One interesting American thing (a technical term, meaning a moment or event, a text, a controversy, an idea, a figure, or whatevertheheckelse I think of) per day, from Ben Railton, a professor of American literature, culture, history, and, natch, Studies.
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
October 12, 2011: The Messy, Troubling, Democratizing Machine
It’s not at all hyperbolic to note that one of the founding AmericanStudies questions and themes is the complex, conflicted opposition and yet interrelationship between nature and technology in our national identity and culture. After all, by almost any reckoning Leo Marx was one of the founding and most significant early AmericanStudiers, and Marx’s masterpiece was his 1964 The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. As Marx noted, many of our defining national ideals and narratives, from Jefferson’s yeoman farmer and mythologized heroes like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett down to the genre of the Western and the creation of the National Park System, emphasized the positive qualities and influences of a pastoral, natural world and space, one outside of our cities and (as Natty Bumppo and Huck Finn would have put it) civilizin’ forces. Yet at the same time, as Marx likewise argued, every stage of our national development has been heavily influenced, if not owes its existence to, technological developments: from the printing press in the Revolutionary era to the railroad in the 19th century’s national moves westward, and up to the crucial early 20th century unifying possibilities created by (among other innovations) the automobile, radio, telephone, and air travel.
Despite those necessary and even critical technological contributions, though, Marx rightly noted a criticism thread of anti-technological critique among many of our most prominent national narratives and voices, a sense that our American garden was continually being invaded and corrupted (if not destroyed) by these machines. No single voice or text captures that perspective better than Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, or, Life in the Woods (1854), and no moment within that text better exemplifies Thoreau’s critique of technology than his Chapter IV (“Sounds”) discussion of the Fitchburg railroad line’s invasion of his Walden world and of the ideal American identity and culture he has moved there in an effort to find and narrate. “The whistle of the locomotive,” he writes, “penetrates my woods summer and winter, sounding like the scream of a hawk sailing over some farmer’s yard.” And while he recognizes the realities of transportation and commerce that the railroad represents and has in fact made possible, he nonetheless focuses in the section on the gap he sees between the heroic images of the trains and their much bleaker realities—“If the enterprise were as heroic and commanding as it is protracted and unwearied!”—and on the negative cultural influences of this new technology: “To do things ‘railroad fashion’ is now the byword; and it is worth the while to be warned so often and so sincerely by any power to get off its track.”
No one who has (for example) both walked in the woods and been stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on 95 can fail to hear and sympathize with Thoreau’s perspective here; no one who has seen (for another example) large numbers of people in the stands at a baseball game focused not on the game nor on each other but instead on their phones and devices doesn’t share this sense of the dangers or downsides of technological progress. Yet Thoreau also admits, in one of the passage’s only genuinely positive lines, how many of his neighbors have been able to travel to Boston on the railroad who otherwise (he believes) would never have made the journey; and the simple reality of technological development in America is that, whatever its other effects and meanings, it has consistently served as a vehicle for democratization, for opening up our nation’s worlds and possibilities to a greater number of our fellow citizens. Nature can and should be democratically accessible and meaningful too, of course; that was Olmstead’s explicit goal in creating Central Park, after all, and was likewise a key goal of the National Park movement. Yet nature’s benefits, real and vital as they are, are also at their heart individual and spiritual (broadly defined); while technology, despite those dangers and downsides, offers communal and social opportunities that we must be careful not to elide or understate. Thoreau’s life and choices offered him the chance to spend a year in Walden, to travel to Fitchburg on foot, and so on; but for most of his fellow Americans, then and now, the opportunities afforded them by technological advancements were much more vital to their own lives and needs, their goals and families, their success and dreams. And we can always still take the inexpensive commuter rail out to Concord and then walk to Walden Pond as well!
I’m thinking about these questions today as the first of two ways in which I’ll try to link Steve Jobs to AmericanStudies conversations. After all, whatever else Jobs did and meant, he consistently and with great innovation brought some of our newest technologies—the personal computer, the internet, digital music, the cell phone—to his fellow Americans and around the world; even Pixar’s use of computer technologies and animation in the service of profoundly powerful filmmaking and storytelling can be described in that way. Jobs’ commencement speech advice to all his fellow men and women to follow their hearts might well lead many individuals into the woods—but it might lead at least as many to their IPods and computers, their cars and phones. And that’s as American a choice as it gets. More tomorrow, the second part of these AmericanStudies responses to Jobs,