Technology And Culture In Modern American Society Essay Example
Technology And Culture In Modern American Society Essay Example

Technology And Culture In Modern American Society Essay Example

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  • Pages: 11 (2836 words)
  • Published: September 18, 2017
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The Machine Age, spanning from the late 19th to mid twentieth centuries, was a period focused on mass production, consumer goods, transportation, war machines, skyscrapers, and Modern Art. This era captivated society in the United States with its new technologies. The impact of Machine Age engineering sparked debates about whether technological advancements could improve society or lead to dependence. This essay synthesizes the scholarship and arguments that emerged from this era and includes literary works reflecting evolving perceptions of technology. Historians argue that technology has cultural significance beyond its original purposes. Philosopher David Lovekin categorized major works in the history of technology into three schools of thought: viewing it as inherently evil and unnatural, seeing it as a positive force enabling freedom, or considering it a neutral tool with no inherent value or morality [1]. Engineer


ing is crucial for providing jobs that rely on human ingenuity for development.The practical, societal, and cultural impacts of Machine Age technology have proven to be unpredictable and changeable. This essay examines the Influence of Romanticism, Technological Utopia, Nebiims of Doom, and the Imprint of the Machine Age on Contemporary Life. The tension between a future technological Utopia and the fear of losing individual creativity, which was significant during the Romantic era, is explored in relation to the Influence of Romanticism on the Machine Age. Ruth Cowan argues that European Romantic ideas had a profound impact on this era. Industrialization was marketed as a liberating tool that would bring prosperity and leisure, ultimately leading to creativity, free expression, and happiness. In his essay "Poet in the Machine Age," Peter Viereck delves into how philosophers, writers, and poets developed their perspectives

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on this era. He highlights how 18th-century pre-Romantic thinkers like Wharton, Goldsmith, Cowper, Blake shaped their views on this era. Additionally,Cowan discusses how iconic American author Walt Whitman incorporated elements of romantic language to emphasize the work of scientists and machines [4].Whitman's Passage to India exemplifies the approach of acknowledging the contributions of various individuals, including captains, voyagers, adventurers, scientists, designers, mechanics, and others to society [5]. In his book The Machine in the Garden, Leo Marx delves deeper into how American authors like Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, and Melville responded to industrialism during the 19th century [Thursday]. Marx's work sheds light on the role of arts in helping Americans navigate through the era of industrialization that held significant importance in American history. From a Romantic perspective, the emergence of the Machine Age with its focus on constituents such as machines, profit, and progress was greatly disliked as it was believed to stifle human creativity. Romantics were primary critics of industrialization [6].

On the other hand, Technological Utopianism stemmed from a belief that technology could lead to an almost perfect society free from conflict, poverty, and oppressive authority [7]. Professor Howard Segal explains that a Technological Utopia would include efficient transportation and communication systems allowing individuals to choose where they live and work [8]. To address Leo Marx's concern regarding tension between machines and nature within this context of utopia creation; utopians would incorporate gardens into cities [10].Cowan (2013) suggests that the increased efficiency of mills would play a crucial role in providing leisure and prosperity for ordinary people. Both Viereck and Segal discuss the technological Utopians, who firmly believe in the inevitability of technological progress. Viereck

cites the enthusiasm of the 1945 Atomic Energy Commission and its leader, David Lilienthal, stating that "The prevailing fact of our time is the prominent place of the machine in the life of humanity." Nef argues that scientists and engineers in the 20th century shifted their focus towards human health, longevity, and productivity. According to Nef, advancements through science and technology occurred at a much faster rate compared to previous centuries. The general public shared scholars' and politicians' optimism about technology's potential to solve modern problems. All sectors of the economy contributed to pursuing a utopian future, as exemplified by a magazine article discussing how mechanical advancements could be used in fighting cancer – currently one of the leading global causes of death. The American Society for Control Cancer has released a review on recent cancer research advancements with an image illustrating conquering malignant neoplastic disease alongside conquering time and space using artificial machines (Cowan, 2013).This review explores the concept of Technological Utopia in popular literature, which suggests that a perfect world created by machines would suppress nature. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, books like Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward depicted technology as unbeatable. These utopian visions were closely tied to Frederick Taylor's economic utopianism through scientific management in factories. They aimed to bring prosperity and material comfort to ordinary people, often referred to as the American Dream. However, skeptics doubted the feasibility of achieving this technological Utopia and were sometimes dismissed as "esthetic wincers" or "pious sneerers" [16]. Kateb, an advocate for technological progress, believes that Utopianism can withstand criticism by acknowledging the valid warnings about trade-offs and costs associated with creating

a Utopian society [17]. Lewis Mumford, once a Technological Utopian himself, recognized the dangers and difficulties of this path. The Machine of Society is commonly used to describe the grand working wheel from which all individual machines must derive their motions.Considered merely as a metaphor, all of this is satisfactory; however, in numerous instances, the "froth hardens itself into a shell," and the shadow that we playfully conjured stands formidable before us and refuses to depart at our command.

from Sign of the Times, 1829 (Carlyle) [ 18 ]

The primary critics of the Machine Age and its long-term consequences can be categorized broadly and with overlapping themes: 1) technology stems from poor choices rooted in capitalist desires; 2) technology is merely an expression of modern society; and 3) technology has become a means without purpose.

In the early 20th century, philosophers and historians began addressing issues related to the Machine Age, with Lewis Mumford being one of the prominent writers during the wave of the 1930s. Mumford earned recognition both domestically and internationally for his interpretations of Western technology within engineering circles (Thursday). His work Technics and Civilization was published in 1932, exploring how technology impacts civilizations (19). Mumford believed that it is our human decisions rather than the machines we employ that are responsible for technological advancements (20). His contributions were crucial in illuminating the interdependence between technology and society, as acknowledged by Melvin Kranzberg (21). Mumford's comprehensive perspective played a vital role in comprehending the relationship between technology and culture.According to Rosalind Williams' 2002 retrospective, Mumford's explanation of the historical context of technology was insufficient. However, historians

still find value in his insights (21) [22]. In a 1935 article by E.W. Zimmerman titled "Philosophers Appraise the Machine," it is discussed how the introduction of machines is closely tied to capitalism. Many critics argue that capitalism is responsible for the negative consequences of mechanization [23]. Mumford disagrees and believes that the relationship between capitalism and machines is not inevitable. He sees machines as "impersonal agents" with potential to serve societal purposes [24]. In his later work, The Myth of the Machine (1967), Mumford takes on a more pessimistic view of technology compared to his earlier writings. He no longer believes that technology can inherently be positive [25]. Mumford refers to a democratic-authoritarian social contract where individuals can benefit from aspects like food, housing, transportation, communication, entertainment, and education. However, he adds one condition: individuals must utilize everything offered by the systemAccording to him, authoritarian technology will only provide what can be produced in quantity and collectively manipulated.[26] In the 1930s, Charner Perry, a philosopher from the University of Chicago, interpreted Mumford's position that the machine society has embodied values and ideals that are essential to its existence, and cannot be rejected.[27]

This perspective on technology is also found in the philosophy of Jacques Ellul, a European sociologist and historian. He believes that technology has become an end in itself and completely dictates modern life.[28] In his book "The Technological Society," Ellul argues that everything in the technological world is merely a means, while the ends have practically disappeared.[29]

Melvin Kranzberg, a technology historian, states it is difficult to separate ends from means in the interaction between society and culture.[30] Lovekin interprets Ellul's philosophy as one

where technology becomes the purpose and consciousness of culture. According to Lovekin (citation [31]), Alvin Toffler disagreed with Ellul's pessimistic view on technology. Toffler believed that we simply need to learn how to make choices more quickly.

On the other hand, Leslie Sklair (citation [32]), an expert from the London School of Economics offers a different perspective.Sklair argues that technology is all-encompassing and cannot be resisted or submitted to; it has become our environment. Sklair also agrees with Ellul's argument that technology has replaced capital as the dominant force in human life. According to Ellul, technology and science are neither good nor bad, they are amoral. This perspective is shared by Mumford, Kranzberg, Ferguson, and others. Sklair concludes that Ellul challenges society to critically examine the role of technology in social change. Ellul's main point is that the technological society emerges unintentionally. Stuart Chase, an economist and philosopher of engineering, expressed concerns about the negative consequences of the Machine Age in his book "Men and Machine" published in 1929. He predicted how engineering could be used for harm, particularly envisioning immense destruction in New York City with bombed bridges and tunnels, toppling buildings, overwhelming congestion, and citizens facing judgment without even having time to grab their checkbooks (citation [35]).Airplanes, whether controlled by pilots or automated and armed with bombs, possess the ideal means for causing such devastation. [36] The Influence of the Machine Age on Present-day Life No one can deny the conveniences and opportunities that technology has brought. From advancements in medicine to improvements in education, technology has undoubtedly propelled society forward. However, it is also true that technology has had unintended consequences. The long-term

effects of technology can be either beneficial or detrimental but they rarely remain neutral.

Cowan argues that industrialization has ushered in numerous changes, some positive and some not, but their impact heavily depends on factors like occupation, race, gender, etc. Many individuals and groups have experienced a decline in opportunities while others have achieved success.

According to Tyler, technological changes have resulted in shifts within businesses' jobs and opportunities which have negatively affected individuals and groups. One unintended consequence of modern technology is the global consumption of resources required for creating, maintaining, and disposing of technological components.

Cowan argues that industrialization has created a reliance on others to provide necessary components for technological systems. Within a technological system, choices about products are made from a technological perspective.Cowan views our dependence on technology as a tradeoff for our previous reliance on natural systems. We are deeply embedded in technological systems, which we cannot escape from and must stay informed about. Cowan cautions that technology carries significant social and ethical implications, emphasizing the need to not solely rely on experts for making wise decisions. This is because even experts themselves depend on the technological network and may not be impartial parties. In Western society, decision-making based on market mechanisms often leads to inherent conflicts. According to Ellul, this lack of control over technology has become a reality for us. Thomas Misa introduces the concept of "displacement," where unintended consequences of technological decisions hinder open discussions or limit options related to technological systems. Historian Eugene Ferguson argues that progress in one direction can impede advancements in other directions that were once possible or likely. The true wisdom or folly of a

particular decision may only become apparent years later when earlier choices have already narrowed down the range of available options. Kranzberg explores how technological solutions can have unforeseen effects beyond their initial intentions, with vastly different outcomes depending on deployment circumstances. Additionally, perceptions of technology and progress can evolve over time.
Kranzberg uses smokestacks as a metaphor for environmental pollution, illustrating that they were once seen as symbols of prosperity. He argues that innovations often require additional engineering to enhance their usefulness, citing the example of cars needing highways and traffic lights. Kranzberg also states that perceptions of risk influence the acceptance of technological systems, noting persistent public concerns about accidents at nuclear power plants despite insufficient evidence supporting these fears. In the early 1960s, Tyler conducted a retrospective analysis on technology during wartime in the United States. He observed that leaders prioritized time pressures and war dangers over understanding control systems for technology design. Similarly, A. Zvorikine, a notable Soviet historian of technology, emphasized the importance of comprehending human intentions in technological development to grasp the fundamental principles driving technical progress.Zvorikine highlighted that understanding the societal forces and socioeconomic conditions driving technological development is crucial in studying its history. In 1952, Brozen, an advocate of the U.S. free market economic system, emphasized that formulating policies for technology requires understanding its intentions and intended function. He also stressed the importance of comprehending the effects of technological change for effective policymaking. Currently, there is a lack of clarity on how to evaluate the societal, cultural, economic, and environmental implications as well as unintended consequences of technology. Rescher argues that technological progress raises expectations faster than it can

fulfill them while Segal questions whether non-technological progress can keep up with advancements in social, political, cultural, and economic aspects. Sklair suggested in 1971 that promised leisure through technological progress may arrive too late and potentially hinder creativity and imagination. Scholars acknowledge that technology has impacted workers' lives, leisure activities, and education; however, this claim may vary depending on different circumstances. [52]In a 2010 article by Leo Marx, it is stated that philosopher Veblen believed technology had the ability to transform the habits and moral assumptions of its users. Veblen emphasized that technology requires constant attention and forces workers to adjust to it rather than the other way around. Tyler adds that one negative consequence of technological systems is their tendency to overlook the needs of workers. Additionally, Williams notes that Mumford repeatedly addressed the theme in a 21st-century review that technological advancement leads to increased detachment from the world. According to certain social theories, technology changes our surroundings and we adapt in response. However, this adaptation process may occur at different speeds and often lags behind the introduction of technological systems. This lag occurs when society fails to keep up with the driving force behind technological impact. Sociologist William F. Ogburn introduced the concept of "Social slowdown" in 1923, which contributed to understanding societal impacts of technology. Ogburn highlighted the need for "sensible accommodation" between human nature and cultural change caused by technology according to Francis Taylor [53]. Ogburn's explanation helps explain why society struggled to adapt [54].The historical and philosophical perspectives on the Machine Age indicate that technology has become so deeply embedded in society that it cannot be approached as a distinct

area of human endeavor. Society deems the benefits of technology acceptable despite the associated risks. Furthermore, there exists a complex relationship between society and technology, encompassing pride in its accomplishments, ignorance about its inner workings, and resistance to the inevitable societal and cultural consequences it brings [55]. Historians such as Eugene Ferguson, Kranzberg, Mumford, among others contend that understanding society's struggles with technology can be enhanced through insights provided by the history of technology. Technology is not impartial or devoid of values; it possesses its own distinct character. According to Ferguson's perspective, engineering exerts a deterministic influence on users by compelling them to create things they otherwise wouldn't have. Many individuals have not found satisfaction in attaining technological ideals related to work and leisure. Despite the convenience and comfort afforded by technology, the anticipated personal and collective happiness remains elusive. There is an increasing inclination to attribute this failure in achieving heightened personal happiness to technology rather than ourselves. Cowan argues that cultural interpretations now wield more power than intended technological functions within systems.According to historian Cyril Smith, both art and science involve creating symbols and metaphors that go beyond their original intentions. In relation to the essay's questions, it is widely agreed that technological progress during the Machine Age led to social improvement for some members of society. However, it is also likely that technology has contributed to a widening gap between those in desperate conditions and social classes benefiting directly from technology. While civilization hasn't been destroyed by technology, it has not guided us in making wise decisions about how we design and implement technological systems.

Historian John Staudenmeier argues that the values, perspectives,

intelligence, stupidity, prejudices, and vested interests of individuals involved in designing, accepting, and maintaining technology are embedded in its design itself [62]. Many scholars believe that society needs to become more knowledgeable about the advantages of technology and find new ways to distribute its benefits based on specific purposes and social objectives. The Western concept of progress has mainly focused on dominating nature and economics. It might be beneficial for humanity to adopt a concept of progress rooted in the biophysical world we inhabit.


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