THE LAST THIRTY YEARS of American history is a maze rather than a highway. Very few directions were maintained without interruption. No sweeping generalizations pertain.
As has often been the case in the American republic, the discoveries of scientists and their applications have done much to shape the culture and to frame its controversies. Nuclear fission illustrates this statement. The translation of this source of elemental power to bombs and warheads not only ended a world war but set the ground rules for a cold war. The cold war dictates the military mission, frames the ultimate purpose of diplomacy, and often provides the most passionate of political debates. Domestic issues, too, have arisen from this one atomic fact, as the use of nuclear power has led to the problems of unwanted radiation and potential contamination.
Microelectronics coupled with cybernetics has produced a degree of automation that the ordinary citizen still finds hard to comprehend. Robots man the assembly lines in Yokohama while they serve cocktails to patrons of Neiman-Marcus. Microchips and stamped circuits sort, scan, and retrieve millions of items in the time it takes to read this sentence. Synthetic materials, advanced instrumentation, and improved knowledge of the human body have made it possible to extend the life span at both ends, rendering the prematurely born fetus viable and replacing vital organs eroded by disease.
What impresses the chronicler of the democratic faith is not technology providing the leading edge for social change, but rather an unprecedented degree of resistance. The response to nuclear power plants and supersonic transport reflected more Thoreau's suspicion of the railroads than Whitman's lyrics to the locomotive. Technology, in the past an American panacea, came to be regarded as a problem and not a solution. First the value system was propelled through a