Technology in America According to Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville arrived in America on May 10, 1831. He departed on February 20, 1832. He spent 271 days in the United States; 15 others were spent in Canada. Then, over the next several years, he wrote one of the most perceptive interpretations of American life ever written, Democracy in America.

Tocqueville touched on almost every conceivable facet of American life with a view to understanding the character of American democracy which was still something of a novelty, and certainly not guaranteed to endure. He necessarily generalized from his limited experience, but he did so brilliantly. Reading Democracy in America today, one is left with the impression that he saw through to the soul of the young republic and many of his observations remain compelling.

The tenth chapter of the second volume (Democracy in America was a hefty work) is titled “Why The Americans Are More Addicted To Practical Than To Theoretical Science.” You may recall from the essays of Leo Marx on the emergence of the concept of technology, that in Tocqueville’s day technology had not yet taken on the multifaceted sematic role it serves today. Other words and phrases, such as practical science, were invoked to discuss the various realities that we would group under technology. In this chapter, then, we find Tocqueville turning his attention to the American fascination and facility with technology.

As with all of the particularities of American society that Tocqueville discusses, he is mostly concerned to understand the consequences of the democratic political culture on the topic under consideration. At the outset of this chapter, for example, he notes that, “Equality begets in man the desire of judging of everything for himself: it gives him, in all things, a taste for the tangible and the real, a contempt for tradition and for forms.” And so it is with the culture of American science and technology.

To begin with, Tocqueville believes that the work of science may be divided into three types of endeavor:

“The first comprises the most theoretical principles, and those more abstract notions whose application is either unknown or very remote. The second is composed of those general truths which still belong to pure theory, but lead, nevertheless, by a straight and short road to practical results. Methods of application and means of execution make up the third.”

He concludes that Americans are quite good at the third, do a passable job at the second, and are least adept, but not altogether incompetent in the first. As best as I can judge, assuming the validity of his categories, this was not far off the mark. Tocqueville connects this with the absence of a leisured class:

“Nothing is more necessary to the culture of the higher sciences, or of the more elevated departments of science, than meditation; and nothing is less suited to meditation than the structure of democratic society. We do not find there, as amongst an aristocratic people, one class which clings to a state of repose because it is well off; and another which does not venture to stir because it despairs of improving its condition.”

Instead Americans are promiscuously active and, according to Tocqueville, “In the ages in which active life is the condition of almost everyone, men are therefore generally led to attach an excessive value to the rapid bursts and superficial conceptions of the intellect; and, on the other hand, to depreciate below their true standard its slower and deeper labors.”

Moreover, Tocqueville adds, “A desire to utilize knowledge is one thing; the pure desire to know is another.” Americans are decidedly in the former camp. Put otherwise, all of this means that America is much more likely to produce a Thomas Edison than an Albert Einstein. As a generalization, this seems about right still. I’m hard pressed to name theoreticians that Americans presently hold in high regard. Perhaps Stephen Hawking, but then again, he is not American. We venerate the likes of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates instead. The inventor-entrepreneur is still the preferred American icon.

Further on, Tocqueville once again leads with his familiar rough-and-ready brand of sociological analysis:

“The greater part of the men who constitute these nations are extremely eager in the pursuit of actual and physical gratification. As they are always dissatisfied with the position which they occupy, and are always free to leave it, they think of nothing but the means of changing their fortune, or of increasing it.”

From this premise, Tocqueville then launches into the following observations which strike me as more true than not:

“To minds thus predisposed, every new method which leads by a shorter road to wealth, every machine which spares labor, every instrument which diminishes the cost of production, every discovery which facilitates pleasures or augments them, seems to be the grandest effort of the human intellect. It is chiefly from these motives that a democratic people addicts itself to scientific pursuits-that it understands, and that it respects them. In aristocratic ages, science is more particularly called upon to furnish gratification to the mind; in democracies, to the body. You may be sure that the more a nation is democratic, enlightened, and free, the greater will be the number of these interested promoters of scientific genius, and the more will discoveries immediately applicable to productive industry confer gain, fame, and even power on their authors.”

And that is why Tocqueville is still in print — his analysis still resonates even if we may quibble with the details. This is as succinct a diagnosis as one could hope for of the distinct blend of technology and economics that we might label America’s techno-start-up culture.

Tocqueville, incidentally, was not being wholly critical in his observations. He notes, for instance, that, “These very Americans, who have not discovered one of the general laws of mechanics, have introduced into navigation an engine which changes the aspect of the world.”

What Tocqueville could not quite anticipate is the degree to which technology would eventually drive theoretical science. In this regard, his analysis falls short. But his insight into the American temperament and its stance toward technology has proved remarkably durable.

One final note, given recent posts, Tocqueville’s analysis is also an argument against a hard technological determinism. The history of technology in America takes its unique shape, at least in part, due to America’s political economy. But, mindful of the reciprocal nature of technology’s relationships to society, it would be only fair to note that technology has since rather significantly reshaped America’s political economy.

Alexis de Tocqueville by Théodore Chassériau, 1850

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