December 1, 2002

Taming the Tiger

Category: Technology :: Permalink

Last week, I read Witold Rybczynski‘s Taming the Tiger: The Struggle to Control Technology. Rybczynski is an architect, but he’s also a gifted writer and a student of the history of ideas. In other books, he’s written about the origins of the weekend (Waiting for the Weekend), the idea of “home” (Home), building his own house (The Most Beautiful House in the World), and the history of the screwdriver and the screw (One Good Turn, in response to a request to write about the most important tool invented in the last millennium).

I bought Taming the Tiger because it was by Rybczynski, not because I was particularly interested in the topic. The book turned out to be more enjoyable than I expected, however.

Rybczynski examines, evaluates, and questions the arguments of those who believe that technology is a threat to society (e.g., Jacques Ellul). He begins the book by surveying the history of opposition to technology, noting along the way that the Luddites were not so much opposed to the machines themselves as they were to the way the machines were being used. He writes, “‘Man versus machine’ was a convenient explanation, not least because the machine was politically easier to blame than the entire social system” (p. 39).

In a later chapter, Rybczynski reviews several attempts to abandon technology (Kampuchea in the ’70s, Burma, Madagascar in the early 1800s, the American Plains Indians in the late 1800s). He also explores four individuals’ attitudes toward technology: Henry David Thoreau (who, incidentally, rejected technology and then relied on factory products to build his house on Walden Pond), William Morris (who tried to get back to history, and ended up with a movement that produced hand-crafted products only rich people could afford), Walter Gropius (whose Bauhaus movement tried to make art suitable for a machine age, but ended up with sterile ugliness due to a failure to understand technology), and Wally Byam (who invented the Airstream trailer). Unlike many of the European thinkers (and the Bauhaus guys in particular), Byam didn’t use technology “to fashion a new way of life,” but rather “to redefine an old one,” which suggests that there is more than one way to use technology.

Technology opens a door, Rybczynski says, but we don’t necessarily have to walk through it. While we likely can’t simply get rid of the technology, we don’t have to use it in destructive ways or even in the ways it was intended. “The historical record does not support the dour theory of technological inevitability” (165). Some inventions never get used (think of the reluctance of many armies to use chemical weapons). Some get abandoned even though they work fairly well (think of the Zeppelin). The big issue is how we control the technology.

Rybczynski writes:

Technology is controlled in three ways, two of which I have already described: the actual design of the device, which is always an attempt to reduce its unpredictability and the choice of whether or not, or when, to use the machine (p. 195).

What’s the third way? It’s to use the technology in a manner that’s different from the original intention. People can and do control and shape technology. They decide how they’re going to use it.

It is a mistake to look at a Mexican or an Indian bus and say, “Look, they are using our technology,” or, seeing differences in application, to conclude that it is not being used in the “right” way. This attitude betrays the arrogance and short-sightedness of the originator, who fails to understand that although a technology may at one time have been ours, the process of using it, and controlling it, has now made it theirs…. The most important lesson that can be learned from seeing the different emphases that different civilizations attach to technology is that this process is determined as much by the nature of the tool-user as by the nature of the tool (pp. 210-211).

In the end, says Rybczynski, we need to realize that “our technology is a symptom of our culture, not vice versa….[T]echnology is a human activity” (pp. 222-223). It reflects our culture, our interests, our character, our goals.

We sometimes like to think that it’s our technology which forces us to act in certain ways (technological determinism) or shapes our culture in ways we don’t like. We look with nostalgia at the way things were in the past before all the modern technology came along and we bemoan the way that technology has shaped us and made us “modernists” (which appears to be the underlying thrust of much of David Wells’s No Place for Truth, critiqued ably by Peter Leithart).

But is technology really our problem? Or is blaming technology really a convenient excuse to avoid taking responsibility? As Rybczynski says, “[T]he struggle to control technology has all along been a struggle to control ourselves” (p. 227).

Posted by John Barach @ 10:39 pm | Discuss (0)

Leave a Reply