Making progress

Professor Robert Friedel waits for the light-bulb moment to strike students in the history-of-technology classes he teaches at the University of Maryland.

No, not the “eureka” moment that describes Thomas Alva Edison’s invention of the light bulb, if such a moment ever happened. The historian in Mr. Friedel disagrees with such oversimplified notions of progress found in some texts and goes to some length to refute them in his latest book, “A Culture of Improvement: Technology and the Western Millennium.”

What he enjoys witnessing is when students are “stunned” by some of the moral ambiguities that a real understanding of history is all about.

How, for instance, “really notable, wonderful people like Oliver Wendell Holmes” can write in praise of eugenics and the need to improve the human race, as Mr. Friedel points out in a chapter titled “The Corruption of Improvement,” which is more or less about the dark side of so-called progress.

The result, he says, is that “you can no longer be smug that you know the best way, or that there is a scientific and technological way to get through every problem … you have to stop and ask about whether there are some moral values that go more deeply than science ones.

“If I can get that reaction, my day is made,” he says.

That chapter gave him the greatest difficulty during the 10 years he spent researching and writing.

“The 20th century has lots of things to be proud of, but in many ways, it is not a pretty picture,” he says. “When I began reading the literature on eugenics, I felt it was deeply important that people see that sometimes you think you are being scientific or rational, but lose sight of something else — the core nature of humanity itself.”

In this way, Mr. Friedel hopes to point out what he calls “an enormous number of prejudices and mythologies” that accompany common perceptions about the role of technology in our lives. Such as the assumption, he says, that “we live in the time of the greatest changes in technology and our lives are being overturned constantly. It is just not supported by the facts. [There were] other periods of time equally short when people’s lives were transformed.”

One of the implicit messages in his book is how what he calls “a culture of improvement” has grown up around this notion and leads people in the West to define themselves as “fundamentally innovative — not content to sit in the present, but always look ahead to the future.” At the same time, he notes, there lurks a sense he identifies as “another belief that we are out of control — that technologies are lurching forward and always threatening to leave our own mentality behind.”

That gets mankind off the hook, he posits: “If technology is going ever faster, then in a sense, we have an excuse if we seem to be screwing things up.”

However, he says, “Results are consequences of human choices, not a technology trajectory.”

The author of previous books, including one on plastics and another on the implications of zipper manufacturing, Mr. Friedel says this one originated with a futile search for an ideal text to use in undergraduate courses. Finding none, he had to write one. The result is a handsomely illustrated 588-page volume published recently by MIT Press that is a broad survey of technology from the 11th century to the present day. The word technology is used in the broadest possible sense because he begins with plows and horses.

“I start with the Middle Ages because I didn’t think we could say where we are now without going that far back,” he says. “With American scholars, and most American writers, you would be fortunate if you get back as far as the 18th century.”

“What I liked was the book didn’t just give a big, linear story about progress onward and upward,” says Merritt Roe Smith, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of history who also teaches in an interdisciplinary program called Science, Technology and Society.

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