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“We Get the Technology We Deserve”
A leader in the emerging field of technological history speaks about the inventors who made our modern world and tells why it is vital for us to know not only what they did, but how they thought
October/november 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 6
I remember stories about Americans insisting that a certain kind of insulation be used on electrical lines in India. The Indians said, “Well, we have various insects and natural forces that would destroy the kind of insulation you are using.” And the Americans replied, “Oh, no, we’ve got the best insulation.” So they used it, and sure enough, what with the Indian environment and its particular animal life, they did find that the insulation failed to work. In other cases, we exported labor-saving technology to areas in which there was an abundance of cheap labor. The local population would point out that they needed a technology that would allow largescale employment, even though it might not be as “efficient.” So Americans in time readjusted and began to recommend more labor-intensive technology. What I’m saying is that technology is culturally shaped. When you move technology from one culture to another, the technology must be adjusted to fit the new culture. Or—and this suggests the threatening aspect of technology—you can insist that the culture conform to the technology . But then you have a technological imperative that is threatening to the culture. So I suppose there must be some adjustment of the culture and some adjustment of the technology.
I use the concept of style to cover the subject that I’m now discussing. Various cultures exhibit various technological styles. A case in point is the small European automobile of the fifties, a time when Americans were still driving large cars. The small automobile suited the European culture, in which there was a horsepower tax—the consumer was charged according to the size of the car’s engine. Therefore, it made sense for Europeans to drive a small car with a small engine. We Americans didn’t have such a tax, and our gas was inexpensive, while European gasoline was expensive. To impose our large automobiles on Europeans in the fifties would have been imperialistic. To have imposed the small European automobile on the Americans would have been inappropriate.
There’s an interesting twist here. Now that the price of energy has skyrocketed, the small European automobile has become appropriate to our culture!
In Networks of Power you show that electric power networks, which should have spread like wildfire in Victorian England, actually encountered great resistance. That to me was one of the most startling aspects of this altogether surprising book.
One reason large-scale electric light and power systems did not initially spread into England was that the British highly value their local governments. Patchwork local governments and large, integrated technological systems do not suit one another well. For many years the British protected their local governments by rejecting large, interregional technological systems. So there you have a nice example of a culture defending itself against change brought on by the imposition of a technology that is not harmonious with preexisting values.
You’ve used a striking term, reverse salient , to describe lagging, backward areas within an expanding technology. Where does this expression come from? And what would be an instance of a reverse salient?
When I was studying European history in college, one of my most dynamic instructors was discussing the World War I battle of Verdun, and he described a certain deep German penetration of the French lines as a reverse salient. That is, this bulge into the otherwise even French line created a dangerous situation. So the French concentrated their energies on correcting that reverse salient. This image of Verdun remained in my mind as I began to work with technology, studying people like Edison who approached technology systematically, and who looked for the weaknesses in such technological systems as electric light and power networks. I liked the image because, like a battle line, the technological frontier is extremely complicated. Inventors are always looking for reverse salients in a system which need to be corrected, just as the French needed to correct the Verdun line. For Fxiison the lack of durability in electrical filaments was a reverse salient in the lighting system. Until that filament salient was dealt with, the entire system could not be developed. I preferred the concept of reverse salient to bottleneck because bottleneck is too rigid, too simple. The concept of a military front advancing, then falling back, with attendant irregularities along the whole line—that to me closely resembles technological change.
A technological frontier is extremely complicated; an inventor must look at a whole system to see what is behind and what is ahead.
Have you ever applied the reverse salient idea to present-day technology?
I suppose one example of a reverse salient in technology is the problem of disposal of waste from atomic power plants. We are now faced with the problem of this toxic waste: How will we deal with it? A nice case of reverse salient.
In the field of computers, I think of the recent reverse salient that the Apple Macintosh experienced. The consumer was saying, understandably, “Look, I’ve got a fine piece of equipment here but I’m not able to fully utilize it because I don’t have the software that is appropriate.” Well, that’s a clear case of a reverse salient. The Apple Computer people had pushed the artifact—the computer—ahead of the availability of the software. They had to adjust that relationship.