To Americans, Gee-Whiz Gizmos Define Century

By Paul Van Slambrouck, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, July 7, 1999 | Go to article overview

To Americans, Gee-Whiz Gizmos Define Century


Paul Van Slambrouck, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


In the cusp of a new century, Americans give themselves a somewhat 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, or 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 Pew researchers. The role of technology, or machines, is deeply embedded in the United States, says historian Benjamin Olshin, who teaches technology 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 rapidly 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 probes the impact of technology on social and individual values. …

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