Where’s the technoculture?

This is is a quote from an article on the uprisings in Egypt, entitled “Rich, Poor, and a Rift Exposed by Unrest” by David D. Kirkpatrick and Mona El-Naggar.

“A group of men standing guard said they had watched the police abandon the mall as if on command Friday at 11 p.m., and the first looters arrived in cars shortly thereafter. They argued that the government had tried to create the impression of chaos. Others blamed hordes who poured in from impoverished neighborhoods, or Bedouins who they said came from the desert.”

What techno-histories/traditions might an imaginative technocultural writer see this quote connected to?

How might such a writer fictionalize issues raised and insights provoked by this?

Did we read anything last semester you could relate to this?


The Consequences of Interfacing

Note the recent observations by Damon Darlin, in “Digital Devices Can Become Objects of Affection” New York Times Sept. 2, 2010

Love for a device that we’d most likely throw away in a couple of years, like a PC, a video player or a cellphone, though, doesn’t make lot of sense.

But our relationship to electronic devices has changed so radically in the last few years that designers are beginning to think about our attachments to and, yes, love of electronics like smartphones and tablets. More devices are personal. They have become an extension of ourselves — not in the sense that an expensive watch says something about whom we want to be, but as an actual part of our conscious self.

“It is different now that we carry our second self with us,” says Sherry Turkle, an M.I.T. professor of social studies of science and technology who has long studied the subject of what she calls evocative objects. “We think with the objects we love and we love the objects we think with.”

The electronics industry has moved out of its initial phase: getting something to work. Like watching a dog walk on its hind legs, we initially were amazed not that many of these products do their jobs well, but that they could do them at all. Computers, cellphones, tablets and e-readers do something that no car, shoe or toaster — yet — can do. They can make us smarter. Mobile devices are now able to tell us things we never knew, like the quickest way to get to our destination, where to get a 15 percent discount or where are our friends are right now. That it seems like magic — few people anymore understand how electronic devices work — is part of their seductive power, says Professor Turkle: “There is a direct identification with the power of the technology.”


Blog Assignment

Look at the above painting, Edward Hopper’s famous Nighthawks (1942). This painting was inspired by the Hemingway 1926 (very) short story “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” which you can, if you wish, access at www.mtbauld.com/hemclean.html .

What unique and complex mood is expressed here? Get into it, describe it imaginatively, evoke it, don’t just name it.

Then write a paragraph the following questions. How might on the ground experience with the newly modern, electrified, urban world—with cities like Manhattan—help someone identify, single out, and then seek, need, no, want to create something to express this unique mood? What kind of literal experiences might contribute to this?

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The new, the new!

John Sloan, New York City from Greenwich Village, 1922 (see Jeff’s site)

By 1918, the consumer society had started and technology governed the public sphere.

People took for granted motor cars, electricity (by 1929 2/3 of American households had it), electric lights, electric motors, piped water and gas, gas cookers in the home, soaps, vacuum cleaners (in 1919 one in four homes had one), washing machines, refrigerators, radios. As you know, mass manufacturing, the assembly line, standardization of parts, products, and consumer goods flowered; Henry Ford made the manufacture of consumers as well as cars a priority. “Sizes” were developed in the clothing industry to make standardized goods to be bought off the shelf by a population (including great immigrant diversity) to be thereby Americanized and standardized thanks to what they consumed.

By 1920, Americans had more than 9 million autos; by 1925, they had more than 20 million; by 1930, they owned 26.5 million

The communications revolution and modern mass media took off. Tabloid newspapers proliferated; by 1929, U.S. citizens placed over 64 million telephone calls a day; the first commercial radio broadcast came in 1920; by 1926 NBC had started, CBS following in 1927; 10 million households had radios in 1929; and Americans attended movies—40 million in 1922 and, by 1929, 90 million were going each week (out of a population of 120 million).

Lifestyles became modern: people talked of being modern, wearing modern clothing, acquiring modern appliances, having a new spirit of “pep” or “get up and go”: they became modern employees and consumers. Cultural mores also changed. 1920-1929 commenced the roaring 20’s; jazz and swing became popular; the “flapper” became the new lifestyle model; a revolution in sexual mores challenged the “purity” campaign of Victorian and progressive reformers (74% of U.S. women born between 1890 and 1920 remained chaste until marriage; of those born after 1910, only 32% did).

A fascinating side-note here is that electricity became a metaphor for this new kind of energy running through society, people’s psyches, and bodies. As Louis Nye, in Electrifying America, puts it, electricity became “a metaphor for mental power, psychological energy, and sexual attraction” and that it “merged with new therapeutic conceptions of the psyche and the self.” Electricity, Nye writes, “was a magical fluid, a nerve-tingling “juice,” a tonic. Such ideas still survive in figures of speech. Consider: “She really got a charge out of seeing you,” or “He’s gone on a vacation to recharge his batteries . . . . An “energetic” person was “a human dynamo,” a powerful performance was “electrifying” and an angry person might “blow a fuse” . . . . Americans reimagined themselves in electrical terms as beings “plugged in” and “juiced up” but liable to occasional “short circuits” in logic or “shocks.” Since they could be “electrified” with excitement, they could also “be turned on and off.”

Further, they could be “overloaded” “short circuited” and “burned out”; they could “go out like a light” and “get their wires crossed” or get “bright ideas.” Attracted to each other, they “felt the electricity.” In short, linguistically at least, Americans welcomed technology into their bodies, hearts and even psyches as the sign of the “new” flowing through them (“potentially”) individually as well as socially.

Contemporary social critics fretted about and enthusiasts celebrated this consumerism as the end of American self-discipline and the Puritan tradition (Puritans became identified as people who feared pleasure) and as undermining social order by blurring class distinctions.

Writers and artists often took eager part, however, in the experimentalism of the time, establishing a new bohemian/avant-garde culture in England and France, and even in America. Key to this development were the rise of a host of new “little magazines” and “little presses” and the invention of a series of artistic “movements” that usually centered about the discovery of new literary and painterly techniques (tools, tools! To be developed and used by specialists . . . ) to represent the new, modern world. These uniquely modernist technique-based movements included Imagism, Impressionism, Vorticism, Cubism, Objectivism, stream of consciousness writing, the mythic method, Surrealism, Primitivism, Dadism, and the variable foot. Though tied often to a specific technical innovation, they seemed nonetheless to their developers and audiences to promise (often in millennialist tones) much more, such as social renewal and even revolution in the face of deepening crisis.

But writers and artists also criticized the “new” as vigorously as they participated in its creation. They excoriated the rising tide of materialism, crass commercial mass culture, bourgeois self-satisfaction, the decline of the west from eras of imagined greatness and primacy, the mechanization and urbanization that uprooted people and led to the alienation of all but especially intellectuals and marginals, and the know-nothing vulgarity and provincialism that accompanied all this. (Sherwood Anderson, for example, walked out of his job in his family’s paint factory, saying “I teach anti-success.”)


Digital assembly line

Here is a link to a fascinating NY Times article. Can you compare it and contrast it to the assembly lines you are meeting this week?

The article is entitled “When the Assembly Line Moves Online,” and it’s by Randall Stross


The picture that accompanies the article is from Charlie Chaplin’s classic about modern technology (among other thiings), Modern Times:


From engines to organisms

Consider the two following quotes:

First, a famous denunciation of mechanism by Thomas Carlyle:

“Undue cultivation of the inward or Dynamical province leads to idle, visionary, impracticable courses, and, especially in rude eras, to Superstition and Fanaticism, with their long train of baleful and well-known evils. Undue cultivation of the outward, again, though less immediately prejudicial, and even for the time productive of many palpable benefits, must, in the long-run, by destroying Moral Force, which is the parent of all other Force, prove not less certainly, and perhaps still more hopelessly, pernicious. This, we take it, is the grand / characteristic of our age. By our skill in Mechanism, it has come to pass, that in the management of external things we excel all other ages; while in whatever respects the pure moral nature, in true dignity of soul and character, we are perhaps inferior to most civilized ages.”

Second, an also famous statement about the imagination and the kind of poetry it produces–then distinguished from poetry produced by another human faculty, the fancy–made  by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his Biographica Literaria (Chap 13 end):

“The IMAGINATION then I consider either as primary, or secondary. The primary imagination I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I am. The secondary I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.

Fancy, on the contrary, has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites. The Fancy is indeed no other than a mode of Memory emancipated from the order of time and space; and blended with, and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will, which we express by the word choice. But equally with the ordinary memory it must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association.”

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Factory steam engines

Some images of the steam engines that increasingly supported and powered the growth of the factory system:

Early factory engine:

The factory floor it made possible, as it transmitted power via belts and axles:

One of the 19th century’s biggest, this version of the Corliss Steam Engine from 1876:

And one from the early 1900s:


Prelude to the Clock

1.     In Gawain and The Tempest magic and art are the terms for human agency in a world of wonders (Gawain) and a world ruled by fortune or chance (The Tempest).

2.     In Bacon, experiment as discovery became ways for humans to exercise agency in a world that was unknown, open, uncertain and new.  Thus the frontispiece image:


3.     In Defoe, humans exercised agency through self-reliant projects and improvements in a partially-mapped, yet still very uncertain world of random reverses and (temporary) achievements. Here is one way (a theological philosophical one) of putting this development: “In a Puritan view the normal course of nature is simply the sum total of an ongoing chain of special providences, for as a modern expositor of Calvin puts it, “Bread is not the natural product of the earth. In order that the earth may provide the wheat from which it is made, God must intervene, ceaselessly and ever anew, in the ‘order of nature,’ must send the rain and dew, must cause the sun to rise every morning” (Leopold Damrosch, Jr., p. 376).  In this view, the universe was very precarious—dependent on the unknowable will of god—and human agency was slight—Puritans saw humans as totally dependant on God. Crusoe, however, established agency through self-reliance, and his inventions helped order and improve his world; this meant that in fact he became less dependant, even as he himself attributed more and more determinative power to God. He became Puritan in thoughts, but more and more a modern self-reliant person in actions.

4.     But one of the foundations of science as it developed extended human agency further and changed the way that the world was seen. Theologically, Damrosch puts it this way: “In the eighteenth century, however, there was an increasing tendency to define providence as the general order of things rather than as a series of specific interventions” (p. 376). There was now, more than before, a stable order to nature and life.

5.     This sense of stable order became essential to science as it developed. We take the idea of “laws of nature” now for granted, but it was an idea that had to be invented and believed in.  God became the maker of a universe that ran itself—a universe imaged as a mechanism that God created, set running, and then simply let run without further intervening into it. Some even moved God further out of the picture by dispensing with Him altogether and becoming atheists. Here is an excerpt from a discussion of the origin of modern science:

The lawful Universe

Science and regularity

ohn D. Barrow (1988), The World Within the World, Oxford.

Science, it is widely agreed, originated from two main sources. One was the need to develop practical knowledge and to pass it from generation to generation. The other was a more spiritual concern with the nature and origin of the world. Common to both of these well-springs of science was an appreciation of the regularity of Nature. The way to build an arch that would not fall down today was to build it in much the same way as an arch that had not fallen down yesterday. The way to predict the waxing and waning of the Moon this month was to assume that it would follow much the same course as the waxing and waning that had been observed last month and the month before.

The observation of regularity in Nature allows predictions to be made concerning the future course of particular events. In many primitive societies these regularities were ascribed to the activities of gods or other mystical spirits. However, gradually, over a long period of time, there emerged the notion that the behaviour of the world was guided by a set of natural laws that were themselves regular, in the sense that identical situations could be expected to have identical outcomes.


6.     An early version of the image of mechanism comes from Thomas Hobbes, in his book The Leviathan (1651), made memorable use of the image of mechanism to describe human bodies and also human society; his use of the word “art” clearly means “mechanical art”

NATURE (the art whereby God hath made and governs the world) is by the art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an artificial animal. For seeing life is but a motion of limbs, the beginning whereof is in some principal part within, why may we not say that all automata (engines that move themselves by springs and wheels as doth a watch) have an artificial life? For what is the heart, but a spring; and the nerves, but so many strings; and the joints, but so many wheels, giving motion to the whole body, such as was intended by the Artificer? Art goes yet further, imitating that rational and most excellent work of Nature, man. For by art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMONWEALTH, or STATE (in Latin, CIVITAS), which is but an artificial man, though of greater stature and strength than the natural, for whose protection and defence it was intended; and in which the sovereignty is an artificial soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body; the magistrates and other officers of judicature and execution, artificial joints; reward and punishment (by which fastened to the seat of the sovereignty, every joint and member is moved to perform his duty) are the nerves, that do the same in the body natural; the wealth and riches of all the particular members are the strength; salus populi (the people’s safety) its business; counsellors, by whom all things needful for it to know are suggested unto it, are the memory; equity and laws, an artificial reason and will; concord, health; sedition, sickness; and civil war, death. Lastly, the pacts and covenants, by which the parts of this body politic were at first made, set together, and united, resemble that fiat, or the Let us make man, pronounced by God in the Creation.



Steam Engines–Some Paintings

This is a painting by the 18th century British painter William James, entitled “View of the Thames Showing Westminster, painted in 1765.

It is described on the website “London in the Mid Eighteenth Century” in the following way:

This is William James’s View of the Thames Showing Westminster which was painted around 1765. Sancho would have been very familiar with this view. James’s vantage point appears to be a boat in mid-river, a little to the north of the present day Hungerford Bridge. From left to right you can see Westminster Bridge, The House of Commons (two white towers) and Westminster Hall. Very prominent is Westminster Abbey with its (then) two new towers. The white Portland stone and neo-classical design of the Banqueting House make this the most prominent building on Whitehall, in the centre of this painting. The curious spire-like building is an early steam engine, used for pumping water at the York Buildings Water Works. The York Buildings Watergate is in the foreground, although since the Embankment was completed in 1870 this has been stranded some fifty metres from the river.


I won’t comment myself, but I invite you to think about the steam engine in the picture–and how it relates to the rest of the painting!

Again, here is a painting by the American painter George Inness, “The Erie and Lackawanna Railroad” from roughly a century later (it was America, after all), 1855:

Again I ask, how does the steam engine relate to the rest of the picture?

And finally here’s a painting from London, doubtless in the 19th century. The image (unidentified) comes from a great webpage on Wordsworth and the expanding industrial landscape of his time www.mtholyoke.edu/courses/rschwart/ind_rev/voices/wordsworth.html:

Now I ask how this image relates to Wordsworth’s poem “Steamboats, Viaducts and Railways”?

And having thought about that, consider this: this is Leo Marx in The Machine in the Garden considering the enthusiasm that the new steam machinery aroused in popular and even highbrow essays, pamphlets, and books in the U.S.:

“Armed with this new power, mankind is now able, for the first time, to realize the dream of  abundance. The entire corpus of intoxicated prose seems to rest on the simple but irresistible logic of first things first: all other hopes, for peace, equality, freedom, and happiness, are felt to rest upon technology. The fable of Prometheus is invoked on all sides. In his essay on “History” (1841), Emerson uses the example of the fire-stealer to suggest how “advancing man” unveils the authentic facts, such as the “invention of the mechanic arts,” beneath the surface of ancient myth. “What a range of meanings and what perpetual pertinence,” he says, “has the story of Prometheus!”  pp. 192-3.

And more:

“Indeed it would almost seem as though he [Man] were not but just entering on that dominion over the earth, which was assigned to him at the beginning. No longer, as once, does he stand trembling amid the forces of nature.” (194)

“The wide air and deep waters, the tall mountains, the outstretched plains, and the earth’s deep caverns, are become parcel of his domain and yield freely of their treasures to his researches and toils. The terrible ocean . . . conveys . . . [him] submissively . . . . He has almost annihilated space and time.” (194)

“Objects of exalted power and grandeur elevate the mind that seriously dwells on them, and impart to it greater compass and strength. Alpine scenery and an embattled ocean deepen contemplation and give their own sublimity to the conceptions of beholders. The same will be true of our system of Rail-roads. Its vastness and magnificence will prove communicable, and add to the standard of the intellect of our country.” (195)


Note on the Mechanical Arts

You have seen from your reading in Bacon’s Novum Organum that, not only does the valuation of the “new” come into prominence in the later 17th and 18th centuries, but also “the mechanical arts,” a medieval term, becomes more and more important. The mechanical arts are associated with handworkers’, not elites’ knowledge; with knowledge that increasingly becomes publicly disseminated and tested, not kept in secrecy; and with knowledge of nature that includes the humbler, “low,” and even offensive elements of nature, as opposed to ideal forms.

Now add one other feature to the list of what is associated with the mechanical arts: as Bacon writes,

For even as in the business of life a man’s disposition and the secret workings of his mind and affections are better discovered when he is in trouble than at other times, so likewise the secrets of nature reveal themselves more readily under the vexations of art than when they go their own way.

At the extreme end, “vexations of art” means., some have held, that the mechanical arts need to put nature on the torture rack to make her reveal her secrets. (There is contention about whether Bacon meant this one-sided torturing or “an heroic mutual struggle”–see “Wrestling with Proteus: Francis Bacon and the “Torture” of Nature,”  Isis, Vol. 90, No. 1 (Mar., 1999), pp. 81-94 at http://www.jstor.org/stable/237475. But either way, the mechanical arts were separating from and becoming even antagonistic to a still often–but less and less as time went on–personified nature.)

So science and technology from the later 17th century on became separated from and even antagonistic to nature and “her” forces, as the “arts” (which included agri-culture) were not. Some medieval instances of the mechanical arts–like making machinery to use wind and waterpower–didn’t vex nature with art. But others, from metallurgy to the steam engine, did, and these quickly became what people imagined when they imagined machinery.