Pacey (1983). Chapter 5 – Imperatives and Creative Culture. (The Culture of Technology.)

Pacey, A. (1983). Chapter 5 – Imperatives and Creative Culture. In The Culture of Technology (pp. 78–96). Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

[Designers’ work is unseen …]

“… on the more mundane level, ‘values which are incorporated in technological products and which guide and inform the actions of technologists and those who direct their work, are either unrecognized, or simply taken for granted’.1

“Hence the idea has come to be accepted that technology is value-free.” (p 78)

[Practical concerns versus technical achievement for its own sake …]

“Observations of this kind tend to confirm that essentially materialist, economic values are dominant within the industrial culture, and that among technologists, efficiency2 and rationality are also important values. But all these are foreground values. They do not engage at all clearly with the impulses and drives in much of the most dynamically creative technology. The latter are impulses often referred to collectively as the ‘technological imperative’. … The clearest statements about it tend to describe the imperative as the lure of always pushing toward the greatest feat of technical performance or complexity which is currently possible.” (p 79)

[In-group values …]

“The implication is that technological advance is sometimes pursued for departmental reasons relating to the dynamics of particular professions. Sociologists have examined the latter aspect in terms of the way professionals in science and technology seek recognition from colleagues and gain status within the professional community through their achievements in discovery and innovation.” (p 80)

[Emotional drives for technical achievement …]

“But the fact remains that research, invention and design, like poetry and painting and other creative activities, tend to become compulsive. They take on purposes of their own, separate from economic or military goals. And if technologists feel like this, may one not expect that technical judgements may be influenced? Or that the products of technology may be expressive of such emotions?” (p 82)

[A machine as poetry …]

“… preoccupation with the relationship of machines and architecture has often been asserted by quoting Le Corbusier’s saying, ‘a house is a machine for living in’. That has been taken to mean that buildings should be austerely functional, and that architecture should be as emotionally neutral as machines are supposed to be. But Le Corbusier’s architecture was not like that; it was vigorously expressive, and lived up to another comn1ent he made, that his aim in building was ‘to create poetry’. The initial statement about houses and machines needs another interpretation, therefore, perhaps to the effect that machines themselves are expressive of cultural values; and perhaps also recog- [page break] nizing that engineers, too, can sometimes create poetry, or construct the technically sweet.” (p 82-83)

[Aesthetics and extension of one’s capabilities …]

“Everybody who uses the products of technology may share in enjoyment of their aesthetic qualities, just as everybody entering a building may share something of the architect’s feeling for its structure, space and decoration; and people’s everyday enthusiasms are reflected by their purchase and use of equipment. … the enjoyment and sometimes exhilaration I feel stems not only from the good aesthetic design of most of these products, but also from the way they enlarge my personal capabilities. The bicycle quadruples the speed I can travel under the power of my own muscles; …” (p 84)

[Expressions of power, appealing to primal urges …]

“… another source of enjoyment is associated with having mechanical power under one’s control, and of being master of an elemental force. … The dominance of the automobile in the western way of life is not due to blind imperatives, but to the fact that its usefulness is complemented by these two very considerable satisfactions. Exhilaration in speed and power, and the desire for mobility, have perhaps always been part of the human personality; and as Florman says, ‘Technologists, knowing of this desire, were, in a sense ‘commissioned’ to invent the automobile. Today it is clear that people enjoy the freedom of movement of which they had previously dreamed.’17 In most invention, basic human impulses like this precede the technologi- [page break] cal development.” (p 84-85)

[Technical achievement absent any economic or practical concerns …]

“There were not only technical links between the three new modes of transport, but they all had similar purposes also, concerned with the mobility of the individual. One expression of this was the interest in using the new vehicles in sport and for establishing speed or distance records. In every respect, there was the sharpest possible contrast with the economic purposes of the railways and steamships produced by an earlier phase of innovation in transport.” (p 86)

[Primal urge to master nature; appealing to emotion …]

“… snowmobiles … One user speaks of an ‘almost animal sense of freedom when you realise that the thing can go practically anywhere — shooting up snowbanks … across frozen lakes’. There is an immediate contact with wind and weather, a sense of ‘anarchistic mobility’, and also, as with bicycles and gliders, ‘the machine becomes an extension of your body and your senses’.21” (p 86)

[Dominating and subduing nature …]

“Walt Whitman not only addressed one as ‘Fierce-throated beauty’, and ’emblem of motion and power’, but called it ‘pulse of the continent’,23 referring to the role that railroads were playing in his time, opening up the American West for settlement and helping push back the ‘frontier’. Railroads are not often seen in that light today, but frontier values are still an important part of thinking about technology, especially in space and in the few remaining unsettled, unexploited regions of the earth.” (p 87)

[Justifying the value of human mastery over nature …]

“These enjoyments are sanctioned and celebrated by aesthetic ideals and other ‘virtuosity values’ that claim intrinsic merit for technological endeavour, independently of its utility or economic benefits. Among these values is the idea that it is right and good for man to seek mastery over nature, and that this can be a goal in its own right.” (p 87)

[Religious underpinnings to anthropocentric power and control …]

“… inspired by humanist views of man as separate from and superior to nature,25 and using ideas also from the Biblical creation myth, in which Adam and Eve were told to ‘subdue’ the earth and ‘have dominion … over every living thing that moveth upon the earth’.” (p 87)

[Technological achievements have a history of being impractical …]

“… Lewis Mumford has said that the objective of the pyramid builders ‘was as irrational as our own phrenetic dedication to nuclear weapons and spacemanship’.28” (p 88)

[Technology as expression of human aspiration …]

“… Peter Medawar was talking about how one could claim that a space probe, ‘like a cathedral … is economically pointless, a shocking waste of public money; but like a cathedral, it is also a symbol of aspiration towards higher things’.33” (p 89)

[No single goal for technology is likely …]

“It may be, though, that we ought to recognize that the culture of technology comprehends at least two overlapping sets of values, the one based on rational, materialistic and economic goals, and the other concerned with the adventure of exploiting the frontiers of capability and pursuing virtuosity for its own sake.” (p 90)

[Extreme technical mastery and control (power) …]

“Yet nuclear energy must be attractive to many engineers and scientists as perhaps the ultimate example of human mastery over elemental force. Even the test explosion of a nuclear bomb, brighter than a thousand suns but still under the scientists’ control, is something to glory in as ‘superb physics’.35” (p 89)

[Cathedral analogy …]

“It is easy to be cynical about such projects and to feel that when references are made to cathedral archetypes, these are merely rhetorical excuses for financial irresponsibility. But for many people, Concorde is a most beautiful and exhilarating aircraft, and the AGR [advanced gas-cooled reactor –oki] a creative step forward in reactor design, especially regarding safety. Judged by values that have to do with technological virtuosity, these things may seem entirely admirable. And considered also as part of the ‘project of conquering nature’, the cathedral analogy is entirely appropriate.” (p 91)

[Human aspirations as an anthropocentric value …]

“Aesthetic satisfactions may be easy to understand, but when people talk about the cathedral-building impulse as ‘aspiration to higher things’ one may suspect an evasion. What higher things? Are we merely seeking an ‘endless process of further technological triumphs’?” (p 92)

[Cathedrals represented aspirations, but also power and dominance. Even the smallest technological achievement is an act of transcendence. Ultimately about power and dominance …]

“The medieval cathedrals themselves point toward two kinds of interpretation. On the one hand, they may be simply accepted as artistic achievement, representing the New Jerusalem to the people of their day, built to the glory of God, and reaching up to heaven. On the other hand, though, they may seem to have a mainly political significance, connected with inequalities and power relationships in the society that built them.

“Both kinds of interpretation have been applied to technology and the sciences. There are some scientists, according to Einstein, whose interests are contemplative, and who discover in their work ‘the silence of high mountains … built for eternity’. Quoting this, Robert Pirsig asserts that the same is true in technology. ‘The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer of the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower.’43 And Samuel Florman, the civil engineer, refers to William Golding’s novel _The Spire_, which explores the motivations of cathedral building, and adds the comment that: ‘Not only cathedrals, but every great engineering work is an expression of … purpose which cannot be divorced from religious implications … every manmade structure, no matter how mundane, has a little bit of a cathedral in it, since man cannot help but transcend himself as soon as he begins to design and construct …’44

“It may be that part of the reality of the technologist’s experience is truly a sense of reaching out toward the transcendant, but for those intent on political explanations, this is at best self-deception. More usually, indeed, the high-flown language will be regarded as little more than the symbolism of advertising. In the 1930s, electricity supply engineers liked their generating stations to be ‘cathedrals of power’ because they wanted ‘symbols of the prestige and modernity of [page break] electricity’.45 Today, the symbolism used in publicising a new automobile, with its play on virility and status, is only too familiar.

“In discussing these matters, David Dickson notes that the building of the medieval cathedrals served to reinforce the hegemony of the church authorities. The cathedrals were a means of political control over vigorously developing urban communities, providing a carefully regulated outlet for their wealth, enthusiasm and civic pride. Similarly, a successful space exploration or nuclear project can today give a sense of pride and purpose to an individual nation, and can provide some distraction from more divisive issues.” (p 92-93)

[Technology transcends but alienates as well …]

“Dickson notes that heavy industry had ‘an almost mystical significance’ in the early years of the Russian revolution, and comments that the ‘_significance_ attached to technology’ under these circumstances often ‘disguises the exploitative and alienating role technology plays’ within industrial societies.” (p 93)

[Satire of technological virtuosity …]

“Satirizing the same types of technology as they might emerge in a solar age, the Belgian group, Mass Moving, exhibited a particularly remarkable ‘cosmetic’ machine at Bath in 1974. All shiny metal and complex pipework, it had a large parabolic reflector [page break] focusing the sun’s rays onto an elaborate boiler. But the creative pretensions of the equipment were out of joint with its practical utility. When it was set to work, it laboured mightily to raise a head of steam — but then used it only to blow a tin trumpet.” (p 93-94)

[Technology for its own sake …]

“When J. K. Galbraith uses the term ‘technological virtuosity’, he is chiefly referring to the way technical creativity may be pursued as a goal in its own right.” (p 94)

[We ignore consequences of unrestrained technological advancement; its poetry serves to obscure this concern; human ego drives the imperative …]

“Yet it is precisely here that a major dilemma lies. For while we admire Brunel’s steamships and bridges, and while we applaud Apollo rockets and jet aircraft, we are guiltily aware of the wasted resources and environmental damage for which many such projects are responsible. … But so highly do we tend to value creativity that it is not in our nature to place limits on it. … The word creativity always evokes approval, never distrust; the need for it to be balanced by responsibility is not often stressed, and we do not seem to notice that it is a thin line indeed that separates the wholly admirable artistic or innovative impulse from the arrogance of an individual on his personal ego trip.” (p 95)

Selected Notes

  • 1. Stephen Cotgrove, Catastrophe or Cornucopia: the Environment, Politics and the Future, Chichester and New York: John Wiley, 1982, p. 68.
  • 2. On efficiency as a value, see for example, Peter Chapman, Fuel’s Paradise, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1975, reprinted 1979, p. 216.
  • 17. Samuel C. Florman, The Existential Pleasures of Engineering, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1976, p. 60.
  • 21. Alexander Ross, The Risk Takers, Toronto: Macmillan and the Financial Post, 1978, pp. 158-9.
  • 23. Walt Whitman, ‘To a Locomotive in Winter’, quoted by Kenneth Hopkins (ed.), The Poetry of Railways, London: Leslie Frewin, 1966.
  • 25. Peter Hartley, ‘Educating Engineers’, The Ecologist, 10 (10), December 1980, p. 352.
  • 28. Lewis Mumford, in The Development of Western Technology, ed. Thomas Parke Hughes, New York and London: Macmillan, 1964, pp. 18-19; also John Winter, Industrial Architecture, London: Studio Vista, 1970.
  • 33. Peter Medawar, The Hope of Progress, London: Methuen, 1972, p. 116.
  • 35. Robert Jungk, Brighter than a Thousand Suns, trans. James Cleugh, London: Gollancz and Hart-Davis, 1958, chapter 12.
  • 43. Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, London: Bodley Head, 1974, chapters 1 and 10.
  • 44. Samuel C. Florman, The Existential Pleasures of Engineering, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1976, p. 125.
  • 45. Leslie Hannah, Electricity before Nationalization, London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1979, p. 134.
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