Published by EH.NET (June 2006)

David E. Nye, Technology Matters: Questions to Live With. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006. xiv + 282 pp. $28 (cloth), ISBN: 0-262-14093-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Rick Szostak, Department of Economics, University of Alberta.

In this book, David Nye (Professor of Comparative American Studies and History at Warwick University) devotes a chapter each to ten important questions regarding the causes and effects of technological innovation. Most of these questions — including the effects of innovation on the environment, employment, and culture — are subjects of contentious public discourse. The book seems aimed at clarifying these issues for a general audience, though Nye notes that scholars are often guilty of misunderstanding the course of technological change.

The first chapters are the most satisfying. While Nye could have been a bit more precise in answering “what is technology?,” the first chapter does a good job of describing the phenomenon of technological innovation as well as some of the other phenomena to which it is closely linked. The second chapter provides a very good critique of both technological determinism and the idea that the course of technological innovation is inevitable, and the third discusses the severe limitations of technological predictions.

The fourth chapter asks how historians understand technology. Nye may underestimate the size of the minority that fails to follow the set of good practices he suggests. Historians should eschew determinism and predictability. Nye suggests that historians of technology give roughly equal weight to technology, politics, the economy, and society (by which he largely means ‘culture’) in their analyses. He applauds the complementarity between ‘internalist’ (focused on technical developments) and ‘contextual’ history, but does not note that the field of history of technology has swung sharply between these two orientations in the postwar period. He applauds historians for increasingly focusing on incremental innovations and the long process of development, and thus downplaying the role of the ‘heroic inventor.’

At times in the early chapters Nye is too strident in his anti-determinism. In chapter 4, he finally appreciates, following Thomas Hughes, that technological systems once in place constrain further technological and social choices. Only in later chapters does he recognize in passing that even individual innovations provide both constraints and incentives: they do not determine but certainly exert causal influence on a range of individual and societal decisions.

While Nye strives in the first four chapters to provide answers to his questions, the latter chapters tend to provide conflicting arguments regarding the effect of technology on various other phenomena. Though the information provided is useful and accurate, many readers may wish that Nye had more clearly attempted to weigh the relative importance of these arguments. Nye relies throughout the book on powerful examples rather than a careful attempt to delineate the typicality of these, and thus the reader has little guidance in choosing which examples to place greatest confidence in. The lack of subtitles in any of the chapters exacerbates the difficulty of comparing one line of argument to another.

Yet I do not wish to be harsh. Nye’s goal, it seems, is to debunk some strongly held but simplistic views of technology. As noted above, the earlier chapters strive to convince readers that technology is not some inevitable force inexorably shaping our lives (whether to good or evil effect) but rather that human actors shape innovation in a host of ways. Later chapters then provide counter-examples against simplistic beliefs that technology necessarily destroys local cultures, ruins the environment, causes unemployment, and reduces human security. Nye notes that some technologies such as the personal computer work against cultural conformity, while consumers shape the effects of other technologies such as mass production in ways that preserve autonomy. (Again a more careful statement of how technology may limit but not determine choices would have been helpful.) Likewise, technological innovation can at times aid the environment (though most of the chapter on the environment addresses the question of whether humans should lessen their wants rather than expand their production). Nye details how the idea of technological unemployment has been around for centuries but unemployment rates have not risen secularly (he skips over the question of whether medium-term technological unemployment was observed during the Great Depression and 1970s). And Nye notes that technology has freed many humans from the insecurities associated with hunger and disease while creating new sources of insecurity.

A book that covers such a wide scope lends itself to inevitable quibbles. The unwary reader may be needlessly confused in the first chapter between the essence of technology and the causal relationships of which it is part. Nye’s discussion of predictability clearly distinguishes between major and incremental innovations, but leaves the impression that the latter are virtually as unpredictable as the former. Nye’s discussion of culture largely misses the key question of how strong the link is between the available range of consumer goods and the beliefs and attitudes that lie at the heart of culture: those who decry cultural homogenization are often guilty of implying that what one wears and eats defines who one is. The chapter on the environment skips the entire debate between optimists and pessimists. The chapter on employment discusses (uncritically) how work effort has increased in some ways in recent years, but largely ignores the amazing decline in the length of the workweek in previous centuries. And the chapter on whether technology should be regulated fails to suggest any criteria for distinguishing cases such as new pharmaceuticals where some sort of oversight may be a good idea from other technologies where markets can best adjudicate.

This is a handy book to recommend to students (or colleagues) who need an antidote to the more simplistic versions of technological determinism, environmentalism, or cultural decline that circulate on university campuses. The range of detailed historical examples utilized by Nye is quite impressive. Many students will be encouraged by the book to a more nuanced perspective, and guided to further reading. Others, unfortunately, may find it hard to integrate the information provided into a coherent understanding of the issues at stake.

Rick Szostak is Professor of Economics at the University of Alberta, and will be visiting the Department of History and Civilization at the European University Institute in Florence during 2006-7. He intends to write a book, Exogenous Growth: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Recent publications include Technology and American Society: A History (with Gary Cross, second edition, 2004), Classifying Science: Phenomena, Data, Theory, Method, Practice (2004); “Evaluating the Historiography of the Great Depression: Explanation or Single-Theory Driven?” (Journal of Economic Methodology, 2005); “Allocating Scarce Shoreline: Institutional Change in the Newfoundland Inshore Fishery” (with Ken Norrie, Newfoundland and Labrador Studies, 2005) and “Economic History as It Is and Should Be” (Journal of Socio-Economics, 2006). He has recently completed a book manuscript, Restoring Human Progress: Transcending the Postmodern Condition.