09 May 2011

Railroads and Other Baffling Innovations

From A Most Magnificent Machine: America Adopts the Railroad, 1825-1862, by Craig Miner (U. Press of Kansas, 2010), pp. 253-254:
Why do our clothes not fit so well? It results from a chain of circumstances the origins of which are obscure to most and the direction of which was partially accidental. Early in the nineteenth century, inventors came up with an automated loom, and businesspeople put these to work in England and in such American industrial cities as Lowell, Massachusetts, turning out cheap cotton cloth. This, along with the application of the cotton gin to cotton production, revitalized slavery as well as creating an incentive for inexpensive ready-made and therefore not specifically tailored clothing.

Such long-range deep impacts of technological and business developments have long been studied. Lynn White, in Medieval Technology and Social Change, documented the enormous impact of clocks, heavy harness and stirrups on population growth, shock warfare, and the age of exploration. Siegfried Giedion wrote in his Mechanization Takes Command of what he called "anonymous history." Who can estimate the impact of the invention of the toilet, or the assembly line in food production, or household machinery on the status of women? Langdon Winner observed "Developments in the technical sphere continually outpace the capacity of individuals and social systems to adapt. As the rate of technological innovation quickens, it becomes increasingly important and increasingly difficult to predict the range of effects that a given innovation will have."

A recent touring art exhibit called "The Railway: Art in the Age of Steam" reaffirmed the impact of that technology on perceptions of life and landscape. "The application of steam power to motion," the catalog noted, "came as a startling turn of events." Some found it wondrous, but "for others it heralded a frightening, almost demonic energy." There was something supernatural about it, even extraterrestrial. It made middle-class people "physically and psychologically susceptible to impersonal and potentially lethal industrial machines."...

Think of the social and psychological changes wrought by the telegraph, electricity, the phonograph, the automobile, the airplane, radio, television, the computer, the Internet, the long-playing record, video games, the cell phone, fast food, the shopping mall, and the iPod. And think of how "baffled," in many ways, we are by them and how they should fit in with the rest of our existence. These devices have become ubiquitous parts of modern life. An age when they did not exist is nearly unimaginable to many, while an age where they do exist is unendurable to others.

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