Discussion 1

Open Posted By: ahmad8858 Date: 20/02/2021 Graduate Report Writing

Choose three sentences from the essay by Leo Marx that struck you as important for our understanding of technology, and describe what they mean in relation to Marx’s argument and to your own understanding of technology in general and writing in particular.

Category: Mathematics & Physics Subjects: Algebra Deadline: 12 Hours Budget: $120 - $180 Pages: 2-3 Pages (Short Assignment)

Attachment 1

Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept

Author(s): LEO MARX

Source: Technology and Culture , July 2010, Vol. 51, No. 3 (July 2010), pp. 561-577

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press and the Society for the History of Technology

Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40927986

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The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept


". . . the essence of technology is by no means anything technological."

- Martin Heidegger1

New Concepts as Historical Markers

The history of technology is one of those subjects that most people know more about than they realize. Long before the academy recognized it as a specialized field of scholarly inquiry, American schools were routinely dis- seminating a sketchy outline ofthat history to millions of pupils. We learned

about James Watt and the steam engine, Eli Whitney and the cotton gin, and about other great inventors and their inventions. Even more important, we were led to assume that innovation in the mechanic arts is a - perhaps the - driving force of human history. The theme was omnipresent in my child- hood experience. I met it in the graphic charts and illustrations in my copy of The Book of Knowledge, a popular children's encyclopedia, and in the alluring dioramas of Early Man in the New York Museum of Natural His- tory. These exhibits represented the advance of civilization as a sequence of the inventions in the mechanic arts with which Homo sapiens gained a unique power over nature. This comforting theme remains popular today and is insinuated by all kinds of historical narrative. Here, for example, is a passage from an anthropological study of apes and the origins of human violence:

Leo Marx is Senior Lecturer and William R. Kenan Professor of American Cultural His-

tory Emeritus in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. An early version of this essay was delivered as the Richmond Lecture at Williams College, 26 September 1996, also published in Social Research 64 (fall 1997): 965-88 (thanks to Social Research, www.socres.org, for allowing Technology and Culture to publish this revision).

©2010 by the Society for the History of Technology. All rights reserved. 0040-165X710/5103-0001/561-77

1. Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Love« (New York, 1977), 4.


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VOL. 51

Our own ancestors from this line [of woodland apes] began shaping stone tools and relying much more consistently on meat around 2 million years ago. They tamed fire perhaps 1.5 million years ago. They developed human language at some unknown later time, per- haps 150,000 years ago. They invented agriculture 10,000 years ago. They made gunpowder around 1,000 years ago, and motor vehicles a century ago.2

This typical summary of human history from stone age tools to Ford cars illustrates the shared "scientific" understanding, circa 2010, of the his- tory of technology. But one arresting if scarcely noted aspect of the story is the belated emergence of the word used to name the very rubric - the kind ofthing - that allegedly drives our history. The word is technology. The fact is that during all but the very last few seconds, as it were, of the ten millen-

nia of recorded human history encapsulated in this account, the concept of technology - as we know it today - did not exist. The word technology, which joined the Greek root, techne (an art or craft) with the suffix ology (a

branch of learning), first entered the English language in the seventeenth century. At that time, in keeping with its etymology, a technology was a branch of learning, or discourse, or treatise concerned with the mechanic arts. As Eric Schatzberg has demonstrated in a seminal essay, the word then referred to a field of study, not an object of study.3 But the word, even in that now archaic sense, was a rarity in nineteenth-century America. By 1861, to be sure, it was accorded a somewhat greater prominence by the founders of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but they also were

invoking the limited sense of the term to mean higher technical education. As for technology in the now familiar sense of the word - the mechanic arts

collectively - it did not catch on in America until around 1900, when a few influential writers, notably Thorstein Veblen and Charles Beard, respond- ing to German usage in the social sciences, accorded technology a pivotal role in shaping modern industrial society. But even then, the use of the word remained largely confined to academic and intellectual circles; it did not gain truly popular currency until the 1930s.

But why, one might ask, is the history of this word important? The answer, from the viewpoint of a cultural historian, is that the emergence of a keyword in public discourse - whether a newly coined word or an old

2. Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson, Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence (New York, 1996), 61.

3. Erik Schatzberg, "Technik Comes to America: Changing Meanings of Technology before 1930," Technology and Culture 47 (2006): 486-512. The first use of the amplified sense of the word, referring to the mechanic arts themselves, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)> was in 1859; variants of the older meaning of technology - e.g., technik, technique^ etc. - also had appeared in German, Swedish, French, and Spanish in the late eighteenth century.


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MARX I Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept

word invested with new meaning - may prove to be an illuminating histor- ical event. Such keywords often serve as markers, or chronological sign- posts, of subtle, virtually unremarked, yet ultimately far-reaching changes in culture and society. Recall, for example, Tocqueville's tacit admission, in Democracy in America, that in order to do his subject justice he was com- pelled to coin the (French) word individualisme, "a novel expression to which a novel idea has given birth"; or Raymond Williams's famous dis- covery, in writing Culture and Society, of the striking interdependence (or reflexivity) in the relations between certain keywords and fundamental changes in society and culture. Williams had set out to examine the trans- formation of culture coincident with the advent of industrial capitalism in Britain, but he found that the concept of culture itself, along with such other pivotal concepts of the era as class, industry, democracy, and art, was a product of - indeed had been invested with its new meaning by - the very changes he proposed to analyze. Not only had those changes lent currency to the concept of culture, but they had simultaneously changed its meaning. I believe that a similar process marked the emergence of technology as a key- word in the lexicon we rely on to chart the changing character of contem- porary society and culture.4

But how, then, are we to identify the specific changes that prompted the

emergence of technology - the concept, the word, the purported thing itself? My assumption is that those changes, whatever they were, created a semantic - indeed, a conceptual - void, which is to say, an awareness of cer- tain novel developments in society and culture for which no adequate name had yet become available. It was this void, presumably, that the word technology, in its new and extended meaning, eventually would fill. It would

prove to be preferable - a more apt signifier - for the new agents of change than any of its precursors, received terms such as the mechanic (or useful or

practical or industrial) arts, or invention, improvement, machine, machinery, or mechanism. In a seminal essay of 1829, Thomas Carlyle had posed a vari- ant of my question: if one had to sum up the oncoming age in a word, he asked, what might it be? His unequivocal answer was: machinery. "It is the Age of Machinery," he wrote, "in every outward and inward sense of that word."5 During the next half century, however, machinery - like the alter- natives just mentioned - turned out to be unsuitable. But why? Why did technology prove to be preferable? To answer the question, we need to iden-


4. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Phillips Bradley (New York, 1946), 11:98 (the OED credits the Henry Reeve translation of 1835 with the first use of the word in English); Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, 1780-1950 (New York: 1983), xiii-xviii; Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (New York, 1985), 1 1-26 and 315-16.

5. Thomas Carlyle, "Signs of the Times," Edinburgh Review (1829), reprinted in Selected Writings, ed. Alan Shelston (New York, 1971), 64. Carlyle, incidentally, is credited with the first use of the word industrialism, in Sartor Resartus (1831).


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VOL. 51

tify the specific character of the concurrent changes in the mechanic arts - not only the changes within those arts, but also the changes in the interre- lations between them and the rest of society and culture.

As for the hazardous character of the concept of technology, here I need only say that I am not thinking about weaponry or the physical damage wrought by the use of any particular technologies. The hazards I have in mind are conceptual, not physical. They stem from the meanings conveyed by the concept technology itself, and from the peculiar role it enables us to confer on the mechanic arts as an ostensibly discrete entity - one capable of becoming a virtually autonomous, all-encompassing agent of change.

The Mechanic Arts and the Changing Conception of Progress

By the 1840s, several of the developments that contributed to the emer- gence of the concept of technology had become apparent in America. They fall into two categories, ideological and substantive: first, changes in the prevailing conception of the mechanic arts, and second, the material devel- opment of the machinery itself, and of the institutional setting from which

it emerged. As a reference point for both kinds of change, and for early traces of the semantic void that eventually was to be filled by the concept of

technology, here is the peroration of a ceremonial speech delivered by Senator Daniel Webster at the dedication of a new section of the Northern

Railroad in Lebanon, New Hampshire, on 17 November 1847:

It is an extraordinary era in which we live. It is altogether new. The world has seen nothing like it before. I will not pretend, no one can pretend, to discern the end; but every body knows that the age is remarkable for scientific research into the heavens, the earth, and

what is beneath the earth; and perhaps more remarkable still for the application of this scientific research to the pursuits of life. The ancients saw nothing like it. The moderns have seen nothing like it till the present generation

solid land traversed by steam power, and intelligence communicated by electricity. Truly this is almost a miraculous era. What is before us no one can say, what is upon us no one can hardly realize. The progress of the age has almost outstripped human belief; the future is known only to Omniscience.6

Perhaps the most significant ideological development that the emer- gence of technology eventually would ratify, as implied by Webster's grandil-

6. Daniel Webster, Writing and Speeches of Daniel Webster (Boston, 1903), IV: 105-7. For a more detailed analysis of the speech in the context of American pastoralism, see Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York, 1964), 209-14.


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MARX I Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept

oquent tribute to the progress of the age, is a new respect for the power of innovations in the useful arts to transform prevailing ideas about the world. When he singles out the railroad and the telegraph as embodiments of the progress of the age, he in effect confirms a subtle but important modifica- tion of the received Enlightenment view of progress. To be sure, the idea of progress had been closely bound up, from its inception, with the accelerat- ing rate of scientific and mechanical innovation. By the time of Webster's speech, however, the idea oí progress had become the fulcrum of a compre- hensive worldview effecting the sacralization of science and the mechanic arts, and creating a modern equivalent of the creation myths of premodern cultures. Two centuries earlier, the concept of progress had served, in a com-

monplace, literal sense, to describe incremental advances in explicitly bounded enterprises like the development of new scientific instruments - say, for example, the microscope or telescope. But as more and more specific instances of progress ofthat sort occurred - progress in that particularized, circumscribed sense of the word - the reach of the idea gradually was ex- tended to encompass the entire, all-encompassing course of human events. By the time of the French and American revolutions, in other words, history itself was conceived as a record of the steady, cumulative, continuous expan- sion of human knowledge of - and power over - nature. Thus the future course of history might be expected to culminate in a more or less univer- sal improvement in the conditions of human existence.

But the radical thinkers who led the way in framing this master narra- tive of progress - Condorcet and Turgot, Paine and Priestley, Franklin and Jefferson - did not, like Webster, unreservedly equate human progress with the advance of the mechanic arts. They were committed republicans, polit- ical revolutionists, and although they celebrated mechanical innovation, they celebrated it only as the means of achieving progress; the true and only

reliable measure of progress, as they saw it, was humanity's step-by-step lib- eration from aristocratic, ecclesiastical, and monarchic oppression, and the institution of more just, peaceful societies based on the consent of the gov- erned. What requires emphasis is the republican thinkers' uncompromising insistence that advances in science and the mechanic arts are valuable

chiefly as a means of arriving at social and political ends.7

By Webster's time, however, that distinction already was losing much of


7. Thus when Benjamin Franklin was offered a potentially lucrative patent for his ingenious new stove, he explained his refusal to accept the patent by invoking the com- munitarian republican notion that inventions are valued for their contribution to the polity: "I declined it from a principle which has ever weighed with me on such occasions, that as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours" (The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin [New York, 1950], 132). For other discussions of this topic, see Leo Marx, "Does Improved Technology Mean Progress?" Technology Review (January 1987): 32-41, and Leo Marx and Bruce Mazlish, eds., Progress: Fact or Illusion? (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1996).


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VOL 51

its force. This was partly due to the presumed success of the republican rev-

olutions, hence to a certain political complacency reinforced by the rapid growth of the immensely productive and lucrative capitalist system of manufactures. Thus, for example, Senator Webster, whose most influential constituents were factory owners, merchants, and financiers, did not regard innovations in the mechanic arts as merely instrumental - a technical means of arriving at social and political goals. He identified his interests with those of the company's directors and stockholders, and as he saw it, therefore, wealth-producing innovations like the railroad represented a socially transformative power of such immense scope and promise as to be a virtual embodiment - a perfect icon - of human progress.

Thus the new entrepreneurial elite for whom Webster spoke was to a large extent relieved of its tacit obligation to carry out the republican polit- ical mandate. Consider, for example, the Boston Associates - the merchants who launched the Lowell textile industry. They, to be sure, were concerned about the inhumane conditions created by the factory system - and they surely wanted to be good stewards of their wealth - but they assumed that they could fulfill their republican obligations by acts of private philan- thropy.8 They believed that innovations in the mechanic arts could be relied upon, in the long run, to result in progress and prosperity for all. Their confidence in the inherently progressive influence of the new ma- chines was reinforced, in their view, by the distinctive material tangibility of the machines - their omnipresence as physical, visible, sensibly accessi- ble objects. In the ordinary course of their operations, accordingly, the new factories and machines unavoidably disseminated the ideology of social progress to all who saw and heard them. As John Stuart Mill acutely ob- served, the mere sight of a potent machine like the steam locomotive in the landscape wordlessly inculcated the notion that the present was an im- provement on the past, and that the future promised to be so wondrous as to be "known," in Webster's high-flown idiom, "only to Omniscience."9

But in the 1840s the blurring of the distinction between mechanical means and political ends also provoked an ideological backlash. To a vocal minority of dissident artists and intellectuals, the worshipful view of mate- rial progress was symptomatic of moral negligence and political regression. Thus Henry Thoreau, who was conducting his experiment at the pond in 1847, the year Webster gave his speech, writes in Waiden:

There is an illusion about . . . [modern improvements]; there is not always a positive advance

8. Robert F. Dalzell Jr., Enterprising Elite: The Boston Associates and the World They Made (Cambridge, Mass., 1987).

9. John Stuart Mill, M. de Tocqueville on Democracy in America, bdtnburgh Re- view (October 1840), reprinted in John Stuart Mill, Dissertations and Discussions . . . (Boston, 1865), 11:148.


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MARX I Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept

toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end.10

And in Moby Dick (1851), Melville, after having Ishmael, his narrator, pay tribute to Captain Ahab's preternatural intellect and his mastery of the complex business of whaling, has the crazy captain acknowledge the haz- ards he courts by placing his technical proficiency in the service of his irra-

tional purpose: "Now, in his heart, Ahab had some glimpse of this, namely, all my means are sane, my motive and my object mad."11

This critical view of the new industrial arts marks the rise of an adver-

sary culture that would reject the dominant faith in the advance of the mechanical arts as a sufficient, self-justifying, social goal. Indeed, a more or less direct line of influence is traceable from the intellectual dissidents of

the 1840s to the widespread 1960s rebellion against established institutions, from, for example, Thoreau's 1849 recommendation, in "Civil Disobedi- ence," to "Let your life be a counter- friction to stop the machine" to Mario

Savio's 1964 exhortation to Berkeley students: "You have got to put your bodies upon the [machine] and make it stop!" From its inception, the countercultural movement of the 1960s was seen - and saw itself - as a

revolt against an increasingly "technocratic" society.

The Construction of Complex Sociotechnical Systems

Turning now to the substantive or material changes in the character and organizational matrix of the mechanic arts in nineteenth-century America, it is evident that they too helped to create the semantic void that the con- cept of technology eventually would fill. In his 1847 speech, Webster de- picted the railroad and the telegraph as wondrous mechanical innovations with a far-reaching capacity to alter prevailing ways of life. During the early

phase of industrialization, innovations in the mechanic arts typically had been represented as single, free-standing, more or less self-contained mechanical devices: the spinning jenny, the power loom, the steam engine, the steamboat, the locomotive, the dynamo, or, in a word, machines. By Webster's time, however, the discrete machine was being replaced, as the typical embodiment of the new power, by a new kind of sociotechnological system. The railroad was one of the earliest and most visible of the large- scale, complex systems of the modern era.12 A novel feature of these elabo-


10. Henry Thoreau, Waiden and Other Writings (New York, 1950), 46 (my emphasis). 11. Herman Melville, Moby Dick (New York, 1967 [1851]), 161. 12. 1 add the qualification, "the modern era," to acknowledge the provocative theory,

advanced by Lewis Mumford, to the effect that the first "machine" was in fact such a sys- tem, the systematic organization of work contrived by the Egyptians to build the pyra- mids. A fatal shortcoming of Mumford's theory is that it omits the indispensable arti- factual component of both the machine and also, when it later emerges, the concept of


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VOL 51

rate systems is that the single, typifying, tangible, physical-artifactual, or mechanical component - the steam locomotive, for example, despite its commanding symbolic stature - constitutes a relatively small but crucially definitive part of the whole.

Thus, in addition to the crucially important engine itself, the operation of the railroad required: (1) several kinds of ancillary equipment (rolling stock, stations, yards, bridges, tunnels, viaducts, signal systems, and a huge network of tracks); (2) a corporate business organization with a large cap- ital investment; (3) specialized forms of technical knowledge (railroad engineering, telegraphy); (4) a specially trained workforce with unique rail- roading skills, including civil and locomotive engineers, firemen, telegra- phers, brakemen, conductors - a workforce large and resourceful enough to keep the system functioning day and night, in all kinds of weather, 365 days a year; and (5) various facilitating institutional changes, such as regu- lations establishing standardized track gauges and a national system of standardized time zones.

With the formation of these large, sociotechnical systems - the tele- graph and wireless systems, the electric power and use system, the urban water and waste disposal systems - the private family (father & sons) firm was supplanted by the anonymous, public corporation as the typical form of American business organization, and a new kind of professional or (as it later would be called) "scientific" management.13 A prominent feature of these complex, ad hoc systems is the blurring of the borderlines between their constituent elements - notably the boundary separating the artifac- tual equipment (the machinery or hardware) and all the rest: the reservoir of technical - scientific - knowledge; the specially trained workforce; the financial apparatus; and the means of acquiring raw materials.

The complexity and scale of these systems were augmented by the increasingly systematic application of science to the improvement of the mechanic arts. In 1847 Webster, referring to the railroad and the telegraph, had ascribed the singularity of the age to scientific research, and indeed the building of the railroads marked a new departure in that respect. Unlike the innovations associated with the eighteenth-century Industrial Revolution, which often had been introduced by practical, rule-of-thumb mechanics with relatively little formal scientific training, many of the engineers who worked on the railroads had been educated at West Point, where the cur-

technology. Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Develop- ment (New York, 1966); for a more extended critical analysis of Mumford's theory, see Leo Marx, "Lewis Mumford, Prophet of Organicism," in Lewis Mumford, Public Intellec- tual, ed. Thomas P. Hughes and Agatha C. Hughes (New York, 1990), 164-80.

13. Wiebe E. Bijker, Thomas P. Hughes, and Trevor J. Pinch, eds., The Social Con- struction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technol- ogy (Cambridge, Mass., 1987), 5 1-82; Alfred D. Chandler Jr., The Visible Hand: The Man- agerial Innovation in American Business (Cambridge, Mass., 1977), 79-120.


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MARX I Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept

riculum bore the imprint of the scientifically advanced École Polytech- nique. That French influence, incidentally, led to the establishment of civil engineering, thereby institutionalizing the distinction between the civilian and military branches of the ancient, but newly professionalized vocation.14 Although the confluence of the sciences and the practical arts was well under way by 1847, it was not until the final quarter of the century, with the

rise of the electrical and chemical industries, that the large-scale amalga- mation of science and industry helped to create the semantic void that would eventually call forth the new concept - technology.15

As early as 1829, however, Jacob Bigelow, a physician and botanist who taught at Harvard, had announced that he was resurrecting the arcane word technology for use in the title (Elements of Technology) of his lectures

on applied science. In his preface he made such grand claims for the ex- tended applicability of this odd word that for well over a century historians mistakenly credited him with having anticipated the latter-day meaning of technology (referring to the mechanic arts themselves) as against the earlier,

received meaning (referring to the study of those arts). There "has proba- bly never been an age," he explained, "in which the practical applications of science have employed so large a portion of talent and enterprise ... as in the present." And, therefore, he wrote, "to embody . . . the various . . . [aspects] of such an undertaking, I have adopted a general name of Tech- nology, a word sufficiently expressive, which is found in some of the older dictionaries and is beginning to be revived in the literature of practical men at the present day."16

But those twentieth-century scholars - among them Dirk Struik, David Noble, and myself - who credited Bigelow with having anticipated the lat- ter-day sense of technology were wrong.17 The truth, as more recent schol- arship has revealed, is that he too was using the word in its old, pre-indus-


14. Colleen Dunlavy, Politics and Industrialization: Early Railroads in the United States and Prussia (Princeton, N.J., 1994); Forest G. Hill, Roads, Rails, and Waterways: The Army Engineers and Early Transportation (Tulsa, Okla., 1957). At West Point, the mil-

itary engineers, trained in the tradition of the École Polytechnique, acquired a more so- phisticated knowledge of geometry, physics, and of science …