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Technology Matters: Questions to Live With

by David Nye
The MIT Press, Massachusetts, USA, 2006.

280 pp. Trade, $27.95
ISBN: 13-978-0-262-140935.

Reviewed by Michael Punt
University of Plymouth


The first five chapters of Technology Matters is a must for all libraries and a perfect undergraduate reader for all students whose studies have anything to do with technology: which means all undergraduates. It is also a must for anyone who needs to think about technology in his or her daily lives and has not given much thought to the idea that technology might not shape culture. It poses the key questions that technology as an idea presents and proposes strategies for thinking about the answers. Each chapter opens a new question: e.g. ‘Can we Define Technology? ‘Does Technology Control Us?’, ‘Is Technology Predictable?’, How do Historians Understand Technology?’, etc. These first four are the best and most clearly argued, sober and thoughtful. So far so good. The difficulty with such an accessible book is that it lacks subtlety and at times it reiterates the slippery method of apparent causality and ill-founded assumptions that characterise the slack argumentation that Nye’s thesis opposes.

Quite early in Technology Matters David Nye reminds us that one of the great problems for scholars reflecting on technology is quite where retailers and librarians put books like his. As he points out on page nine, bookstores may have a section on the history of science but histories of technology is often scattered ‘through many department, including sociology, cultural studies, women’s studies, history, media, anthropology and do-it-yourself.’ This, he suggests reinforces the misconception that ‘technology is merely a working out of an application of scientific principles.’ It’s a misconception, he argues, because in general the sequence is reversed: theory [science] is a strategy for making sense of practical results. Based on empirical evidence, it is difficult to argue against this view— at least as far as the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are concerned. Of course, we know what he means, but there is a slippery logic to his argument that characterises what is a clear and profoundly valuable book dismantling technological determinism, which is all the more valuable in virtue of being simply written.

Technology is a working out of scientific principles, of course. Not in the hierarchical sense that he opposes; that technology is the worldly handmaiden of an abstract philosophical system called science, but in a more holistic sense, which I am sure he supports; technology is, indeed, a working out of science, but in most cases, a science not yet articulated or understood. Nye more or less argues this point in the following passage in which he suggests that the way we approach art may be a better way of thinking about technology. Artist, interesting artists at least, have always been worth listening to, not for their understanding of topics outside their practice which is often woefully uninformed, but because art (interesting art) is an expression of ideas yet to be codified. For this reason we have always engaged with artists not for what they intended to express but what the expressed unintentionally. Without this bifurcation between the painter and the viewer art becomes ‘picture-making’ (or market making) and viewing becomes trainspotting. In the same way technology as it appears in the world is text to be read as a partial understanding of what is to become rather than (as I am sure Nye would agree) the culmination of a scientific endeavour. For this reason, the history of technology should be understood as a very different enterprise to, say, the history of science or the history of art. Sooner or later all bookstores will have a section called the history of ideas and until that time histories of technology should be scattered throughout the store as an antidote to the materialist complacency that informs most histories of technology, science or art. Technology, science (abstract systematic thinking) and art are only occasionally things in the world; they are, first and foremost, aspects of human curiosity, intimately implicated in desire and on which we base certain actions.

Nye is one of the leading scholars in a project to revisit technology as a cultural and historical study that owes much to the New Historicism movement of the 1980s. Much of the groundbreaking work in technology studies that challenged the received histories of lone inventors is referred to, sometimes in detail, and yet curiously the bibliography does not include this literature. While some of the more unthinking commentaries on technology and science are included, groundbreaking and formative work by Bijker, Ferguson, Latour, Schaffer, Shapin, for example, is overlooked. While it is true most of the work by these scholars concerns science, Nye’s key point about the interdependence of these two is undermined by the omission. Given our predilection for material evidence which, more than anything, reinforces technological determinism the opportunity to reinforce the idea of technology as a consequence of the intersection on a network of determinants — including science — should not have been missed. As a consequence Nye’s achievement in foregrounding crucial issues in the way that we understand the social, economic and technological environment in which we negotiate our curiosity and desires is somewhat undone. Technology Matters is an ideal way to start thinking seriously about technology. It is a book that is long overdue, but also one that leaves the way open for further work by other scholars.




Updated 1st February 2007

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