Theory and Design in the First Machine Age

By Reyner Banham | Go to book overview
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Introduction--the machine age

THIS BOOK WAS conceived and written in the late years of the Nineteenfifties, an epoch that has variously been called the Jet Age, the Detergent Decade, the Second Industrial Revolution. Almost any label that identifies anything worth identifying in the period will draw attention to some aspect of the transformation of science and technology, for these transformations have powerfully affected human life, and opened up new paths of choice in the ordering of our collective destiny. Our accession to almost unlimited supplies of energy is balanced against the possibility of making our planet uninhabitable, but this again is balanced, as we stand at the threshold of space, by the growing possibility of quitting our island earth and letting down roots elsewhere. Again, our explorations into the nature of information have made it possible, on the one hand, to set electronics to work to take the drudgery out of routine thought, and on the other hand to tailor human thinking to suit the needs of some narrow-minded power- élite.

These, of course, are the grand prospects that affect economics, morality and sociology, in the same remote and statistical way as did the perfection of cavalry, the growth of feudal organisations, the rise of money economy. But, unlike those developments of the past, which left the objects of daily life, the hierarchy of the family and the structure of sociable intercourse almost untouched, the technical revolutions of our own time strike us with infinitely greater force because the small things of life have been visibly and audibly revolutionised as well.

Even a man who does not possess an electric razor is likely--in the Westernised world at least--to dispense some previously inconceivable product, such as an aerosol shaving cream, from an equally unprecedented pressurised container, and accept with equanimity the fact that he can afford to throw away, regularly, cutting-edges that previous generations would have nursed for years. Even a housewife who does not possess a washing machine dispenses synthetic detergent from synthetic plastic packs on to synthetic fabrics whose quality and performance makes the jealously-guarded secrets of silk seem trivial. A teen-ager, curled up with a


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