Technology At The End Of The Century
LAST SUMMER MY EMPLOYERS ASKED ME, AND quite a few other people at the company that owns this magazine, to attend a one-day management-training seminar given by a management consultant in a conference center high above Wall Street. Our activities included the parlor-game-like exercise of answering a long list of questions to find out the personality type of each of us, followed by some serious reflection about how every personality type is important in an organization, but before all that we were introduced to the importance of up-to-date management skills with a lecture about how the world has changed lately.
Our brisk, cheerful instructor informed us that from the 1700s until very recently, Newtonian science was the underpinning of civilization, and it led us to make our organizations above all stable. The future was usually fairly predictable, so the smart way for a company to prepare was to send its managers on a retreat to formulate a five-year plan. In the last twenty years, she went on, that has been overturned—all because of technology. We have entered a new “information age” where “chaos” has become the operational model, where the future is completely unpredictable, and “changes are discontinuous and happening at a geometric rate.” In sum, “Whereas a Newtonian view of the world imposes structure on an organization from above, the biological model, represented by chaos theory, views the organization as a living, self-organizing system.” So we’d better keep on our toes at the office.
At the end of this lecture one member of our group with a historical sensibility raised his hand to suggest that no job on earth was more unpredictable, perilous, and requiring of constant adaptation than being a farmer in the year 1800. What most struck me, though, about this division of all history into halcyon past and alarmingly technologyfrenzied present was what a popular view was being presented. As Robert Friedel points out in his article in this issue, this sort of talk about how change has lately sped way up is rampant. One current bestseller is devoted to the idea— Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything by James Gleick.
Are we really in an age disconnected from the past? Of course not, as Friedel illustrates wonderfully in his article (and as I hope every article we publish suggests). Is the pace of technological change really so much faster? Look at the last turn of the century, when 1899 became 1900.
Here are some of the things that were happening then. In 1899, 2,500 automobiles were manufactured. That was a first trickle in what would become a torrent, but they were already beginning to remake the American landscape. In September of that same year, the first automobile death occurred in New York City. Already the new industry was a cutthroat place, with most of the makers pushing hard to establish either steam or electricity as the power source of choice, a battle they would both lose as internal combustion won out over the next two decades, during which the number of cars would rise to more than four million. Whole industries were about to spring up or be driven under in connection with the automobile. Also in 1899, two bicycle mechanics—bicycles had been the hot new transportation technology just a few years before—named Wright were making the key discoveries about the requirements for controlled flight that would enable them to invent the airplane four years later.
In the previous 20 years the number of electrical generating plants in the country had grown from 1 to 2,000; in less time than that street railways had expanded from almost none to more than 22,000 miles’ worth; the first electrified factory had been built in 1894, yet by 1901 there were nearly 400,000 industrial motors at work. As a result of these and other recent developments, more than half the nation’s output was manufactured goods and only a third agricultural—a complete reversal in 30 years. An information revolution was going on too. In 1901 there was a telephone in one of 10 American homes, a number that would grow by leaps and bounds, and the instrument was transforming the way people lived and did business—a process gotten well under way by the telegraph before it—knitting together the world into a vast interlocking web where the instant spread of information required constant reaction and adaptation. Any kind of business had become immensely more volatile. And radio would appear within a generation, triggering yet another communications revolution.
These changes often had brutal effects. In the previous presidential election, in 1896, William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic candidate, had given the speech in which he proclaimed, “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold,” confirming the gold-versus-silver debate as the central national political issue. That debate was, just beneath the surface, about nothing other than technological change overthrowing people’s lives. Western and Southern farmers were feeling squeezed by Eastern bankers; in fact their traditional livelihoods were being made obsolete, overtaken by the industrialization of farming, the result of innovations such as reapers, harvesters, self-binders, combines, selective breeding, grain elevators, the new canning industry, industrialized baking and dairy-product manufacture, infrastructures of railroads and telegraphs, and the rise of urban markets for all the goods thus being ever more economically and industrially produced.
Life in 1899 would have been unrecognizable to someone from 1799, in all these ways and in other major ways we take for granted, among them that indoor plumbing and mass newspapers had both gone from nonexistent to commonplace. Life changed at least as much in the century before 1900 as it has since. America had become an urban nation, with instant mass communication, with mass production and mass markets and rapid transportation all through the country. You could send a message from coast to coast in a second or travel the same distance in a matter of days (far closer to today’s hours than to 1799’s months). You could commute to work, shop in department stores or over the phone, make night day inside your house at the flick of a switch, read news from around the world a few hours after it happened.
In one major way life was closer to 1800 than today: in medicine and health. The simplest, most basic, but also indisputable measure of this is life expectancy. There are no figures for life expectancy in the United States in 1800, but in 1900 it was still only 47, which cannot be a great deal higher than a century before. Today it is around 77. A hundred years ago doctors were still learning to accept the germ theory of disease. Anesthesia and vaccination and disinfection had become commonplace, though in nothing like the sophisticated forms they take today, but beyond those advances most treatment of illness was little better than in the Middle Ages. In this century medicine has changed beyond recognition. The list of accomplishments is dazzling: sulfonamide drugs; antibiotics, beginning with penicillin; antituberculous drugs; weapons to conquer typhoid, tetanus, and diphtheria; antiviral agents against, among other illnesses, yellow fever, polio, measles, and German measles; insulin and cortisone; surgical techniques to make formerly deadly ills such as appendicitis almost trivial and to combat various cancers; chemotherapies; neurosurgery; plastic surgery; heart surgery. All those are from the first three-quarters of this century; the last 25 years have added major new drugs against cancer, heart disease, ulcers, and mental disorders, among other conditions; the routine transplanting of livers, lungs, kidneys, and other organs; radically improved diagnostic and surgical techniques; and gene therapies. Indeed, there is no area of medicine that has not changed greatly in the last quarter-century.
So, 100 years ago we didn’t have an Internet or cell phones, but we did have networks of telegraphs and telephones for instant communication around the world; we didn’t have superhighways or 747s, but we did have trains and steamships reducing the longest journey to a tiny fraction of the time it had taken only decades before; we didn’t have television, but we did have motion pictures, and we had newspapers bringing us nearly instant news. We didn’t have modern medicine, and there, there is no “but.” It is fair to say that the greatest technological revolution of our century—and still at this end of this century and going into the next one—is not in information and communication and computing at all; it is in health. The information revolution may be changing life and business as we speak, but a great many of us are here to speak at all only because of what has happened in medicine.
Why do we tend to so take for granted, or not even notice, the change that lies behind us and see all the change around us right now as so unprecedentedly sweeping? I think there are several reasons, a couple of them trivial or obvious but one important and usually overlooked. The trivial reasons are, first, because the present is when we’re living, so of course we’re much more aware of its events, and, second, because it’s the business of business to convince us that everything is speeding up, while promising us the key to coping. Thus an NEC ad begins, “Change is the only constant. Success is fleeting. Challenges are hurled relentlessly from all directions.” Lucent informs us, “There’s a communications revolution going on. And one company is right in the center of it.” Bill Gates calls his latest book Business @ the Speed of Thought .
The more easily overlooked reason—not that it’s any more subtle than the first two—arises from the basic fact that all of technology is about nothing but increasing human power and comfort and ease. Because it has this universal goal, it has a very strong tendency to make itself invisible. It succeeds best when it not only enhances our power and pleasure but also removes itself from intruding between us and them. You want a car that will not only get you where you’re going but start right up in any weather without your thinking about it, a medication you can take effortlessly in pill form rather than as an injection, a phone system and cable provider and electrical network that will never demand your attention, an air conditioner that is noiseless, and so on. The only seeming exceptions are where pleasure or comfort or ease trumps invisibility (sometimes perversely), as in the case of deafening straight exhaust pipes on motorcycles or car alarms that reassure us by waking up the neighborhood at the least disturbance.
The fact that technology tends to disappear ensures that we will take much of it, when it works right, for granted; its job is to be taken for granted. And because of that, we stay most aware of technologies that are changing rapidly or are grossly immature. Right now we’re especially aware of the Internet precisely because of its youth. If we try to, we can still remember the personal computer—that is, remember when it stirred the same kind of excitement the Internet does now (or did a year or two ago). That would have been back around 1981, which was when IBM introduced the PC. In 1981 Tracy Kidder published The Soul of a New Machine , a book that became a bestseller and won a Pulitzer Prize because it told, very well, the story of the development of a new computer chip in the late 1970s. The wonder that personal computers inspired then cannot exist today because for two decades the technology has made itself ordinary, by making itself serve us ever more effortlessly and pleasingly. We have even begun to forget how frustrated we were by Microsoft Windows a couple of years back.
One byproduct of invisibility is that once a technology becomes truly mature we tend not to fully appreciate its further improvements, even when they’re substantial. Automobiles reached maturity by about 1970 at the latest, having become as big and powerful and fast and generally comfortable as they ever would, with automatic transmissions, power steering, power brakes, and fuel injection, and the changes to them since then appear mainly to have been refinements. Yet consider those refinements. When you bought a new car in 1970, you typically brought it home knowing you’d be going through a grueling few months having all the factory defects fixed. You would expect to suffer through the occasional overheating and dangerous blowout. The car would almost certainly handle worse than any cheap car you can buy today and have inferior crash resistance, passenger protection, fuel economy, and pollution control. Moreover, you’d feel lucky if you got 70,000 miles out of it. It was nothing like an automobile today, but the differences are all things you now take for granted—and should.
The price of invisibility is an underappreciation of the richness and depth of the technological change all around us, or at least of all that technological change that isn’t thrusting itself into our consciousness at the present instant. And that underappreciation in turn allows us more easily to believe that change is quickening (because earlier change has disappeared from view), that we have just lately given up a more natural world for a technological one (likewise because earlier change is concealed), and that the past was a better place (because technology allows us to forget all the ways the past was more difficult and hazardous and painful).
Of course most of us probably harbor some inclination to look at time past and present this way anyway, just because of the universal fact that our own lives get shorter and have ever less time in them. As we lament the passing of personal time, we can find that all the past was youth and innocence and freedom and all the future is decline, as Lord Byron recognized when he wrote, “The good old times‘—all times when old are good …” or Eugene O’Neill when he observed that “only the past when you were happy is real.”
Granted, then, that we’re not particularly good at observing and appreciating our technologies (and it is a useful thing that their shortcomings always stand out most glaringly), what can we make out about the larger shape of technological change in the past century? Certainly that it has remade life both on the broadest global scale and on the smallest individual scale. The historian of technology Thomas P. Hughes has suggested that as the Western frontier was closed in the nineteenth century, it was replaced by a technological frontier in the twentieth. The national drama that was westering was replaced by one of opening and exploring new technological realms. He writes that “during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the United States was nature’s nation. By the twentieth, it had become technology’s nation. Americans had transformed a natural world into a human-built one characterized by technological systems and unmatched complexity. In doing so, they demonstrated a technological prowess unequaled elsewhere in the world.” He has even suggested that future historians will compare America’s technological flowering to “such remarkable eras as the Renaissance period in Italy or the Victorian period in Great Britain.”
Has all this change been, on balance, for better or for worse? Unarguably, by any simple measure, for better. Life expectancy has leapt not only in America but also, more surprisingly, worldwide. Even among poor countries it has risen from less than 40 in 1950 to 61 today (though it has recently fallen in some African nations because of AIDS), and the improvement is largely a result of the spread of Western medical and agricultural technologies. Of course the benefits of development have not been evenly shared, and they are greatest in America and elsewhere in the developed world. But in this nation we all live better in almost any material sense than we did a century ago, in far improved comfort. Modern electricity and plumbing and refrigeration and health care alone give us immeasurable advantages over our great-grandparents. And even the poor are better off. For the most part, poverty in America is nowhere near as harrowing as it once was. Not only is malnutrition almost gone from the landscape, but many poor households maintain living standards not long ago thought middle-class. Studies show that nearly half of poor households had air conditioners in the 1990s, whereas fewer than a third of all households did in 1971, and the same holds true for dryers, refrigerators, stoves, microwaves, and color televisions. Likewise, 2 percent of the poorest 9 percent of the population had credit cards in 1970; today the number is above 26 percent.
Technology has raised our general comfort level and showered us with material possessions. Yet the question remains, Is life really better? Of course there have been tradeoffs of all sorts and sizes, and there have been technological devastations: wars made unprecedentedly deadly by the technological prowess we were able to deploy; environmental problems of vast scale and complexity, from acid rain to the destruction of the Amazon rain forest and, most subtle, immeasurable, and possibly far-reaching, and thus vexing, of all, global warming. Indeed, there is nowhere to escape such problems, no place untouched by the handprint of man’s work, man’s technology. The entire environment is a built environment now. The hand of man changes everything, and thus man’s every move carries grave responsibility.
Can one say if, on balance, technology has made life better at the end of this century than at the beginning? Beyond the sort of simple, crude measures I mentioned, the question is of course an impossible one, since there is no way to calculate so personal and emotional and moral a weighing of infinite numbers of pros and cons.
Does technology have inherent value at all? Can it, by its nature, be good or bad? Melvin Kranzberg, one of the founders of the field of history of technology, had the answer to that. He formulated a law: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” By this he meant that not only do the consequences of any given technological development often go far beyond its original purpose, in unforeseen and even uncontrollable ways, but they can be good or bad or both in many ways too. He liked to give the example of DDT (which is discussed in detail elsewhere in this issue) and of how India continued to welcome the pesticide for its stupendous success against disease even as Americans were condemning it for its ravaging of the environment. A parallel example: As Americans rail against the dehumanizing effect of factory work, an Indian writer exclaims that “Indian poverty is more dehumanizing than any machine.” Edward Tenner, in his 1996 book Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences , has catalogued myriad ways in which our innovations have come to confound the very purposes they were designed for, from low-tar cigarettes encouraging smokers to drag harder and put off quitting to kudzu being introduced to reinvigorate soil but becoming a scourge on the land.
The essential reason technology is neither inherently good nor bad is that it is nothing but human activity. It is things people do. It is, like art, a pure expression of human nature, so it reflects human nature at its best, its worst, and everything in between. If it often has unforeseen consequences, so do all human activities. If its character and effects alter when its scale changes, so do those of all human activities. If it can seem to become a monster beyond our control, so can all the creations of man, from political systems to economic structures to the belief systems of those we disagree with. Almost no one could foresee that the miracle of DDT would become the world-scale disaster of DDT, or all the environmental difficulties automobiles would bring while liberating us in all the ways they have. For that matter, no one could foresee that people could be persuaded to allow flush toilets into their homes or zippers onto their pants; both these everyday necessities seemed so improper and unneeded at first that they took decades to win acceptance. Things are unforeseeable not because of some secret perversity of technology but because human nature is complicated and often perverse and because nobody can ever foresee the results of any actions on a large scale and over a long time.
At any rate, to a greater degree than we may like to admit, we get what we ask for. We suffer smog in our cities because most of us prefer to enjoy the consumption that burns the fuel that creates the smog rather than do without, and we’re impatient with burdensome correctives. We endure rapidly escalating medical costs because we insist on levels of medical mastery that improve faster than we can contrive to contain their costs. We cut down rain forests because our appetite for conservation has not yet matched our appetite for wood and cleared land.
No individual will ever like all the choices made by the outcomes of struggles between our competing desires, nor will the struggles ever end, and the powerful must always have the advantage. But even the most pessimistic must concede that we have expended considerable energy in this century learning to control the technological power we were beginning to unleash a hundred years ago. Edward Tenner concludes his survey of technological embarrassments with the observation that they “reached their peak in the hundred years between the 1860s and the 1960s, during the very acme of technological optimism. Clobbering nature into submission united North Americans and Europeans, Communists and Republicans.” Since then, he finds, there has been a “retreat from intensity,” a “substitution of cunning for the frontal attack.” It took Rachel Carson shaking us by the lapels and showing us that whole species were in danger of going extinct from DDT, but when we got the message, we learned from it, and now we don’t remember what an engineering triumph the chemical was. Today we could never develop a new insecticide and coat the world with it with such blithe unconcern. We did learn never to trust engineering miracles.
The complexity of our technologies and of our technological systems has forced on us eternal vigilance, constant effort to recognize and address the costs and tradeoffs they entail. Thomas Hughes, in his most recent book, Rescuing Prometheus (which he discussed in an interview in this magazine a year ago), suggests that the United States has actually become adept at this. We have learned to design and build big systems such as defense projects and highway networks through what he calls “a messily complex embracing of contradictions.” When something massive and complicated has to be built these days, it leads to a protracted political process in which every special interest makes a stand, lobbyists exert what influence they can, lawmakers bicker, contractors change things, Congress struggles with costs, environmentalists hold things up—and this is good. It may seem amazing that anything gets done, but when it does, everyone has had their say. It’s an intensely democratic, even if expensive and time-consuming, process.
With such adaptive forms of planning, with our many kinds of regulations, with lawsuits—all very disorderly but all necessary—we have been working to equip ourselves to rein in our technologies. We have also shown that if we really want less-polluting cars and cleaner rivers, we can get them. At the same time, the very uncontrollability of the Internet has become a democratizing force. In China underground opposition movements have organized and sustained themselves on-line. Amnesty International reports that word of human rights violations spreads much more quickly and easily now thanks to the Internet.
None of which is to say that the challenges that our ever more complex and all-encompassing technologies present don’t keep growing just as fast as all the rewards we reap. Where will it all lead? One thing everybody knows is that nobody can predict the future, in technology or in anything else. No one can guess what wonders and horrors lie ahead. But one can predict what the future will feel like for most people living there. It will feel pretty much the same. If all the changes we have been through in the past century have not made people believe themselves substantially better off or worse off, or indeed anything but perfectly ordinary most of the time, if they have left us generally forgetful of the distances we have traveled, the changes that are to come can hardly do otherwise. People will continue to be devastated in times of war and other large-scale trauma and will continue to go on with their lives as they always have the rest of the time. Technology will provide no miracles that feel like miracles for long.
This is not only because of technology’s genius for becoming invisible but also because of its amazing gift for becoming, even when not invisible, perfectly ordinary. In 1907 the journalist and social reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote in Harper ’s magazine that anyone who had flown in an airplane “cannot think of himself further as a worm of the dust, but [only] as butterfly, psyche, the risen soul.” Three years later a woman watching the first airplane flight over Chicago wrote that “we bowed our heads before the mystery of it and then lifted our eyes with a new feeling in our souls that seemed to link us with the great dome of heaven, stretching above and over all, and hope sprang eternal for the great new future of the world.” If ever a technological novelty introduced magic to the human experience, it was the airplane. Yet how much like a butterfly did you feel the last time you flew? Did hope for a great new future spring even temporary?
We will continue to dream about technology and how it can liberate us. When we’re not being irked by its immature or quickly changing aspects or deleterious side effects, we will continue to raise our hopes for future pleasures from it. Depending on our nature, our dreams might be of a newer, better car or computer, of hightech golf clubs that will improve our game, of more effective tools to do our job with, of high-speed rail systems overthrowing the tyranny of the automobile, of a cure for world hunger. Regrettably, there are probably few of us who honestly concentrate our hopes on that last item. But that is because, above all, we dream of power and comfort and ease—the very things all our technologies are about—and about as many of us ever feel we’ve already got enough power and comfort and ease as ever feel we’ve already got enough money. And we’re not going to stop dreaming. “Don’t part with your illusions,” Mark Twain once wrote. “When they are gone you may still exist but you have ceased to live.”
In a way, such dreams were the very thing my management-training session was about. It was about the dream of power and ease specifically in the workplace, of relaxed authority in piloting through a tumultuous world. If such dreams ever faded, we might reach a point where we found contentment with our technologies, where we decided we had built enough, that we had made ourselves truly happy with our machines and our endless reconfiguring of the world around us, or that we couldn’t do much better. And we would stop trying to improve life, both for ourselves and for others. It won’t happen. We are much too good at accomplishing ever-greater miracles, watching them become everyday commonplaces, and seeing their complexities and side effects multiply until we must avert our gaze forward to the next miracle to come, ever to stop and be satisfied.