kid I knew that there’s nothing inevitable about any technology. Most history books suggest that certain machines are inevitable. Readers get the impression that the canal system, the electric light or the airplane just had to come when they did. But these technologies, or the railroad or the automobile, could have been made earlier or later, or in many different ways, shapes, and sizes, and they might never have become as central to American life as they did. Someone makes each one, designers try to improve it, and someone tries to market it. Technologies are all contingent on the human element, and there is nothing inevitable about the architecture or the timing of a Microsoft program or the Internet. 

Does living abroad make you more aware of this?
Absolutely. Because I ended up teaching US history in Denmark, lots of things that seemed natural to me as an American suddenly seemed artificial. The Danes made different choices, for example using bicycles a lot more, rejecting skyscraper architecture, heating their homes and offices centrally rather than putting a furnace in each one, and so on. All the talk about globalization can mislead. Technological systems are not the same everywhere, because cultures shape them.

The idea of America rewriting its history and eliminating the devastation brought upon those before them has been explored before, (Howard Zinn, for example) And the idea of technology not being inherently positive, of course, has also been a theme before. Describe the new angle, argument, or message that is at the center of your America as Second Creation.
Good questions. Every generation rewrites history, emphasizing the stories that seem most important to it. For the last generation, most American history writing has not been about technology. It has focused on race, gender, ethnicity, and class. This is a good thing, in the sense that it is no longer a story dominated by generals and politicians who mostly were white males. Meanwhile, a sub-field, the history of technology has grown up on the margins, but most historians still pretty much ignore it. My book seeks to wake people up to the centrality of technology in American history, not by pointing once again at a list of great machines, the cotton gin, the steam engine, and so on. Instead, I argue that technologies are a central part of the stories long used to explain America’s growth and development. Not only that, but there have always been competing stories about even something as apparently simple as the American axe.

But two chapters on the American axe?
Certainly, one devoted to the heroic stories of the pioneers wielding the axe to clear the forests and build log cabins, and one chapter about environmental destruction. One about the axe as an individualistic symbol, and one about fears that overuse of the axe would destroy watershed areas, eliminate wildlife habitat, and undermine Native American culture. And please note, there is some truth to both of these stories. You cannot understand American history through just one of them. So the whole book is built up in alternating chapters, exploring both the heroic stories about railroads, factories, irrigation systems and other things, and the counter-narratives that speak for what was lost or damaged or compromised.  I see my work as a way to link the history of machines to the history of ordinary people.

Can you tell me how this work expands on, or is different from your previous works?
I see the new book as the end of a trilogy on technology in the US. American Technological Sublime (1994) looked at the excitement surrounding new machines, without examining the longer-term consequences. Consuming Power (1998), in contrast, was about the long-term, as it looked at how and why the US became far and away the world’s largest energy consumer. And the new book is about how Americans weave machines into their sense of the nation, through telling stories. So, for example, the first book looked at how the railroad, the first skyscrapers or Apollo XI seemed just utterly amazing when they were new, and shows that Americans saw technologies to be as sublime as the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls. The second book also included a section on the railroad, but it focused on how Americans used the steam engine to reorganize social and economic life.  The third book barely touches on either of these topics, because it is about the foundation stories that Americans told – literally stories about how the country came into being. The pioneer with the axe or the new railroad built into the wilderness were conceived as remaking the world. People believed they were transforming America into a second creation.

Which contemporary technologies strike you as most likely to be at the center of American historical narratives of our era?
The Internet. So many different stories and ideas were floating around in the 1990s about what it meant. The whole concept of cyberspace exemplifies the idea of second creation, of building a new community or new economy in a new realm. Just look at John Perry Barlow’s "Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace" or at any number of things that were predicted about it. It was a  utopian moment. And, of course, there were dystopian fears, too, that cyberspace would bring not liberation or community or a redefinition of gender but government surveillance or corporate tyranny or massive invasion of privacy. And please note that anyone who wants to understand the Internet’s potential and meaning has to take account of both kinds of stories. The cultural moment of the last decade contains both, and they continue to shape the technology, which, remember, is not inevitable but can be made to develop in several possible directions. 
The only other narrative with a similar scope and importance now, it seems to me, is not that of space exploration, which briefly seemed central during the space race of the Cold War. Rather, it is genetic engineering, where again a host of competing stories are trying to convince us about what it means. Americans have bought genetically modified foods, but Europeans mostly have not – because they embed genetic engineering in quite different stories than Americans do.
These stories are not something added on later by historians. They are lived. People have to believe in something to pull up stakes and pioneer or to plunge all their assets into an Internet stock. People act in this life according to narratives. They believe a story before they act, or react.
Early in your book you explain that this American narrative is distinct from Europe’s because of America’s need to create history from scratch, to construct stories that emphasized self-conscious movement into new space. Why is America different in this regard?
Europeans have lived in their nations so long that the land seems to belong to them as a birthright. But white Americans in 1776 could not feel like that. They did not want to define themselves as Europeans after the Revolution, but by what right did these recent immigrants, as a people, take and hold their country? They had not just to imagine themselves to be in a “virgin land” – as though Native Americans had no real claims – they also had to create and believe in stories of expanding into this land and recreating it. These stories are foundation narratives, and they are about technology. They had to believe that the new world, however beautiful, was incomplete and empty, waiting to be transformed. They would earn the right to the land by improving it, making it into a second creation.  Europeans don’t think like that. They embrace their land and their past, including their ruins. Europeans do not see the land as a blank slate to be carved up into squares according to the national grid. But as you can see when flying over the US in a plane, Americans imposed just such a grid, starting in the 1780s. The grid in effect erased the past and said the land was a commodity, ready for sale and development. It became almost like virtual space, waiting for the settler to make it real.