In the cusp of a new century, Americans give themselves a
surprising report card on the one just ending.
In evaluating their greatest accomplishments of the 1900s, people
think the civil rights movement and the advent of Social Security
were nice. So too was winning World War II.
But Americans are proudest of the century's advances in
technology, according to an ambitious survey just out from the Pew
Research Center in Washington.
While reverence for technology fits neatly into the United States'
culture and history, the age of the computer has deepened that faith
to a surprising degree, say some social historians.
Lauding everything from the moonwalk to e-mail, Americans put
technological achievements emphatically above the medical, social,
economic gains of the modern era.
And the faith in technology is all the more striking when
juxtaposed with deep misgivings about the nation's moral fabric,
evidenced in this and many other recent polls.
"The distinction that the public makes between the material
achievements and societal shortcomings is apparent," according to
The role of technology, or machines, is deeply embedded in the
United States, says historian Benjamin Olshin, who teaches
and American culture at the University of California, Berkeley.
"This society was really forced to be innovative technologically"
so that the early settlers could master a sparsely populated
landscape, he says.
Perpetually short of manpower, the young nation relied on
mechanical advances as the tools for greater prosperity. "That set
the tone for our culture from the beginning," says Professor Olshin.
Hail, Henry Ford
Reverence for technology has ebbed and flowed over time. In the
early 1900s, industrialization and mass production were seen as
making more goods available to more people. In the 1950s, better
machines helped increase productivity and lower costs for the
expanding consumer market.
However, no modern period of technological advances matches the
speed and breadth of what is occurring in the 1990s as a result of
the computer revolution. And within that environment, the public
support of technology appears to have reached extraordinary levels.
The current mood worries some.
"We've become consumed with questions of efficiency rather than
questions about what's worthwhile," says Stephen Talbot, author of
"The Future Does Not Compute" and of a regular newsletter that
the impact of technology on social and individual values. …