Machines as the Measure of Men
DECONSTRUCTING THE MODERN WORLD
Science, Technologies and Ideologies of Western Dominance
Professor Michael Adas’ interview and the review below, in which I have tried to capture his main themes and give a flavor of the way he thinks and writes, can serve as an introduction to the study of technology and the many ways it has changed us. The current generation of students needs an entry point into this most valuable field of study, never more vital than today. One of Adas’ primary ideas is this: equal to or more than weaponry, it was the terrific wave of knowledge which provided the fulcrum for Western domination over the “Oriental’ or non-western world in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. And while that paradigm is changing today – as seen in Stephen Hawkins’ recent plea that “Science needs Africa” — it is invaluable for us to look at the roots of modernity.
I often think that the current generation – like the ones before it – does not step back from the machine world enough the really “see” it. The scientific system of knowledge is a primary influence on our lives, not because of the convenience but also our language, our sense of time, the value we place on ourselves and others, and on and on. Using an array of first-hand accounts, the author retraces with us how Westerners changed their own culture and then used machines to change and encounter other cultures. The ideas of the Enlightenment provided the weapons that defeated superstition, disease, paganism, and irrationality – until World War I, which caused a reassessment of science-driven values. This ambitious and remarkable book delivers a jump-start to our appreciation of machines’ long-term influence over man.
If we imagine how ridiculous Richard Trevithick’s proposal for the first railroad must have sounded (“Let’s go outside and build a perfectly even track of gravel, timber, and steel rails from here to the next city. Then we can mount a gigantic rolling machine on it, and go back and forth.”), we can begin to appreciate how radical the machine age has been. Trains, cameras, airplanes, refrigerators, telegraphs, telephones, the computer — dozens of generations of extraordinary technologies are layered into our modern lives. But it has arrived with consequences that we need to understand.
Prof. Adas’ interest is not in recapitulating the Industrial Revolution but in the shadows it has thrown on the wall – that is, the deep and wide effect machines have had on our cultures, values and literature since Europeans and Americans began to first exercise a “working control” over the natural environment. This process of domination (as Adas demonstrates) has not been particularly sinister, nor was it ever any kind of conspiracy. Rather, it is a powerful marketplace function: advanced weaponry displaces crude weaponry. Modern food production displaces traditional agriculture. Scientific theory trumps superstition.
A recent New Yorker article calls into question our latest Industrial Revolution: if the technology boom is so great, it asks, why aren’t things better? Productivity is not that much changed, the middle class is disappearing, our happiness levels are lower than during the 1950’s. The answer (if there is one) may not be as important as asking the question.
Adas provides a framework in which students and general readers like me can place theorists like Jared Diamond and the economist Thomas Sowell (whom one of my faculty colleagues assigns), among many others. To understand the particular stories of specific technologies, we need to understand the master narrative. A similar new transition to higher levels of machine-driven modernity is taking place today, with those same non-Western cultures embracing American laptops and Swedish cell phones. Western science is a tremendous boon to civilization, but it is not “free.”
1. Edward Said suggests that almost every work of literature is, in its own way, political. Every poem, every play, every story sets forth a certain philosophy of the world in which there is a hierarchy; it can be used to further one nation or one culture over another.
Are technologies political? Are machines political, or are they neutral? Is the IPod or a Chevy Volt an instrument of colonization, or are they just “ingenious novelties” that anyone can buy?
2. You begin your remarkable book Machines as a Measure of Man with a story in which a European explorer, William Smith, encounters a tribe of natives along the Gambia river. The encounter is unsettling for both because the very design of the ship he is sailing was “a marvel of design and workmanship” which represented technology in which the Westerners reigned supreme. Is this type of encounter still taking place today? Is the divide still as sharp? Is the gap between America and the Third World due to machines?
3. You cite the relationship between Japan and China as one in which Japan is perceived to have a special status among Asian cultures – in part because they accept and assimilate Western technology so quickly. Is that changing, with India’s new generation of engineers and China’s manufacturing for Apple?
4. A new book, “Engineers of Victory” by Paul Kennedy, sets into sharp focus the critical role played in World War II by engineers. Is combat technology the most significant “measure” among cultures? Is that becoming truer as war moves from battlefields to satellites, drones, and cyber-warfare?
5. What are the three most important ideas you would hope a general reader takes away from your book?
6. You point out that, in the 18th and 19th centuries, canals and paved road and railways imposed a new pattern on our civilizations. What will the new patterns be in the 21st century?
7. Your chapter on the Great War holds that this is where the promise that machines would usher in a new age of “human liberation and improvement” died. Is that promise alive today? Is it a false promise?
8. Since you wrote Machines as the Measure of Man in 1989, the landscape has changed so much. What would you say in an Epilogue, or a new edition of the book that extends to include the internet age, as well as drones and sustainable technologies?
9. Are Third World cultures embracing new technologies? Is the new age of technology equalizing the world, or polarizing it? What are the three most important machines of the 21st Century, and what do they tell us about today’s “measure of man”?
10. What is your hope for the new generation of students, and the new machines they bring into existence?
Michael ADas’ Answers
Questions 1, 2, 3 & 5: The Pre-Industrial and Colonial Centuries
Both Machines as the Measure of Men (1989) and my more recent book on Dominance by Design: Technological Imperatives and America’s Civilizing Mission (2006) were written in large part to challenge the underlying assumptions of modernization theory that informed US approaches to the “developing” world in the cold war era and persists in various mutations to the present day. Both works sought to explore the technological hubris and (often racialized) notions of Western or Euro-American superiority in innovation and scientific investigation that justified colonial conquests and domination of much of the world beyond western Europe and North America. Confidence in their technological, and especially military advantages, has also been a driving force behind misguided wars that have had much to do with the decline of first western European and more recently American power and influence in a globalizing world. When I researched and wrote Machines in the late 1980s, these assumptions and attitudes had been either ignored or peripheralized by most of the authors of a rapidly expanding corpus of works, perhaps most famously the writings of Edward Said, that were harshly and often justifiably critical of imperialism and Western misrepresentations of the peoples and cultures of the emerging nations of the post-colonial world. The very real advances the West had made in scientific knowledge and technological mastery by the nineteenth century and the advantages it enjoyed in interactions with most of the rest of the world led to a devaluation of past achievements of non-European peoples and the importance of their contributions – in mathematics, ship design, maps and instruments for navigation, to name just a few – to the processes of economic growth and global expansion that left the Europeans masters of much of the known world.
Western society was a huge engine that was out of gear …
As they moved out across the oceans to “discover” and ultimately dominate most of the rest of the world, the gap European explorers, traders and missionaries increasingly perceived in terms of scientific understandings and material culture between themselves and the peoples and societies they encountered significantly influenced the ways in which Europeans interacted with cultures as diverse as the stateless societies of coastal Africa and the vast and sophisticated Chinese empire. European observers often tended to overstate the “awe” and at times misconstrue what they believed to be admiration that “primitive” peoples, and even what they considered sophisticated societies such as those in China or Java, exhibited in even early contact situations. After all, European ships, instruments, and firearms, were not so different (on the surface at least) than those peoples over all but the most isolated portions of the Afro-Euroasian ecumene. The Chinese had invented guns and pioneered the production of gunpowder; the three great Muslim empires of the early modern era had all been built on artillery, the Turks continued to excel in siege guns until the end of the seventeenth century: and the Japanese had improved on the muskets the Portuguese traded in the late 1600s.
But by the end of the eighteenth century – and again on the basis of comparisons of perceived material accomplishments – all but the most advanced non-Western peoples had come to be impressed, even daunted, by and eager to imitate the manufacturing techniques, military prowess and organizational acumen, and even the lifestyles of the aggressive and expansive European intruders.
Before the industrial revolution Western nation-empires relied mainly on sea power to advance their economic and political objectives in the Indian Ocean and along the coasts of Africa. But once ashore, they relied more often on their increasingly refined navigational and scientific instruments, disciplined modes of (especially military) organization and training, and innovative modes of fortification to make headway in vast and well peopled empires, such as those in Qing China, Mughal India and Persia. Thus, technologies beyond, but including, the brute force delivered by guns were most certainly political, but the power they could project was variable depending on the peoples and states encountered. In the Americas, which had been isolated from the Eastern Hemisphere for millennia and was lacking in metal working, firearms and a whole range of key technologies, small numbers of conquistadors were able to topple massive and sophisticated empires and colonize tens of millions of Amerindian peoples. But recent research has demonstrated that Indian allies plus an influx of “old world” animals, plants and especially diseases, were the main forces driving these processes rather than superior Iberian weaponry or related technologies. Across the Pacific, even European sea supremacy and better muskets made little impression on the Japanese military elite or the scholar-gentry of China. In fact, until well into the eighteenth century, it was often the Europeans who were in awe of the great cities, productive agriculture and sheer size of Asian, African and (in the initial decades of contact) Amerindian societies.
The Chinese do not wish to know too much. Knowledge, if it continues to expand, causes endless trouble, and despairs of itself.
Questions 2, 3, 4, 7: The Industrial and Post-Colonial Eras
Even in the industrial era Euro-North American dominance over Africa and most of Asia was the product of diverse factors beyond technological superiority. Communications technologies, particularly the telegraph and railroads, were perhaps the most decisive technological edge the Europeans possessed both in expanding their colonial possessions and ruling them. These technologies were also critical in crisis situations, whether brought on by revolts from within, most spectacularly the Great Indian Mutiny in north India, or threats from indigenous adversaries not yet brought under colonial control, as in the case of the Mahdist movement in the Sudan. With few exceptions, the Euro-Americans overseas armies were recruited overwhelmingly from colonized peoples, particularly those the Europeans viewed as (racially) martial. Europeans and Americans also staffed all but the upper levels of their imperial bureaucracies with Indians, Africans and Filipinos.
As Western advantages in killing power increased, rebellious or threatened peoples made ever greater use of time-tested guerrilla tactics. From Vietnam and across Africa’s Sudanic belt to Kenya and Mozambique guerrilla resistance proved the most potent counter to European and later American industrial and eventually high tech weapons. Even in the peak decades of Western global dominance before World War 1, the Japanese were able to ward off Euro-American domination due to their willingness and capacity to adopt, and in some instances improve on, Western science and technology, and their skill at playing off the great powers against each other. One of the most striking gauges of just how much success the Japanese achieved was the fact that racist thinkers found it difficult to classify them in the hierarchies Europeans and Americans were so fond of constructing all through the nineteenth century. Theodore Roosevelt, for example, regarded them worthy of the highest standing – musing that they might best be seen as “white” Asians.
Although railways, the telegraph and steamships remained important, since the 1920s telephone lines and automobiles and other vehicles – including tanks and APCs – driven by internal combustion engines have become increasingly central to globalizing international economy and the wars that have periodically divided the world into hostile and mutually destructive blocs. Driven in significant ways by the cold war standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, after 1945 a rapid succession of major technological watersheds – from the advent of the nuclear age to the computer revolution – have both accelerated the processes of globalization and paved the way for the spread of industrialization and the proliferation of developing and developed economies from Japan and the “little tigers” of the Pacific Rim and Brazil, India and Mexico. Most impressively, the doctrinaire excesses of the Maoist era in China have given way to a reformist, state capitalist regime that has fostered the resurgence of mainland China as a major force in the global economy and restored its millennial-long status as one of the world’s centers of technological innovation.
Questions 8-10: Epilogue: The End of the American Century? The Age to Come
In many ways Dominance By Design was intended to be both a US-focused critique of hubristic and ethno-centric early industrial notions of the West’s civilizing mission that is central to Machines as the Measure of Men and an extension of the earlier work’s epilogue on modernization agenda that drove American interventions in the cold war era and in some policymaking circles to the present day. Due in large part to the catastrophic world wars of the first half of the 20th Century (which are considered in depth in Machines), the resources and will of the European powers were severely depleted. At the same time, both wars contributed in major ways to the emergence of the United States as the key repository of technological prowess and innovation in the global system. Despite Russian gains and completion, this imbalance was maintained, and in some sectors America’s lead increased, in early decades of cold war. For both superpowers, technological and scientific supremacy was both central to their rivalry, as dramatically testified by the importance of successive high tech races in weaponry and space exploration, and to their influence as global powers in the developed as well as the developing world.
Ironically, technological hubris and the paranoia that missile gaps and the nuclear standoff generated drove each of the rivals into regional wars that sapped their resources, and ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the relative decline of the United States as an economic powerhouse. In the longer term, economic decline – most readily visible in the deterioration of America’s infrastructure – and a succession of misbegotten wars (most notably in Vietnam and Iraq) – imperil the global military hegemony the United States has enjoyed since the Second World War. Even more ominously for humankind more broadly, the massive resources and human talents that have been devoted to the cold war rivalries and more recently to the misnamed “war on terror” have diverted attention from the environmental challenges that ought to be the main focus of international scientific and technological research and exchanges. The unprecedented militarization of most of the societies that dominate the global order at present and the security-obsessed state systems it has spawned also pose major threats to the fragile human rights and liberties that have arguably been the greatest contribution of EuroAmerican societies to political and social development in the modern era, perhaps all of history to the present.
Machines as the Measure of Men:
Science, Technologies and Ideologies of Western Dominance
This is one of the most ambitious books you will run across. Adas sets out to trace the spread of European science and technology, and how it has been central to the global transformations that Western expansion set into motion. It is an expansive story of “… the unprecedented nature of the power and material wealth that the Europeans’ unique scientific and technological advances had generated.” It is the story of how machines and colonization have traveled hand in hand. It is also much more than that, since Michael Adas seeks to document the many ways Westerners learned to dominate nature as well as non-Westerners.
In this multi-part epic, the author concentrates on three regions: India, China and sub-Saharan Africa. He is able to anchor most of his generalizations in specific anecdotes and personalities. Prof. Adas opens his book with this episode describing an encounter between explorer William Smith and West African tribesmen:
In the 1740s while the ship on which he was traveling was at anchor off the mouth of the Gambian river, William Smith went ashore to instruct one of the ship’s mates in the use of surveying instruments. On a stretch of beach near a small town, Smith had begun to demonstrate how one could measure distances with his theodolite and hodometer when he noticed a sizable band of armed Africans gathering nearby. Troubled by their hostile gestures, Smith questioned the ship’s slave, who had come along to help him operate the instruments, as to why they were so vexed by activities that Smith regarded as entirely peaceful and nonthreatening. The slave explained that the “foolish natives” were alarmed by Smith’s strange devices, which they believed he would use to bewitch them.
As it turns out, the natives were not being foolish at all. They could not have been more correct: those little instruments would not only bewitch them, but soon overwhelm their entire civilization. Western science, as represented by compasses and sextants, would place the Gambian tribes squarely in the grip of European
They are landing with rulers, squares, compasses.
White skin, fair eyes, naked word and thin lips.
Thunder on their ships.
— Leopold Sedar Sanghar, as quoted by Michael Adas
Adas’ first task in this most ambitious book is to lay down his foundation: the rise of the machines or, as he puts it, “The Ascendancy of Science.” Here he begins to show how the train made a ripple effect on agrarian society:
More than any other technological innovation, the railway embodied the great material advances associated with the first Industrial Revolution and dramatized the gap which that process had created between the Europeans and all non-Western peoples. Powered by the steam engines that were the core invention of the industrial transformation, locomotives boldly exhibited the latest advances in metallurgy and machine-tooling. Running on tracks that reshaped the landscape across vast swaths of Europe and later the Americas, Africa and Asia; crossing great bridges that were themselves marvels of engineering skill; serviced in railway yards whose sheds and mounds of coals became familiar features of urban centers around the world, railways were at once “the most characteristic and most efficient form of the new technics.”
When railways were introduced in North America in the 1830s and India in the 1850s, many European observers fixed upon them as the key symbol of the superiority, material as well as moral, that Western societies had attained over all others.
From Chapter Four, Attributes of the Dominant
One of my favorite passages is a consideration of how the machine age changed our concept of time. The advent of machines, Adas writes, meant that humans began to change their agrarian sense of time. That is, time among the factories and banks and train stations of the industrialized world grew to diverge from time as it exists in the forest, or time in the ocean or the desert. We came to devise a machine-based concept of time to design new sets of habits and behaviors to take maximum advantage of these new machines that were making our lives so productive:
New attitudes toward time and work were central elements in the new sensibility that emerged among the European and North American middle classes as a consequence of the rise of capitalist economies. The growing importance of contractual agreements and savings and investment rendered self-discipline and foresight essential attributes for economic success and social approbation. A premium was placed on manipulative and problem-solving skills, on forecasting future trends, and on long-term calculations and planning.
This created a divide between time among non-Westerners and European clock time, “oriented to the regular beat of machines and viewed as a commodity.” As much as Westerners used clocks and bells to spell out time patterns and schedules, non-westerners disdained all “artificial” measures of time:
The Chinese not only were unable to develop their own instruments to measure the passage of time accurately but appeared unwilling or unable to make use of European clocks and watches.
The Chinese had no sense of punctuality, could not be made to understand that time wasted equaled money lost, had only the vaguest notions of the time of day or even their own ages, and “spent” far too many profitless hours at feasts and theatrical performances which, Smith claimed, could go on for days.
Adas provides a concrete example in the Indian attitude towards railway schedules:
When railways were first introduced into India, prospective passengers – having learned that the trains would not wait for them to drift in – had adjusted not by consulting schedules and showing up on time but by arriving at stations two or three hours before their trains were scheduled to depart. Thus … the Indians including those who had received a Western education, did nothing to correct for their lack of punctuality but “simply, in the language of the algebrist, changed the signs.”
Adas derives from a 19th century writer named Goldsworthy Dickinson a consideration of America, Europe and China in the race towards modernization. Each society’s values, he argued, gave them unique responses to the wave of innovation. In the United States, the “modern spirit” and “genius of industrialization” ran rampant, while in Europe industrial society had to compete with “ancient culture.” American obsession with gadgetry threatened to reduce its citizens to machines. Europeans had centuries of culture to balance their values. The Chinese, by contrast, The Chinese do not wish to know too much. Knowledge, if it continues to expand, “causes endless trouble,” and “despairs of itself.” Traditional Chinese felt they were better off ignorant than stricken with the Europeans’ “disease of invention” and “debauchery of confused ideas.” As China rapidly followed America’s lead into industrialized life, having proven unable to defend their rich agrarian culture from the machine age, the Chinese were in danger of losing their souls to material progress.
Japan was an entirely different case. The Europeans saw much in Japanese culture to be admired, and to be feared as well. “The Japanese were more than curious; they were astoundingly adaptive,” with a pronounced interest in new methods of warfare and weaponry. “Japan was accorded special status among non-Western societies,” writes Adas, “… because they had done what no other non-Western people had been able to do: remake their society in the image of industrial Europe.”
The author is careful to delineate a wide range of consequences of all this modernization. Not all cultures embraced the ranking of human endeavor on the ladder of rationality.
A vocal and growing minority sought to explore the unconscious or irrational, championed emotion and intuition at the expense of rationality, and experimented with new ways of viewing time and space. But most European thinkers … held to the faith in progress, in the primacy of rationality, and in the unbounded potential of scientific inquiry and technological invention for human improvement.
Until, that is, World War I. In one of his best chapters, Chapter Six, “The Great War and the Assault on Scientific and Technological Measures of Human Worth,” the author considers World War I and its ripple effects. A basic idea is that World War I was the catalyst for the hours of cards to fall: here the machine age had delivered not a better life but a far worse one. New technologies of war brought about terrible (and arguably meaningless) slaughter on scales unheard of in previous wars. Verdun was hell on earth. This catastrophic campaign which began as a diplomatic trifle and ended in a nightmare of biblical proportions forced Western civilization to let go of the idea that science always leads to good things.
The “genius of discovery,” he concluded, belonged to Europeans alone.
Adas calls trench warfare “the crisis of Western civilization.” One aspect he discusses is that the “machine massacre” of World War I seemed to be such a surprise to everyone. “Curiously … little serious discussion was devoted to the horrific potential of the new weapons that had been spawned by the union of science and technology in the ever-changing industrial order.” The American Civil War and The Russo-Japanese War gave clear indications of what was to come. This “complete failure to foresee the form a modern war would take” had devastating consequences, Adas writes. Here are several of the lethal innovations leading up to the Great War that made it so deadly:
— machine guns capable of firing 400-600 rounds per minute
— dramatic increases in artillery size, range, accuracy and rate of fire
— diabolically toxic gases
— flame throwers
— wireless communication to better coordinate troop movements
— railways, which could deliver millions of soldiers into battle within days
— mass-production methods of guns, bullets, helmets, boots, shovels
— improved (and smokeless) explosives
— airplanes, which brought combat into the skies
— barbed wire
As a result of this perfect storm of new weapons, old strategies, and a failure of comprehension among the war’s civilian and military leaders, combatants from both sides were “engulfed by a technological maelstrom … Tens of thousands of soldiers, having escaped the explosions and fumes, were driven mad by the very sound of the great guns.” Such a rain of horror among the trench soldiers made for an impersonal war that lost all the tint of honor and romance which once clung to it. Western civilization’s future was suddenly threatened by the machines it had created.
Overall, the atrocities of World War I called into question science itself. “The civilization that produced it appeared to have lost its bearings,” writes Adas. “The vaunted rationality of the Europeans had been unable to prevent the trench madness.” All the invention and industry was bringing about slaughter and misery, not happiness. On the world stage, the war “undermined both the material and moral authority of the Europeans.” Their claims to be ushering in a superior age now seemed false.
In his concluding chapter, Adas helps the reader bridge the gap from World War I to the present and points the way toward changes coming with the industrial development of the Third World. It is, I think, an extremely valuable process for us to slow down and deconstruct how we all got here. The computer that I am typing on and all the technology it represents has changed us all — the way we think about ourselves, one another, and the world. Anyone who has watched a Terminator or Transformer movie knows how deeply these same misgivings we have about the mechanized universe still run.
In Machines as the Measure of Man, Michael Adas delves into a succession of powerful ideas, ideas that we need to understand today, as West and East seek ways to share the globe. Adas’ modernization narrative and theories uncover many of the same inner and external cultural conflicts exist today. Adas’ excavation of the past uncovers the roots of the dramas we see played out in our homes, schools and news headlines. His lucid depiction of how the machines age began casts light on our current dilemmas. I’m not sure we can fully understand today’s wonderfully complex society without first seeing how it all began.
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