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A Culture of Improvement: Technology and the Western Millennium

Robert Friedel

(MIT Press; US: Apr 2010)

The appearance in paperback of Robert Friedel’s A Culture of Improvement provides a chance for a wider readership to engage with what must be one of the most impressive accounts of technology and technological change to have appeared in print since Lewis Mumford’s classic 1934 work Technics and Civilization (itself scheduled for imminent republication). Like Mumford’s essay, Friedel’s expansive book—originally published in 2007—treats technology not as a collection of objects, but rather as an ongoing process which must be examined in the light of the economic, moral and political imperatives that power change, and the everyday needs, imaginings and desires that lead to changes in what is technically possible.


Friedel, a history professor at the University of Maryland, has previously published works on the invention and development of electric light, plastic, and the zipper. By bringing the techniques of the social historian to his accounts of technological innovation and evolution, he is able to steer clear of many of the traps that befall less careful accounts of technology. One of these is the temptation to offer lists of famous names. As with history more generally, where events are often associated with particular individuals at the expense of the contributions by many more anonymous souls, the tendency to tell the history of technology by referring to a canon of inventors from Ampère to Wright provides more myth than reality. Such lists of names and dates may be reassuring to exam-focused students but they cannot account for the complexity of the subject.


The French historian Fernand Braudel was amongst the foremost critics of this event-led history, arguing instead for accounts that allowed for the slow and multifarious accretion of details that allow change to occur. Friedel, who cites Braudel early on, is careful to offer a more nuanced account of the development of technology over time, paying attention to the lesser-known tinkerers and tweakers as much as to the more famous inventors. He emphasizes the importance of the context in which technological development takes place, the various elements that help production, and crucially, the needs that drive technological change.


Individuals remain important, however, and Friedel attempts a balancing act between a Braudel-inspired account of everyday historical change and a more eventual, or revolution-based, account. So, for every Richard Arkwright or Thomas Edison, there are also tales of the workers who labored in the textile mills or electrical laboratories, of the entrepreneurs who saw the potential of new techniques, and of the legal and political entities that would come to wield ever greater power over technical innovation.


This broader social picture is what Friedel means by the “culture of improvement”. He is keen to stress that improvement, as he uses the term, does not equate to progress. The latter possesses a moral sense that may be absent from the former; the technology of eugenics or genocide, for example, may be “improved” (made more effective) but will not be seen by many as progress.


Another danger inherent in histories of technology is the tendency towards teleological narratives that suggest, whether wittingly or not, that the development of technology is leading towards some grand unified purpose. By focusing on improvement, and more specifically on the everyday form of improvement that sees individuals and societies attempting to make small, discrete changes to their lives, Friedel is able to show that, like human evolution, process and the drive are all-determining and take trajectories which are as random as they are foreseen.


Friedel introduces the term “capture” to describe the ways in which technological developments are not only recorded but also “socialized”, for example, by being mediated and marketed to the wider world. As Friedel notes, the ability to control capture is intimately connected to the workings of power in any society. Those who can control capture stand to gain (or maintain) much more than those who invent, or contribute to the invention of, new technologies.


Another great strength of Friedel’s book is the way it challenges the idea that the development of certain technologies was obvious (it only is after the fact), that the uses of a particular technology are immediately evident (they often aren’t), or that one technology necessarily leads to another (what we might call the “Civilization thesis”, after Sid Meier’s game). Friedel uses the term “enabling technologies” for developments such as printing; paper was an enabling technology for printing in that the former wasn’t the cause of the latter but the latter would be unthinkable without the former. The uses of the telegraph, meanwhile, “would be as much the product of invention as the device itself.” The commercial validity of the telephone and the phonograph relied on changes in the concept of the message and the placing of value on the everyday activities of people. Once there was a realization that something as simple as a conversation could be marketed, then the revolutionary potential of telecommunications could be discerned.


Social history is the driving force for Friedel’s work but a book on technology would arguably be missing several tricks if it did not engage with the workings of the processes and machineries it described. One of the great pleasures of this book, especially for those less savvy about technical and engineering details, are the careful descriptions and clear visual illustrations of how machines, bridges, or the architecture of cathedrals work. A Culture of Improvement subsequently satisfies on a number of intellectual levels, provoking debate, satisfying technical curiosity, and inspiring wonder at both the genius of invention and the ability of Friedel himself to explain it with such clarity. It is impossible not to be educated by this work.


It seems fitting that the industrialization of weaving should occupy a central place in the book given that Friedel is something of a master weaver himself. His ability to bring together so many historical strands is truly impressive. At the same time, to continue the metaphor, he also engages in some extensive unpicking of previously woven narratives, faithful to the imperatives of Braudel and E.P Thompson that bottom-up history—the story of how change occurs at ground level and in everyday circumstances—inevitably involves the deconstruction of dominant narratives so zealously protected by those with vested interests.


Perhaps a better metaphor would be that of the patchwork quilt. Like patches divorced from their original setting, the discrete chapters of Friedel’s book act as a sample of something much larger while simultaneously contributing towards a new picture, viewable only once these reconfigured fragments are given a fresh setting. At the same time, the chapters themselves are multifarious, each one following a fascinating trajectory as connections are made between various modes of improvement. A chapter on photography becomes, via the connecting thread of chemistry, an account of advances in clothing dye and medicine, before morphing, Escher-like, into a discussion of iron, steel, and aluminum. It is to Friedel’s great credit that he is able to pull off such trickery.


The quilt of history, of course, can never be finished. However, like the borders that contain the quilt and its filling, the history book can contain only so much. Friedel’s book has, to evoke Walt Whitman, contained multitudes, but inevitably it is not without its gaps. The focus on the West—briefly but inconclusively discussed by Friedel at the outset—means that the technological developments of other parts of the world are downplayed. They cannot, of course, be completely excluded and so there are mentions of the Chinese contribution to papermaking, porcelain, and gunpowder, among other non-Western inventions. Overall, though, one cannot help but feel that the pattern of the quilt has been decided at the outset and much fascinating material discarded. To a certain extent, this is fair enough; every book needs a clear plan and the pattern for this one must have been incredibly difficult to create. Perhaps more justification for this particular selection was needed.


One of Friedel’s justifications for his selection is that it is necessary for a work such as this to be completed before any extensive comparative account of other regional cultures of improvement can be undertaken. This would seem, again, to be fair enough, except that, for a historian so attuned to the ways in which often-told tales reinforce ideological assumptions, it is strange to encounter what could so easily be read as post-hoc justification. To suggest that, because the West became hegemonic over a particular historical period, its history should be written before that of any other region, is to ignore the latter’s role in allowing the former to come to power.


Given that the dominance of the West over other parts of the world was largely due, in the modern era of empire and colonialism, to technological superiority, the subsequent recourse to the tale of that superiority cannot help but favor the victors. If, as Friedel eloquently attests, history should take account of contributions at all levels of power, then an account that reasserts the dominance of the West is not sufficient. The technological military might of the Spanish and Portuguese in South America, or the British and French in Africa, or the Americans in America for that matter, may have rendered many indigenous technologies obsolete, but this does not mean that were not thriving cultures of improvement in these and other areas. It is not impossible to tell these stories in a concise yet inclusive manner; the recent BBC series “A History of the World in 100 Objects” provides an interesting example.


Of course, an author should be judged for what they did and not for what they didn’t, or couldn’t, do. Friedel could probably not have written a book that would encompass a global view and still attend to as much detail as contained in A Culture of Improvement—it seems unlikely that any single author could. But it is a gap that needs to be noted, not least given the massive contributions to technological development in Asia, an area that not only has a long history of technological innovation, but also exists as arguably the most visible contemporary example of a culture of improvement.


When the rest of the world makes its reappearance on the penultimate page of the book, it does so as an example of the globalization of the culture of improvement, but this too narrow a view of globalization and does not adequately take into account global dynamics and local differences. In one of the few mentions of Japan, Friedel makes the interesting point that the development of solid state electronics in that country was driven by commercial interests, leading to a more sustained development than in the US, where military needs drove initial investment.


The military, of course, have long nurtured technological developments but capitalists have also increasingly driven change. Adding to the economic and political motivations for technological development has been the growth of moral and environmental pressures, leading to what Friedel refers to in his final chapter as “Improvement’s End”. This, and his decision to end his narrative with the events of September 11 2001, suggest that Friedel may be as prone to teleological storytelling as anyone else. Was the use of civil airliners in these attacks really “more effective than anything ever tried before”? More than the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which Friedel describes fifty pages earlier as a demonstration of “the most horrific invention ever conceived”? The language of superlatives is arguably unhelpful here; what seems more pertinent is the human tendency to mix power and technology in devastating ways.


Elsewhere, Friedel notes a particularly militaristic definition of technological determinism, whereby the “improvement of violence” has been seen by many of its proponents as a means towards eventual peace. It is sobering to think that the claim made at the very beginning of the nineteenth century by Robert Fulton of his submarine Nautilus—that its technological superiority would render warfare obsolete—is one that is still blindly echoed two centuries later.


This seems to connect to the cyclical and self-generating nature of technological change that Friedel alludes to in an early footnote where he quotes Sigmund Freud:


If there had been no railway to conquer distances, my child would never have left his native town and I should need no telephone to hear his voice; if traveling across the ocean by ship had not been introduced, my friend would not have embarked on his sea-voyage and I should not need a cable to relieve my anxiety about him.


Technology brings loss as much as progress and this loss, in turn, necessitates new technology. Freud, attuned as he was to the role of lack and separation in the processes of the psyche, recognized that technology is built upon a desire it can never feed. Technology remains, then, a process rather than a product. The gleaming items on display in the Apple shop are merely objects left behind in our attempts to feed a drive that exceeds technology and travels faster than technological change. Improvement, whether thought as pleasure principle or death drive, can never guarantee satisfaction.


Friedel returns to this point in his closing remarks, echoing Mumford’s assertion that technology seems destined always to be used and abused by those in political, economic, or moral power. The future development of technology, like that of the past, relies on the wills of the humans who give birth machines and not vice versa. Whatever we might envisage in our Matrix-like dystopian imaginings, it is humans who are to blame for the best and worst of technology. Friedel’s book, for most of its 26 dazzling chapters, allows us to maintain a sense of wonder at the tracks laid down by our forebears. It’s an exhilarating ride.

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Richard Elliott is a writer, university teacher, and journal editor based in Newcastle upon Tyne. He is the author of the book Fado and the Place of Longing: Loss, Memory and the City (2010), as well as articles and reviews covering a wide variety of popular music genres. Richard is currently working on a co-authored book on ritual, remembrance, and recorded sound.


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