'A Culture of Improvement' Is an Impressive Account of Technology and Technological Change

Friedel is a master weaver and his ability to bring together so many historical strands is truly impressive. He pays attention to the lesser-known tinkerers and tweakers as much as to the more famous inventors, making this book a fine example of bottom-up history.

A Culture of Improvement: Technology and the Western Millennium

Publisher: MIT Press
Length: 600 pages
Author: Robert Friedel
Price: $24.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2010-04

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.


Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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