By way of example, Edgerton discusses the military technologies developed and utilized in World War II, such as the Germans' V-2 rockets [immortalized in Thomas Pynchon's "A screaming comes across the sky"] and American atomic bombs. According to Edgerton, Germany's investment in the V-2 project was "economically and mlitarily irrational" and "more people died producing it than died from being hit by it." Further, "the destructive power of all the V-2s produced amounted to less than could be achieved by a single raid on a city by the RAF." Similarly, Edgerton believes an American investment in more B-29 bombers and tanks could have outperformed the hydrogen bomb [I myself am still trying to absorb this supposed "fact," especially since there is a certain symbolic victory over the so-called "enemy" when a singular weapon, such as the H-bomb, regardless of the waste--human, economic, and otherwise--involved in producing it, can produce such sublime terror and instantaneous widespread destruction]. According to Edgerton, one of the forms of technology that really pulled its weight in World War II [if you are doing the math of: money/human effort "in" against military gains "out"] were things like horse-powered transport. At the beginning of 1945, the German Wermacht had 1.2 million horses, and even today in Afghanistan, the American Special Forces have learned how important horses are for navigating the difficult terrain, and in Darfur, as we are all too well aware, the Janjaweed militia have been executing their genocide, with ferocity, mounted on horses. Shapin offers as his own example of "mixed" technologies, the execution of Saddam Hussein--by hanging ["a technology of judicial killing that goes back to the ancient Persian empire"]--for the modern-style nerve-gas bombing of the Kurdish town of Halabja. Another example he provides, whereby an "old" technology replaces a "new" one, is the condom: "The emergence of AIDS caused condom sales to more than double between the early nineteen-eighties and the mid-nineties. And, for the first time, the old technology of the condom enjoyed an advantage previously monopolized by the new technology of the pill: it could be freely talked about in polite society."
no one is very good at predicting technological futures; new and old technologies coexist; and technological significance and technological novelty are rarely the same--indeed, a given technology's grip on our awareness is often in inverse relationship to its significance in our lives. Above all . . . we are wrong to associate technology solely with invention, and . . . should think of it, rather, as evolving through use.
As regards technologies that never took off but could have vastly improved our lives, Shapin reminds us of how, in 1897, Manhattan "started to equip itself with an island-wide system of underground pneumatic tubes, which soon extended from 125th Street as far as the Brooklyn General Post Office," although ultimately, the telegraph and the telephone flourished at the expense of the tubes. But, Shapin surmises, what if these pneumatic tubes could have been improved upon over a century's worth of innovation? "A man working on Eighty-sixth Street could send a scribbled note, chocolates, and a pair of earrings to his girlfriend on Wall Street. To have left your wallet at home could be a mistake remedied in seconds." According to Shapin,
Edgerton calls the tendency to overrate the impact of dramatic new technologies [Apple's new iPhone, anyone?] "futurism." Few things, it turns out, are as passe as past futures. In the mid-twentieth century, a world was promised in which nuclear power would provide electricity "too cheap to meter," eliminating pollution, forestalling energy crises, and alleviating world poverty; hypersonic civil air travel would whip masses of us around the globe in an hour or two; permanent settlements would be established not just on the moon but on the planets; nuclear weapons would put an end to war. And so it goes.
Some readers here might recall a post I made a few weeks ago, just before leaving St. Louis to return to Conway, South Carolina [where I spend my summers], about an art exhibit I viewed at the Saint Louis Art Museum devoted to the stunning monumental paintings of Angelina Gualdoni, whose work is preoccupied with capturing modernist and futurist architecture post-abandonment and post-decay. One of her series of paintings concerns the 1999 demise of the Horizons Pavilion in Future World at Walt Disney's Epcot Center. Horizons featured a series of dioramas depicting imagined futures, including underwater cities and a space colony; these once-popular fantasies grew outmoded and embarrassing to their makers in just a few decades. [If you haven't already, read MKH's lovely meditation on her own adolescent fascination with futurism and the Epcot Center here.] Of this group of paintings, Gualdoni wrote,
I painted the demolition event as a slow inevitable, as if the building had given way to release its fluid miasma, the fruition of unmet expectations. As the building was demolished its guts oozed and dripped and the minimal building became organic, inverting the dichotomy of lush, organic life versus static architecture.
Shapin also reminds us that "[o]ur obsession with innovation . . . blinds us to how much of technology is focused on keeping things the same. The dikes of Holland maintain the integrity of the nation, and great ingenuity goes into preserving and improving them," and we are "going to need a lot more, and more powerful, technologies of conservation: not just the technologies of levees and barriers against the ocean but technologies to maintain the supply of potable water, breathable air, and arable soil; technologies to maintain as much biodiversity as we can or want to maintain; technologies to preserve and renew our crumbling Victorian legacies of infrastructure (sewers, rail beds, roads, and bridges); technologies to stabilize and prevent the dispersal of radioactive waste."
In his essay's conclusion, Shapin notes that, for most of us, how technology works is not what interests us: "As users, we typically want our technology to be a black box; we don't want to be bothered with adjusting it, monitoring it, repairing it, or knowing about its inner workings. A sure sign of the success of a technology is that we scarcely think of it as technology at all." But it ultimately turns out that things--gadgets, tools, what-have-you--are very important in our lives, even when we are not thinking about them very much or how they work.
So all of this got me thinking: as medievalists, can we take note anywhere in our global present, of technologies that are still highly useful in a "modern" way, yet are also "premodern"? Also, is there any technology in your own life which is "old" but which you could not live without, yet hardly even think upon? For me, it would be the 1940s percolator that I bought at the Vietnam Veterans thrift store in Richmond, Virginia round about 1988. It cost 25 cents and it makes the best cup of coffee I have ever tasted. Has anyone noticed, too, that all of a sudden, percolators [but newer, shinier models] are making a comeback? Even Target is selling them, and I've tried one or two new models, and the coffee is too weak. Also, in 1992, I typed my entire M.F.A. thesis on an antique manual Corona typewriter that my sister bought for me in an antiques store in Boston. Of course, computers were readily available to me, but I wanted the "authenticity" of the typewriter, imaging myself some kind of Jack Kerouac--in this case, I was thinking about the technology too much, and yes, I suffered for my "art" as a result.
[title of this post is a quotation from Thomas Carlyle, essayist par excellence]
UPDATE: Another question I just thought of, also, might be: are there any "passe past futures" that we can think of that were "dreamed" in the Middle Ages? Was Stonehenge, perhaps, one of these?