Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

a clarification

A quick note: in response to my previous post several people have emailed or tweeted to recommend Jacques Ellul or Lewis Mumford or George Grant or Neil Postman. All of those are valuable writers and thinkers, but none of them do anything like what I was asking for in that post. They provide a philosophical or theological critique of technocratic society, but that’s not a technological history of modernity. If you look at the books I recommend in that post, all of them are deeply engaged with the creation, implementation, and consequences of specific technologies — and that’s what I think we need more of, though in a larger frame, covering the whole of modernity fromt he 16th century to today. A deeply material history — a history of the pressur of made things on human behavior; something like Siegfried Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command but theologically informed — or at least infused with a stronger sense of human telos than Giedion has; a serious critique of technological modernity that’s not afraid to get grease on its hands.


  • "The pressure of made things on human behavior" seems like a better, subtler way of rewriting statements about "what technology wants."

    Incidentally, I'd love to see a related book, or perhaps just a few solid footnotes in the one you're proposing, on the pressure of technology (and the Oppenheimer principle) on Christian practice and worship: could we construe cathedral-building or moving PowerPoint backgrounds as "going for something technically sweet?" To what extent is technology (vs theology) the prime mover of those, er, accomplishments? Can we connect the earthier, no-frills strands of American Protestantism to the relative lack of technology on the frontier?

  • Alongside Mechanization Takes Command, I'd suggest James Beniger's The Control Revolution as a sort of precursor to what you're proposing.

  • Although he's not exactly the kind of thinker you're talking about, Owen Barfield is very helpful in showing how evolving modes of consciousness (often affected by technological changes) create ideas, and not the other way around.

  • How about David Edgerton's *The Shock of the Old,* Oxford UP, 2006, 2011?

  • Elizabeth Eisenstein might fit the bill, particularly Divine Art, Infernal Machine: The Reception of Printing in the West.

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