Wednesday, July 04, 2007

without Tools he is Nothing, with Tools he is all

In a recent New Yorker essay, Steven Shapin reviews a new book by the British historian of military and industrial technology David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900 [Oxford UP, 2007], which offers what Shapin terms a "vigorous assault" on the commonly-held assumption that supposedly "new" technologies are the driving force in historical progress and change. In short, in Edgerton's view,
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.

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."

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?


Karl Steel said...

"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."

Not an analytic comment, not just yet. But this quotation hit me at a funny time. Today was my day to try to clean my lappy's fan. Word to the wise, although given my lappy's age (nearly 2 years old), probably not necessary: don't buy an HP Pavilion ze2000. It's just about impossible to get at the fan, which is, of course, the one internal part that should be routinely cleaned. Creeps. I did manage to get a huge amount of gunk out...

Anonymous said...

Maybe the way we think about books is appropriate. Despite attempts to market e-books, the old-fashioned codex model is extraordinarily resilient. And e-books themselves really just try to imitate regular books in their design and presentation anyway.

A lot of reading can be (and is) read online now, but for me (and I imagine many others) this reading consists mostly of blogs, news articles, and e-mails. Nobody reads books online, because the book format (was this developed c.400 AD?) is still very effective.

Steve Muhlberger said...

This post should not be allowed to pass without mention the blog Paleo-
devoted specifically to the future that never was. Some of quite recent vintage.

That percolator now. It must be a superior model. My parents used percolators since the 40s at least until quite recently, and maybe still do, and the coffee has been weak.

Dr. Virago said...

Tom beat me to it, but I was going to say the codex. So I'll say ruled paper, which is just a pre-set-up version of what scribes had to do before writing.

And also, I'd like to point out that reading things via the computer -- if not books, at least other formerly print media, and newer things like blogs -- has brought back the scroll. Interesting that this "new" technology of the internet decided to jump back to a time prior to the codex for its model of text presentation.

Karl Steel said...

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

Knives, certainly, because as much fun as it is to use the food processor or blender, knives are much easier to clean.

Which leads me to wonder about technology and masculinity. It is of course de rigeur for men to be thrilled with each new technological wonder (while I find this thrill contemptible, an ovine mesmerized enthusiasm for capitalism, I'm guilty of it myself). At the same time, men take a particular pride in mastering "archaic" technologies, especially in cooking. In part this is the illusion of authenticity: cooking outdoors on a grill gets us closer to the truth of matters than pressure cooking, or so the unstated logic goes. At the same time, we don't see these modern Western men behaving like the roman soldiers of old, who ideally cooked with nothing more than a spit; the suburban fantasy is for a 5-figure grill with dials and dials and dials.

Now, in seeing a conflict here am I imposing double structure--love of the authentic primitive v. love of technology--that actually doesn't obtain?

Karl Steel said...

I also thought a bit about genocide and technology. I imagine the Holocaust would have been impossible without trains, machine guns, and poison gas, although slave labor (a kind of technological transformation of masses of people into tools) certainly played its part.

But then there's Rwanda, where 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered by machete, a premodern technology. Yet for this to happen, Rwanda needed to be flooded with cheap machetes. And that's where modern technology came in. Cheap Chinese goods, responsible for so much evil, were responsible here, too. I'm chilled, horrified really, by this juxtaposition: this is the same as this.

Anonymous said...

Axes and saws go along with knives as a very old idea which has been improved by modern technology but not completely changed or supplanted. I still use a handsaw and an axe to cut firewood.

And what about nails? They're still very widely used and haven't been rendered obsolete by screws or glue.

In music acoustic instruments are still going strong despite the invention of samplers and synths.

Simple wooden chairs/stools co-exist with modern designs.

Eileen Joy said...

Dr. V: how awfully clever of you to note that reading on a computer [especially reading blogs, which, like Arts & Letters Daily, are designed broadsheet-style] is a return to the scroll [or the 18th-century broadsheet, and speaking of the 18th century, what about the revival of coffee shop culture?]. Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier make much the same point in their book "A History of Reading in the West" [excellent book, btw]

Steve M.: yes, believe it or not, my 1940-something 25-cent percolator makes awfully strong coffee, but I sometimes wonder what's flaking off the inside of the pot and into my endless cups--could this be the reason for my preternatural ability to stay up late most nights and my constant nervous exhaustion over the Bush White House?

Other great "old" inventions I can't live without:

the stapler
jazz LPs [especially Stan Getz and Chet Baker and Ella Fitzgerald and Betty Carter and Django Reinhardt]
my silver VW Beetle
Chanel perfume
my Bianchi Milano bicycle
Cambridge University Library
coffee [best served in a 1950s diner mug]
my British-made Jackson & Spears uni-welded shovel

"New" inventions I can't live without:

my iPod
my PowerBook G5
my new Chocolate cellphone/mp3 player
my DVD player [plus all my DVDs]

Anonymous said...

All go all Ongian and mention writing systems as important transparent premodern technologies. But I'd go farther than Ong and name langauge itself as a critical technology. And keeping with this line of thought, I'll name "story" as the technology I wouldn't want to live without.

Eileen Joy said...

And John, as to "story" being the one technology you can't do without, cognitive scientists would agree with you. Although there is no so-called "central meaning-maker" in the Cartesian theater of our brain [according to the likes of Daniel Dennett and others], little narrative- and parable-like "bits" traveling back and forth on the various train-tracks of our neural circuitry would seem to be the very "structure" of all consciousness. Mark Turner's "The Literary Mind" is my favorite book on this subject.

Anonymous said...

cereal. Although it has been argued that cereal - (the crop not cornflakes, sillies) - invented us, our languages, our ideas our human relationships.

Karl Steel said...

Although it has been argued that cereal - (the crop not cornflakes, sillies) - invented us, our languages, our ideas our human relationships.

I've heard the same thing said about domesticating dogs. Surely we can thing of 'the dog' in its domesticated form as a kind of technology?

Anonymous said...

Pardon the long blurb. It's today's writing, so there are threads dangling (and maybe a modifier or two).

Walter Benjamin and the Art of Prayer: "mixed" technologies in an age of Technical Reproduction.

I’ve been reading Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” and three related statements grabbed my attention in terms of their applicability to prayer techniques developed in twelfth century Europe. These techniques, which were nothing less than the conscious adaptation of classical theories of composition, were developed to teach novices how to pray effectively. In short, the prayer methods outlined in treatises such as De modo orandi and De modo dicendi et meditandi (both associated with Hugh of St. Victor) were techniques for reproducing prayers that bound the body of the Church together in its daily liturgies and devotional practices. I like to call these techniques collectively “technologies of prayer.”

Benjamin’s first statement that I’d like to read in terms of prayer production observes that “process reproduction is more independent of the original than manual reproduction” (220). The successful implementation of the prayer techniques outlined in these twelfth-century instruction manuals enabled, at first, monks to better participate in monastic devotional practices developed and revamped in the late eleventh and early twelfth century. Devotional prayers supplemented the liturgical prayers performed in chapels and at the alters of regular mass. Over the course of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, these same devotional techniques were able to spread to lay practitioners through the burgeoning technologies of Psalters and Books of Hours. By the middle part of the thirteenth century, lay practitioners—particularly women—were seen to challenge the heterodoxy of liturgical prayer.

Barbara Newman’s important essay, “What Did It Mean to Say “I Saw”? The Clash between Theory and Practice in Medieval Visionary Culture,” outlines one vein of tension in this hetero-orthodox fault line of devotional prayer. She explains that “visionary experience was not a spontaneous, wholly unpredictable incursion of the divine into the world. Rather,” she continues, “it was a privileged cultural practice by which those with appropriate qualifications . . . might court sacred encounters through techniques for the deliberate alteration of consciousness” (5-6). Access to this habitus of devotion was originally limited to scattered monastic communities. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, however, several pedagogies emerged that were specifically designed to instill this habitus of devotional prayer, what I argue elsewhere should be considered in terms of the classical orator. With the emergence of Psalters and Books of Hours written specifically for lay men and women in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, these methods of devotional prayer and meditation were translated to new audiences well beyond the social scope of the method’s original audience. In short, once the process of devotional prayer was “black-boxed” in the form of the Book of Hours, a devotional space of being independent of monastic and priestly (i.e., “corporate”) control quickly emerged.

The second statement that establishes my Benjaminian (?!)perspective into the mixed technologies of the rhetoric of prayer composition and the Book of Hours reads: “technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself” (220). For me, this sentence identifies a formal i.e., perennial characteristic of technical reproduction. Again, the expansion of devotional prayer enabled by technical reproduction of the practice of prayer through the growth of manuscript culture placed the discursive power of oratory into the hands of individuals outside of the immediate influence of the Church. Newman’s article underscores the heterodox/orthodox conflict in mystics. See, for example, her discussion of “Scripted Visions: From the Cloister into the World” (25-33), in which, for example, she reads “Margery Kempe not as an ‘original mystic’ but as a grateful reader, telling us exactly why visionary guidebooks enjoyed the enormous and lasting popularity that they did.” As any reader of Margery’s text will see, Margery’s own visions were not without their skeptics. Newman’s comment should come as no surprise, then when she observes, “[s]ome of this negative attitude toward visionary experience appears to have been rooted in a deeply skeptical strain peculiar to English Scholasticism” (35). Margery was what the twelfth-century prayer treatise, De modo dicendi et meditandi, calls a “bonus lector:” a good performer of devotional prayer. Yet she was not bound to the corporate body of the Church the way her twelfth-century forefathers and mothers had been. She was a curve ball, never in a predictable enough place for some fathers to feel comfortable.

Finally, the third statement I would like to invoke here from Benjamin claims that technical reproduction “enables the original to meet the beholder halfway, be it in the form of a photograph or a phonograph record” (220-21). The Book of Hours enabled the power of prayer to leave the architectural and corporate confines of the cathedral and the parish chapels and to enter into the domestic intimacy of the laity, spaces where the Church had heretofore been unable to penetrate with any regular success.

Eileen Joy said...

Karl, as to your thoughts regarding technology and the Holocaust, which has often been described by historians and others as a kind of "dark" par excellence use of modern technology [thereby calling the idea of modernity as "progress" into question--i.e., what's so great about modernity when it gives you the Final Solution, the gulag, and the H-bomb, etc.?], I think that Edgerton would argue that, yet again, the Nazi's "Final Solution," much like their V-2 rockets, was another example of something more supposedly "new" not necessarily being efficient. Case in point, that draws upon your Rwanda example:

1. the use of gas vans at Chelmo, in Poland: how horribly inefficient was it, anyway, to exterminate *all* the Jews, one van at a time?


2. 800,000+ Tutsis killed in Rwanda in 1994 in a matter of just a few months, and all with machetes [made in China, sure, but sold to the Hutus by the French, don't forget]

I would even go so far to argue that the bureaucratic structure the Nazis were so in love with, actually slowed them down, and in a way: thank god.

Hmmmm, now I must go and think upon prayer technology by way of Benjamin.

Eileen Joy said...

Steve M.--I forgot to say that the blog you passed on to us, Paleo-Future, is fantastic! It would give one pause to make too many futurist pronouncements after reading this. It also makes some presentist pronouncements [i.e., "there is no longer an authentic self"] also look stupid.

Anonymous said...

Just a brief comment on the scroll/screen issue. I am glas we are observing this. In the history of the book, the ole' scroll lost out a long time ago to the codex, simply because its a pain in the butt to use, if you need to find something.

What we have here is a scroll with a search function.

Beyond this--the blog reminds us of the bookmaking techniques from the middle ages in which one might "write" one might "scribe" and another set illuminate. We now have those who run a blog, and then the somewhat unregulated comments of blog participants and readers.

It is this lack of centrality, this rhizomatic growth of the writing on the blog that make me think of the "real" possibilties of "the end of the book the beginning of writing".

ps. if i am not posting much these days, its bc i'm in a latin intensive.

Eileen Joy said...

Dan R.--your idea about the blog as a scroll with a search function, but also as a kind of rhizomatic, write-able and re-writeable "book" is wonderful. I like that image/idea very much, and I like the communitarian horizons it opens up, in which the singular "author" gives way to the writer as "rabble."

Good luck with your "latin intensive," by the way; we *have* missed you.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks EJ for the point on France and for correcting my innumeracy. It's too easy to demonize China for its labor practices &c without remembering what enables its export market.

"passe past futures" that we can think of that were "dreamed" in the Middle Ages?

Joachim of Fiore's eschatology perhaps?

Actually, eschatology would be the golden place to look for such things. The expectations of a break at 1000 CE, the coming of an Emperor to unite Europe, &c.

Anonymous said...


Turner's book is my favorite too, although I'm quite fond of John Niles' Homo Narrans.

Rereading the title of this post/thread, I'm reminded of my favorite Ong quote: "Nothing is more natural to humans than the artificial."

Steve Muhlberger said...

A friend of mine once pointed out that Marxism was just another three-part apocalyptic vision of time and its end like Joachim's. But then Marxism in its Karl Marx form is a failed understanding of history, since its predictions of the future and the direction it would take have all failed a hundred times -- but notably in my lifetime when the Polish army had to save socialism from the industrial working class.

Another beside the point observation (if it is beside the point): another friend of mine talking about the recent movie 300 pointed out that an edgy, hip, fantastic reinterpretation of Thermopylae, based on an edgy, hip, "graphic novel" based on a movie, is not nearly as fantastic as the real Sparta would be if played straight (sic).

Here's what he said:

And my second-hand comments on 300: