- Historic Sites
“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’m certainly influenced by the concept of systems, probably more so than most historians. But my interest in systems stems less from reading the philosophers and social scientists than from the fact that I studied engineering as an undergraduate. The course I enjoyed most was electrical engineering. One of the models or images that burned itself into my mind is that of an electrical circuit system, with its interconnected resistances, energy sources, capacitors, and conductors. In an electrical system there is no cause-effect sequence. There is simultaneity . One doesn’t think of the resistance causing the behavior of the capacitor or the capacitor causing the behavior of the inductance, in a linear this-causes-this, this-causes-this sequence. What goes on in an electrical system involves simultaneous interaction . Many historians have mechanical models in mind. They think of one gear turning another gear turning another gear, sequentially. But my model of reality—of technical reality, at least—is grounded in simultaneous interactions that have no linear cause-effect relationship . In short, I tend to think in terms of systems.
The engineers, inventors, and managers of technology whom I have studied have also tended to think systematically. They don’t think of a machine as a collection of linear processes. They think of it, instead, as an organic whole made up of interacting parts. This difference of outlooks—the systems approach versus the simpler causeeffect approach—sometimes carries over into politics. I’m surprised how many engineers in the 1920s, for example, wanted to organize the whole political system like a great system of smoothly meshing parts.
Lenin used to wax lyrical about electricity some day transforming Russia into a paradise. Yet it’s the Western countries that have outdone Russia in electrical power development. Is there a point or lesson here?
I think there is a major point. One of Lenin’s characteristics, as a politician, as a revolutionary, was his appreciation of technology, not just of isolated machines. He wasn’t interested in gimmicks. He was interested in large-scale technology. He thought the essence of modernity was a society founded on large, integrated technological systems. And when Lenin was flourishing—in 1917 and 1918—the high technology of the day was electrical light and power systems. He thought that to modernize his country, to give it a firm material base, he needed to introduce electrical light and power systems. Furthermore, he thought that if he systematically organized the material aspects of society, then he could impose on that substructure a systematic political and economic organization. So he tried to organize Russian society using technological imperatives, especially the systems approach—his aim being to make that society modern and strong, the better to control and manage it. So I consider Lenin an intellectual child of twentieth-century technology. He didn’t know it in detail, but he officiated philosophically over technology’s development in Russia. He said, “Communism is Soviet government plus the electrification of the whole country.” By that he meant, a socialistic society requires modern managerial techniques and political organization plus high technology. And yet the Soviet society is not a high-technology one when compared with our society. A historian of technology might explain that the reason Russia today hasn’t got its system together —has, you might say, so many technological reverse salients—is that organizing such a large land mass, such a large number of people, and such a diverse environment is technologically and politically an overwhelming problem.
I am not so interested in how technology influences us; I think of technology as something we do ourselves. We express both our virtues and our sins with it.
Take a country like England. The British flourished during the early Industrial Revolution because the means of achieving social and technological control were available in the eighteenth century for a relatively small society. Today we are developing techniques to control enormous populations, large land masses, and large, complex technological situations. So the United States, too, is flourishing. The Russians may, of course, at some future time develop the organizational, communications, and transportation techniques needed to pull their society and political organization plus high technology together.
It strikes me that one of technology’s weak points is the fact that the public is perfectly willing to reap the benefits of technology but has very little notion of what technology is all about. We just stand there and wait for the cornucopia to produce. Is there some way of getting around this problem?
One reason 1 believe the history of technology should be taught early on in our schools is that technology is something we have created. I’m not so interested, as some are, in teaching about the way technology influences us . Such an outlook is too passive. It was common in the sixties to write articles about the influence of technology, as if technology were something “out there” doing things to us. Instead, 1 prefer to think of technology as something we have done. Which is to say that we express both our virtues and our sins in our technology: we get the technology we deserve .