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Essays Question Whether Technology Has Made Our Lives Better, Or Just More Technological.

By Tom Danehy

MARCH 8, 1999: 

Visions of Technology, edited by Richard Rhodes (Simon & Schuster). Cloth, $30.

MY DEAR SWEET mother used to say that if Thomas Edison hadn't invented the light bulb, we'd all be watching TV by candlelight. Of course, she said it in Italian, so it was much funnier.

The effects of technology on the way we live--indeed, on who we are--are both staggering and subtle. It seems that something new and amazing comes along every day. Our reaction generally follows the pattern of stare in wild wonder, try to determine what impact (if any) it will have on our lives, then assimilate it along with all the rest of the gizmos and gadgets.

To compare our modern life with that of people just one century ago is to present a contrast so stark as to be farcical. Technology has had a profound effect on how we work and how we play; on how we travel and what we call home; on how we live and how we die. Yet, some would argue--some quite forcefully in this lively book--that technology has not made our lives better, just more technological.

Visions of Technology, Richard Rhodes' fascinating new book, is a compilation of essays and anecdotes on technology in the 20th century, with writings from a wildly diverse group including George Orwell, Joan Didion, engineer-turned-politician Herbert Hoover and J. Robert Oppenheimer. Written over the length of the 20th century, some are mildly prescient, others quite visionary, while some are absolutely hilarious clunkers.

Many are only one paragraph long while others are full essays, but each has a purpose as Rhodes guides the reader through the maze of what technology is, what it should be, and what it might become. There is the dread-filled "Beneficial Inventions and Diabolical Purposes" by none other than Orville Wright; the foreboding "Atomic Morality" by FDR and Truman crony Vannevar Bush; and the straight-faced "The Insidious Dangers of Radio Advertising."

Rhodes is probably best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb, an 800-page masterpiece tracing the history of physics from the discovery of radiation through the dropping of the atom bomb on Nagasaki. Researched to perfection, it somehow manages to read like a novel, and is far and away my favorite non-fiction book ever.

He followed that up with the spectacular Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, a sort-of Godfather, Part II to the original Godfather. Equally well-done, the sequel focuses on the narrow period after World War II, during which the U.S. raced to develop the hydrogen bomb, while trying in vain to keep the atomic bomb away from the Soviets. Full of espionage and scientific shenanigans, Dark Sun somehow managed to not win the Pulitzer, even though it was every bit as good as the original.

More recently, Rhodes delivered Deadly Feasts, a chilling look at the links between Polynesian cannibalism, English Mad Cow Disease, and the sheep disease called "scrapie." It wasn't enough to make me stop eating hamburgers, unfortunately, but I chew them more slowly now.

In the forward to Visions, Rhodes explains that since the Industrial Revolution, technology has always been at loggerheads with intellectualism. According to Rhodes, "The (wealthy) landed classes resisted the technological revolution, since it threatened their predominantly agricultural interests. The new industrialists emerged from the craft and working classes. The landed classes neglected technical education, taking refuge in classical studies. Intellectuals neglect technical education to this day."

Harsh stuff, but clearly backed up by both intellectuals and technologists throughout this book. Rhodes, clearly a technologist, concludes that the intellectual bias against technology "derives in some measure to technical and scientific illiteracy as well as jealousy and competition for influence."

But he is equally hard on the common practice of technologists plunging ahead to make the Next Big Thing while "excusing themselves from moral responsibility for weapons of mass destruction, pollution and other well-known horrors."

As for the book itself, Rhodes has done a wonderful job of selecting the works and placing them in an order that keeps the reader delightfully jumping along from one to the next. There is whimsy, as witnessed by Gene Shalit (of all people) recalling a University of California engineering student cheer back in the pre-calculator days of the slide rule:

E to the X, dy! dx!

E to the X, dx!

Secant, cosine, tangent, sine,

Three-point-one-four-one-five-nine;

Square root, cube root, Q.E.D.,

Slip stick! Slide rule!

'ray, U.C.!

And there is rich history, as when Rhodes explains that in 1930, long after Ernest Rutherford had discovered the atomic nucleus and was busy transmuting elements at Cambridge, the physics lab at Oxford had still not been wired for electricity.

Probably the best piece in the book is "Appropriations," by George Dyson (son of Nobel Prize-winner Freeman Dyson, who shared the prize with brilliant super-wacko Richard Feynman). George Dyson explores the invention of ENIAC, the world's first computer, noting that like many important inventions, it was first developed for military purposes, and then later adapted for other uses.

There is much to like in this book, and it will bring forth a lot of emotions. Take, for example, the incredibly wrong statement made by Lewis L. Strauss in 1954: The then-head of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission foresaw a utopian future powered by nuclear energy. Said Strauss, "It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter...."

Okay, so he just missed by $100 a month.


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