- 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
But there is another complication. I’m drawn to C. Vann Woodward’s concept of the burden of history: he speaks especially of the “burden of Southern history.” This is a very powerful concept. My application of Woodward’s concept is that we also labor under the burden of technological history. That is, much of the technology we deal with is out of the past—maybe only ten, maybe only five years, maybe only a year ago, but it was created by people who had widely different objectives, so now we have to live with an inappropriate technology, created under different circumstances by people with motives different from ours. I see that as the burden of technological history. Just as you need to understand general history if you want to get out from under it, so you need to know the history of technology if you want to get out from under the technological burden.
Just as you need to understand general history if you want to get out from under it, you must know the history of technology to get out from under its burden.
It seems to me sad that engineers, the practitioners of technology, are not more aware of this need. By contrast, the more sophisticated politicians are keenly aware of the burdens of political history: they are aware of Munich, of the Napoleonic Wars, and of the injustices in our social history. But many engineers and managers of technology act as though technology has no past. Take a very simple case that I mentioned earlier: we drove big automobiles during the energy shortage. These automobiles were made for the cheap-energy thirties, but we were still driving them in the forties, fifties, and sixties, despite the sharp decline in the availability of petroleum. So I’ll say it again: If you don’t know your technological history, you are doomed to live under the burden of it.
Not so long ago Henry Kissinger was complaining about the inability of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff to respond to new technological opportunities. Now Kissinger would never be so naive as to think you could change an entire political structure overnight. Yet he seems to think you can change a technological structure overnight! He can’t seem to understand why the military doesn’t swing with the times, technologically. Well, technology has a tremendous momentum. It imposes a horrendous burden and has its own arrogancy. The truth is that there are few radical shifts and swerves in technology.
In fact, military men seem to be much more aware of the burden of technological history than our politicians are. Military men have the wit to know that the past is a heavy burden. They study military history with a deep commitment and a seriousness of purpose that you don’t find among engineers and managers studying technology. I hope this situation will change, and that engineers and managers will one day grow wise from contemplating the history of their subject.