Monday, August 23, 2010

Thoughts on the Human-Built World

I have been reading Human-Built World: How to Think about Technology and Culture by Thomas Hughes. Hughes is a historian who specializes in histories of technological developments, and I previously read his book, Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930. Hughes defines "technology" as the technology that engineers work on -- civil works, electrical works, etc. Thus Hughes appears to think in terms of examples from infrastructure development.

I agree that engineers are professionals trained to work in certain technological fields. I think Hughes and I would also agree that manufacturing is based on technologies, including craft and other technologies that are not normally associated with engineers. I also think of agricultural, forestry and fishery technologies involved in primary production industries. Increasingly service industries are considered in terms of their technologies, such as medical technology, educational technology and the information technology underlying modern financial services.

Of course most of what I perceive on a day to day basis is a human-built world. I live in a house, in a neigbhborhood in the suburbs of a city. I take roads to shop in a shopping center, or the Metro to the city to talk to people with whom I used to work. On the other hand, I am lucky enough to live in the United States, and can drive through huge areas of forest and desert, or visit the coast to view the ocean, or on my lucky days visit a national park. It is easy enough for me to recognize that I live in a world that has been heavily influenced by man with some areas (on the surface) that are human constructed.

Hughes points out that the first colonists of what is now the United States thought that they were going to civilize a howling wilderness. Their attitude bemused the native Americans who did not perceive themselves to be living in a wilderness, since they lived in villages with paths between them, growing some crops, and surrounded by what they found comfortable if more natural environments. Of course, humans had occupied North America for some 13,000 years and were the keystone species. Charles Mann in his book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus that native Americans had selectively enriched forests with trees that produced mast which formed an important part of their diet, and selectively hunted so as to help assure game animals would be found near their villages. Their technology was more of a husbanding of natural resources than of terraforming lands to produce farms.

In his second chapter, "Technology and the Second Creation",  Hughes appreciates that modern people with our secular view of technology find it hard to understand or appreciate the religious views of technologies of some of our ancestors. He is certainly right about me! Still he seeks to make the case that as some important thinkers saw human technological efforts as diabolic, linking men with the fallen angels in their hubris, other thinkers saw human technological efforts as realizing a divine plan, and indeed preparing a second garden of eden in preparation for the second coming. He cites writings of early American colonists who saw the conquest of the wilderness in that sense of preparing a second garden of eden. I can appreciate the diabolic and godly concepts of human technological efforts as a powerful metaphor for modern technology policy debates.

Having written some pieces on technology in the past in which I was trying to influence opinions of my readers, I can't help suspect that that which people in the past wrote about technology was not what they really believed. Even more to the point, I suspect that the earliest colonists when seeking to scratch a living out of an unfamiliar land for which they were not prepared, and survive a sequence of diseases made more difficult to to malnourishment, did not spend as much time thinking about their divine mission as about how to get the next meal. Indeed, as colonists became more successful in later generations, I suspect that they were thinking more about expanding that success and living better lives -- focusing on day to day problems and leaving religion to Sunday meeting and perhaps a limited period of prayer a day.

On the other hand, I have just read the chapter of 1453 about portents and omens perceived by the Byzantines and Ottomans during the final days of the siege of Constantinople. I find it easy to believe that those people were consumed by fears and hopes based on the mystical, and I find it easy to believe we are better off today dealing with a more secular view of technology. Still, Hughes history is helpful as we try to understand history and how we got to where we are now.

No comments: