Technology and the Stories We Tell

It is sometimes suggested that human beings may be characterized as tool-using animals. Some, for example Katherine Hayles, have alternatively ventured to define human beings as meaning-making animals:

“… the primary purpose of narrative is to search for meaning, making narrative an essential technology for human beings, who can arguably be defined as meaning-­seeking animals …”

To put this point another way, we might say that human beings are story-telling animals.

Interestingly, Hayles suggests a link between technology and narrative by defining narrative as a kind of technology. In Technology Matters, historian David E. Nye also links narrative and technology in a slightly different, but likewise intriguing manner:

“Consider the similarity between what is involved in creating and using a tool and the sequence of a narrative …. Composing a narrative and using a tool are not identical processes, but they have affinities. Each requires the imagination of altered circumstances, and in each case beings must see themselves to be living in time. Making a tool immediately implies a succession of events in which one exercises some control over outcomes. Either to tell a story or to make a tool is to adopt an imaginary position outside immediate sensory experience. In each case, one imagines how present circumstances might be made different.”

A little later on Nye adds, “To improvise with tools or to tell stories requires the ability to imagine not just one outcome but several. To link technology and narrative does not yoke two disparate subjects; rather, it recalls an ancient relationship.”

And further on still, “A tool always implies at least one small story. There is a situation; something needs doing.”

All told, Nye is arguing that tools and narratives emerged symbiotically, seemingly as byproducts of a capacity to imagine that was not temporally encased in the present, and that human culture depended on their emergence. Nye is hesitant to enter into debates about the chronological priority or primacy of either tools or narrative and this strikes me as a rather sensible position to take.

It is interesting, however, to entertain the problem if just momentarily. In one respect, seeking to discern the primary partner in the relationship is a variation of the debate over technological determinism. Let us agree that we have, for all intents and purposes, always told stories and always made tools. But what frames what? This may be the critical question. Do our stories define our tools or do our tools shape our stories? (Of course, I admit at the outset that this is most likely a misleading question in that the best response is of a both/and rather than either/or nature.)

Narrative is essentially geared toward the production of meaning. We tell stories to make sense out of experience. To understand our relationship to technology, then, it is worth asking what stories we tell about our tools.

Immediately, I am reminded of the grand narratives of progress told by Western societies — and perhaps American society most enthusiastically — in which technology has been a central character, if not indeed, the central character. These stories have framed the place of technology within society; they have given a certain meaning to the presence and evolution of technology. As Leo Marx, among others, has noted, as the grand narrative of progress mutated over the course of the nineteenth century, technology assumed a dominant role, eventually making the story of progress coterminous with the story of technology. This was a powerful story and it influenced the nature of technology’s relationship to society as long as the story was widely affirmed.

The conventional wisdom is that postmodernity has fatally undermined all such grand (or, meta-) narratives. I’m not so sure. I think there is certainly something to the claim, no doubt. Certain kinds of totalizing grand narratives seem intuitively implausible, or what amount to the same thing, unpalatable. Yet, even though varieties of technological pessimism seem more widespread, the myth of the machine, to borrow Mumford’s phrasing, seems alive and well. The transhumanist project and its quite grand narrative is just one example. On a less grandiose scale we may perceive a survival of the grand narrative of progress in the popular insistence (or hope) that the answer to the problems introduced by technology is simply more technology. And, of course, the myth of the machine/progress still infuses a good bit of advertising.

Moreover, if we are indeed meaning-making, story-telling animals, then it is unlikely that the lure of grand narratives will ever permanently fade away. Certain types of grand narratives will undoubtedly pass from the scene, and all grand narratives may for a time leave a bad taste in our mouth, particularly if we have binged on one of them, but in time, I suspect, our taste for them will return and we’ll go looking once again to make sense of it all.

Returning specifically to the narrative of technological progress, it was undoubtedly challenged more recently by the dystopian stories of the twentieth century, particularly postwar science fiction, which framed technology within darker, more ambiguous narratives. These stories, many of which are quite popular, elicit a more reserved and chastened posture toward technology. But, more to the point, they are narratives and as narratives they frame technology in a meaningful way.

Along with these macro-narratives that order a society’s relationship to technology, we should also note the micro-narratives we weave around our own personal tools and devices. These micro-narratives may tell the story of how we came to possess the technology, they may instruct others in using the technology, they may explicitly tell of the technology’s significance to us; in all of these ways and more, they constitute our meaning making activity with regards to technology in our lives. These micro-narratives, in conversation with the macro-narratives, go a long way toward ordering our own personal relationship with technology, or at least they are symptoms of that ordering (or dis-ordering as the case may be).

Additionally, at a level between the micro- and the macro-, we might also consider the stories of particular technologies and the way these stories intersect with larger grand narratives and more personal accounts. One might take the story of the car, for example. The story of the automobile has a privileged place in narratives about the character of American society in the twentieth century. It is intimately woven into local histories such as that of Detroit, and it may even feature prominently in our personal histories. Who, after all, doesn’t remember their first car? The story of the automobile also attracts other prominent thematic elements that comprise the larger stories we tell about our culture including freedom, motion, autonomy, and restlessness. At this level we might also include the role accorded the printing press in the larger story of the Protestant Reformation or that accorded the cotton gin the story of the American Civil War. These stories may not always be entirely truthful, but they are believed and so secure their influence.

Altogether, we may distinguish at least the following kinds of technologically related stories:

a. Narratives about a particular technology

b. Small vignettes about our personal experience with technology

c. Large scale narratives in which technology figures prominently

d. Grand narratives that frames cultural attitudes toward technology

Technologies, we might then conclude, elicit a multiplicity of narratives. They invite meaning and encourage its construction.

Finally, I’m inclined to add that while it is true that narrative preceded literacy, literacy reshaped narrative. We have always told stories, but the shape and form of those stories have shifted in response to the appearance of new communication technologies, be it the stylus, the printing press, the radio, or the motion picture, to name but a few. And so again we are left with a reciprocal relationship. Narratives shape the way we use our tools and our tools shape the way we construct our narratives.

A. Leydenfrost, "Science on the March" (1952)

The Art of Technology and Empire

The phrase “Manifest Destiny” is likely one of those bits from high school history class that lingers on in most Americans’ memory for no obvious reason; in much the same way, for example, that I remember William Katt’s name (you know, the guy who starred in Greatest American Hero). If our memory serves us a little better than most, we’ll recall that the destiny that was so plainly manifest was America’s destiny to possess all of the territory between the eastern states and Pacific Ocean. “Go West young man!” and all of that.

What you may not immediately think of even if you do remember your American history class lucidly is the important role that technology played in the ideology of Westward expansion. In Dominance by Design: Technological Imperatives and America’s Civilizing Mission, Michael Adas lays out that case in convincing detail. If David Nye’s American Technological Sublime successfully argues that the experience of the technological sublime has been America’s civil religion, then Adas has documented the attendant missionary project.

In the likely event that you don’t have time to read Adas’ sizable book, here’s the “Manifest Destiny” portion of his argument in a visual nutshell:

John Gast, “American Progress” (1872)

Yes, that is telegraph line that she is stringing out. I tend to think that the old line, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” is generally misleading, but in this case, it just might work. The portrait, according to historian Merritt Roe Smith*, was commissioned by publicist George Crofutt who tasked John Gast with painting a “beautiful and charming female … floating westward through the air, bearing on her forehead the ‘Star of Empire.'” The beautiful female was to carry a book in her right hand symbolizing the “common school — the emblem of education” while with her left she “unfolds and stretches the slender wires of the telegraph, that are to flash intelligence throughout the land …”

Crofutt also wanted Gast to depict certain elements “fleeing from ‘Progress'”; these included “the Indians, buffalo, wild horses, bears and other game.” The Indians were to “turn their despairing faces toward the setting sun, as they flee from the presence of wondrous vision. The ‘Star’ is too much for them.” We should, by now, know this unfortunate part of the story well.

Smith neatly summarizes the significance of the painting: “As art goes, ‘American Progress’ is not a work of great distinction. But as a popular allegory that amalgamates the idea of America’s Manifest Destiny with an old republican symbol (the goddess Liberty, now identified as Progress) and associates progress with technological change (represented by telegraph lines, the railroads, the steam ships, the cable bridge, and the urban landscape in the background), it is a remarkable achievement.”

One could read a political allegory into the evolution of goddess Liberty into goddess Progress. A similar sort of allegory that might arise if we were to compare John Trumbull’s famous (if not quite accurate) paining of the signing of the Declaration of Independence with this later painting by Christian Schussele, “Men of Progress”:

Christian Schussele, “Men of Progress” (1863)

The two paintings are linked by the image of Benjamin Franklin who, in Trumbull’s paining, is positioned prominently before the Declaration of Independence by the side of John Hancock and, in Schussele’s work, appears in the portrait in the top left of the scene watching approvingly over these 19th century men of progress. These men included Samuel Colt, Cyrus McCormick, Charles Goodyear, Elias Howe, and Samuel Morse. We might safely call this the American Pantheon, and may not be too far off the mark if we gather that the reverence paid the Founders had been, by the middle of the 19th century, transferred to these “men of progress.”

And, of course, the century was all about Progress. That sentiment was captured in this lithograph by Currier and Ives from 1876:

Currier and Ives, “The Progress of the Century” (1876)

The telegraph tape reads, “Liberty and Union, Now and Forever” along with “One and Inseparable” and “Glory to God in the Highest, On Earth Peace and Good Will Toward Men.” These political and religious sentiments are not only conveyed by the telegraph; the realities they articulate are effectively secured by the telegraph — and the railroad, and the steam boat, etc. It is technology that binds the nation together and the whole project is given a theological hue (further reinforcing Nye’s thesis).

James P. Boyd, writing in 1899, looked back upon the 19th century and marveled: “Indeed, it may be said that along many lines of invention and progress which have most intimately affected the life and civilization of the world, the nineteenth century has achieved triumphs and accomplished wonders equal, if not superior, to all other centuries combined.” This was a rose colored assessment, to be sure; it glossed over some of the century’s darker shades and, of course, seemed oblivious to the cataclysms that lay ahead.

What Boyd’s rhetoric does capture is the reduction of the notion of Progress to the narrow channel of technical advance. All other measures — be they political, religious, or cultural — are subsumed within the grand narrative of the evolution of technology. The lineaments of what Neil Postman termed technopoly have, by the close of the 19th century, begun to appear.

Early into the 21st century, we may find a painting like “American Progress” naive at best, if not offensive and misguided. Boyd’s rhetoric may strike us as grandiose and a bit too earnest. Both together suffering from a bad case of what Adas has called techno-hubris. And yet, how far do we have to go back to find similarly effusive and eschatological hopes attached to the World Wide Web and the Information Superhighway? To what degree have we continued to measure progress by the single measure of technical innovation, forsaking more demanding political and ethical standards? And haven’t we also paid homage to the goddess of technological progress, stripped perhaps of some of her earlier glory, no longer radiant, illuminated now by the lesser light of some backlit screen?


*Citations from Merritt Roe Smith are drawn from his essay, “Technological Determinism in American Culture,” in Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism.

The Art Inspired by the Religion of Technology

The American painter Charles Sheeler was contracted by Fortune magazine to create a series of paintings that captured the power and majesty of American technology. Nye describes Sheeler’s paintings as follows:

Like many artists of his generation, Charles Sheeler explored the apparent omnipotence of industrialization. In six paintings commissioned by Fortune he depicted the central objects of the technological sublime: the water wheel, the railroad, electrification, and flight. Martin Friedman has observed of the series: ‘Sheeler always depicted power at absolute stasis. In his hermetic visualizations, power is not treated in terms of crashing strength but as an intellectualized concept with its mechanisms always in mint condition.’ The immobility of these paintings creates a tension between the static forms and the reader’s knowledge that all these objects move at great speed. Published together in a single issue of Fortune, Sheeler’s images were presented like a photographic essay. The accompanying text asserted: ‘The heavenly serenity of Sheeler’s style brings out the significance of the instruments of power he portrays here … He shows them for what they truly are: not strange, inhuman masses of material, but exquisite manifestations of human reason.'”

“Heavenly serenity” was not the only religiously inflected language to appear in the text. Here is another portion of the text, cited by Nye, that accompanied Sheeler’s paintings:

“What is this incredible, elusive power that man has taken so magnificently from the waters and the hills? What unguessed secrets of the universe are hinted by its transmission unchanged through unchanging strands of copper or aluminum? In what way have men’s minds, grappling with the raw phenomena of lightning and magnetism, managed to contrive so swift and carefully guarded a channel for a force that no one can fully apprehend? … It is not surprising that the modern scientist, confronted with such questions and with their partial answers, which open up still further questions, should often be a man of deep religious feeling. And it is not surprising either that the modern artist, depicting such a scientist’s handiwork, should put a devout intensity into the painting. This is as truly a religious work of art as any altarpiece, or stained-glass window, or vaulted choir.”

This further points to the entanglement of religion and technology explored by historian David Noble among others. It also suggests to me that while some have referred to the 1930s as America’s most irreligious decade, coming on the heals of the Scopes Trial debacle and fed by H. L. Menken’s acerbic wit, this may be a mischaracterization. It may be better to suggest that in the 1930s the religious impulse was more thoroughly displaced onto technology and its possibilities. Although as Nye’s study of the American technological sublime makes clear, this was a displacement that had long been in the making.

Below is one of the Sheeler’s paintings that appeared in Fortune. Another is included in the preceding post. You can see the whole spread by following the link in the first paragraph.

Conversation -- Sky and Earth

American Technological Sublime: Our Civil Religion

David Nye, the author of Electrifying America which I cited a handful of times in the past month or so, is also the author American Technological Sublime (1995), a classic work in the history of technology. Except that it is not a work of history in the strict disciplinary sense. Nye draws promiscuously from other fields — citing for example Burke, Kant, Durkheim, Barthes and Baudrillard among others — to present a wide ranging and insightful study into the American character.

The concept of the technological sublime was not original to Nye. It had first been developed by Perry Miller, a prominent mid-twenieth century scholar of early American history, in his study The Life of the Mind in America. There Miller noted in passing the almost religious veneration that sometimes attended the experience of new technologies in the early republic.

Miller found that in the early nineteenth century “technological majesty” had found a place alonside the “starry heavens above and the moral law within to form a peculiarly American trinity of the Sublime.” Taking the steamboat as an illustration, Miller suggests that technology’s cultural ascendancy was abetted by a decidedly non-utilitarian aspect of awe and wonder bordering on religious reverence. “From the beginning, down to the great scenes of Mark Twain,” Miller explains, “the steamboat was chiefly a subject of ecstasy for its sheer majesty and might, especially for its stately progress at night, blazing with light through the swamps and forests of Nature.”

Leo Marx, who I’ve also mentioned here of late, also employed the technological sublime, but again in passing. It fell to David Nye, a student of Marx’s, to develop a book length treatment of the concept. Nye looks to Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant in order fill out the concept of the sublime, but it is apparent from the start that Nye is less interested in the philosopher’s solitary experience of the sublime in the presence of natural wonders than he is in the popular and often collective experience of the sublime in the presence of technological marvels.

Nye, with a historian’s eye for interesting and compelling sources, weaves together a series of case studies that demonstrate the wonder, awe, and not a little trepidation that attended the appearance of the railroads, the Brooklyn bridge, the Hoover Dam, the factory, skyscrapers, the electrified cityscape, the atomic bomb, and the moon landing. Through these case studies Nye demonstrates how Americans have responded to certain technologies, either because of their scale or their dynamism, in a manner that can best be described by the category of the sublime. And perhaps more importantly, he argues that this experience of the technological sublime laced throughout American history has acted as a thread stitching together the otherwise diverse and divided elements of American society.

If the philosophers provided Nye with the terminology to name the phenomenon, he takes his interpretative framework from the sociologists of religion. Nye’s project is finally indebted more to Emile Durkheim than to either Burke or Kant. Nye notes early on that “because of its highly emotional nature, the popular sublime was intimately connected to religious feeling.” Later he observes that the American sublime was “fused with religion, nationalism, and technology” and ceased to be a “philosophical idea” instead it “became submerged in practice.”

This emphasis on practice is especially important to Nye’s overall thesis and it is on the practices surrounding the technological sublime that he concentrates his attention. For example, with each new sublime technology he discusses, Nye explores the public ceremonies that attended its public reception. The 1939 World’s Fair, to take another example, appears almost liturgical in Nye’s exposition with its carefully choreographed exhibitions featuring religiously intoned narration and a singular vision for a utopian future.

This attention to practices and ceremonies was signaled at the outset when Nye cited David Kertzer’s “Neo-Durkheimian view” that “ritual can produce bonds of solidarity without requiring uniformity of belief.” This functionalist view of religious ritual informs Nye’s analysis of the technological sublime throughout. In Nye’s story, the particular technologies are almost irrelevant. They are significant only to the degree that they gather around themselves a set of practices. And these practices are important to the degree that they serve to unify the body politic in the absence of shared blood lines or religion.

All told, Nye has written a book about a secular civil religion focused on sublime technologies and he has presented a convincing case. Absent the traditional elements that bind a society together, the technological sublime provided Americans a set of shared experiences and categories around which a national character could coalesce.

Nye has woven a rich, impressive narrative that draws technology and religion together to help explain the American national character. There’s a great deal I’ve left out that Nye develops. For example: the evolving relationship of reason to nature and technology as mediated through the sublime or the diminishing active role of citizens, and especially laborers, in the public experience of the technological sublime. But these, in my view, are minor threads.

The take-away insight is that Americans blended, almost seamlessly, their religious affections with their veneration for technology until finally the experience of technology took on the unifying role of religion in traditional societies. Historically American’s have been divided by region, ethnicity, race, religion, and class. American share no blood lines and they have no ancient history in their land. What they have possessed, however, is a remarkable faith in technological progress that his been periodically rekindled by one sublime technology after another all the way to the space shuttle program and its final mission.

The question I’m left with is this: What happens when the technological sublime runs dry? As Nye points out, it is, unlike the natural sublime, a non-renewable sublime. In other words, the sublime response wears off and must find another object to draw it out. If Nye is right — and I do think it is possible to overreach so I want to be careful — there is not much else that serves as well as the technological sublime to bind American society together. Perhaps then, part of our recent sense of unraveling, our heightened sense of disunity, the so called culture wars — perhaps these are accentuated by the withdrawal of the technological sublime. Perhaps, but that would take another book to explore.

“Suspended Power”

Conquering the Night: Technology, Fear, and Anxiety

Tim Blanning begins his review of Craig Koslofsky’s Evening’s Empire: A history of the night in early modern Europe as follows:

In 1710, Richard Steele wrote in Tatler that recently he had been to visit an old friend just come up to town from the country. But the latter had already gone to bed when Steele called at 8 pm. He returned at 11 o’clock the following morning, only to be told that his friend had just sat down to dinner. “In short”, Steele commented, “I found that my old-fashioned friend religiously adhered to the example of his forefathers, and observed the same hours that had been kept in his family ever since the Conquest”. During the previous generation or so, elites across Europe had moved their clocks forward by several hours. No longer a time reserved for sleep, the night time was now the right time for all manner of recreational and representational purposes.

Given my recent borrowings from David Nye’s study of electrification, it will come as no surprise that the title of Blanning’s review, “The reinvention of the night,” caught my eye. I was expecting a book dealing with the process of electrification, but Koslofsky’s story, as the subtitle of his book suggests, unfolds two to three hundred years before electrification.

It also features technology less prominently than I anticipated, at least Blanning doesn’t emphasize it in his review. In fact, he writes, “This had little to do with technological progress, for until the nineteenth century only candles and oil lamps were available.” This suggests a rather narrow definition of technology since candles and oil lamps are just that. It may be that Blanning’s emphasis is on the “progress” side of “technological progress,” but immediately after this sentence he writes, “Most advanced was the oil lamp developed in the 1660s by Jan van der Heyden, which used a current of air drawn into the protective glass-paned lantern to prevent the accretion of soot, and made Amsterdam the best-lit city in Europe.” This would amount to technological progress, no?

in any case, what I found most interesting, and what connected directly with Nye, was the following observation by Blanning: “At the heart of his argument is the contrariety between day and night, light and dark. On the one hand, the sixteenth century witnessed an intensification of the association of the night with evil …” That, and the theme of a shifting civic/public sphere (a la Habermas) that moved not only from the town square to the aristocratic halls and coffee houses, but also from the day time to the night time.

Take both together and we have another example of the reciprocal relationship between technology and social structures, assuming you’re buying my hunch that this is a story in which technology, even if it is “primitive” technology, is implicated.

A society’s symbolic tool kit can shift. We might take for granted that night always evoked fear and dread and evil, and although there is something to that of course, the story is more complex. Perhaps night’s identification with evil intensified in part because of the gradual conquest of the night by artificial illumination. It would be a paradoxical case of unintended, unforeseen consequences. The more we domesticate darkness, the more darkness takes its revenge on us. Perhaps if we were more at home in the darkness, we would be less fearful of it.

Consider the following passage cited by Nye from Henry Beston writing in the early twentieth century:

“We of the age of the machines, having delivered ourselves of nocturnal enemies, now have a dislike of night itself. With lights and ever more lights, we drive the holiness and beauty of the night back to the forests and the sea; the little villages, the crossroads even, will have none of it. Are modern folk, perhaps, afraid of night? Do they fear that vast serenity, the mystery of infinite space, the austerity of stars? Having made themselves at home in a civilization obsessed with power, which explains its whole world in terms of energy, do they fear at night for their dull acquiescence and the pattern of their beliefs? Be the answer what it will, today’s civilization is full of people who have not the slightest notion of the character or poetry of night, who have never even seen the night.”

This is an interesting passage not only because it suggests how technologies enter into symbolic ecosystems and reshape those ecosystems just as their adoption is conditioned by that same ecosystem. It is also interesting because what Beston feared losing — the serenity, mystery, austerity — is itself a very modern sensibility. This is the sensibility of a modern individual formed by a post-Copernican cosmology. A medieval individual could not have written that passage, and not only because illumination was for them a still distant and unimagined phenomenon. They were still at home in a much smaller and coherent universe. They did not look up and see “space,”they looked up and saw the vastly populated heavens. But that is another story.

Night has been on the retreat for quite some time now, conquered by the science and technology of illumination. Night’s retreat has had social, political, and psycho-symbolic consequences. The mystery of the night is chased away only to allow in the terror of the night. Technology shapes and is shaped by its semiotic environment.

One of the wonders of writing is that you’re never quite sure where you will end up when you start. So while my initial intent was simply to note another illustration of Nye’s notion of the social construction of technology, writing’s momentum leads me to the notion that domestication may, ironically, lead to the displacement of fear and anxiety to another register. It is as if, like Dr. Moreau’s creatures, the realms we tame through our techno-scientific prowess remain sources of reconfigured and intensified fear and anxiety. Dr. Moreau instills fear in his beasts through violence because he fears the violence they may do to him. Fear begets fear — that is perhaps the core of H. G. Wells’ tale — and that principle is at work in our uneasy relationship with technology.

If we pursue technology in order to conquer what we fear, then we also create an attending anxiety over the (inevitable?) failure of our systems of control and mastery. It would seem that what we tame, retains its wildness veiled, yet palpable and intensified.