Mechanization Takes Command

A classic book that is often cited in studies of the history and social impact of technology is Sigfried Giedion’s 1948 Mechanization Takes Command. Lucky for us the always-excellent New York Review Books is bringing it back into print (March 2010). (See update below.)

From the description:

Sigfried Giedion’s extraordinary, encyclopedic book traces the various ways in which, for better and for worse, mechanization has assumed control of our lives, from modern systems of hygiene and waste management, to agricultural production, fashion, and beyond.

Giedion’s book is not only clearly written but also eloquent and thoughtful in its investigation of mechanization’s reach and appeal, and it offers fascinating insights into the intersection between mechanization and the imagination, as manifested in literature and the visual arts. With a wealth of unusual and intriguing illustrations taken from old sales catalogues, industrial manuals, magazines, and other sources, Giedion’s book constitutes a remarkable and endlessly suggestive history of modernity itself, as comprehensive as it is provocative and eccentric.

Link: Mechanization Takes Command.

Update (June 5 2010): looks like it’s been canceled.

Update 2018: Now (since 2014) available from University of Minnesota press, albeit with a less catchy cover.

Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History

If anyone visiting this has read it, let me know what you think.

Michael Sandel on Genetics and Morality

"It is tempting to think that bioengineering our children and ourselves for success in a competitive society is an exercise of freedom. But changing our nature to fit the world, rather than the other way around, is actually the deepest form of disempowerment. It distracts us from reflecting critically on the world. It deadens the impulse to social and political improvement. So I say rather than bioengineer our children and ourselves to fit the world, let's instead create social and political arrangements more hospitable to the gifts and the limitations of the imperfect human beings that we are."

– From the Reith Lectures given earlier this year by Michael Sandel, quoted at Biopolitical Times blog.

Sandel's book about the ethics of genetic engineering just came out in paperback: The Case against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering.

New Books

Some recent books I've bought or spotted:

Peepdiaries Hal Niedzviecki's The Peep Diaries: How We're Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors
looks at oversharing in the digital age. Naturally he has a blog, a twitter account, a webcam, a forthcoming documentary, and much more at the book's site.

From the book description:

We have entered the age of "peep culture": a tell-all, show-all,
know-all digital phenomenon that is dramatically altering notions of
privacy, individuality, security, and even humanity. Peep culture is
reality TV, YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, over-the-counter spy
gear, blogs, chat rooms, amateur porn, surveillance technology, Dr. Phil, Borat,
cell phone photos of your drunk friend making out with her
ex-boyfriend, and more. In the age of peep, core values and rights we
once took for granted are rapidly being renegotiated, often without our
even noticing.

[…] Part travelogue, part diary, part
meditation and social history, The Peep Diaries explores a
rapidly emerging digital phenomenon that is radically changing not just
the entertainment landscape, but also the firmaments of our culture and
society.

Richard SennettCraftsman's The Craftsman, just out in paperback, seems like a broad hybrid of sociology, psychology, history, cultural studies and philosophy. I've only read a couple chapters, and while it's not the quickest read, I'm finding it compelling as it combines a lot of things I'm interested in. In the book's prologue (about half of which you can read in the Amazon preview) he says that the book is the first of a planned "Pandora" trilogy. It sounds ambitious, though he seems mightily prolific. He writes:

This is the first of three books on material culture, all related to the dangers in Pandora's casket, though each is intended to stand on its own. This book is about craftsmanship, the skill of making things well. The second volume addresses the crafting of rituals that manage aggression and zeal; the third explores the skills required in making and inhabiting sustainable environments. All three books address the issue of technique–but technique considered as a cultural issue rather than as a mindless procedure; each book is about a technique for conducting a particular way of life. The large project contains a personal paradox that I have tried to put to productive use. I am a philosophically minded writer asking questions about such matters as woodworking, military drills, or solar panels.

AndThenTheresThis Bill Wasik, an editor at Harper's and apparently the inventor of the flash mob, has a new book called And Then There's This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture. From the description:

And Then There’s This is Bill Wasik’s
journey along the unexplored frontier of the twenty-first century’s
rambunctious new-media culture. He covers this world in part as a
journalist, following “buzz bands” as they rise and fall in the online
music scene, visiting with viral marketers and political trendsetters
and online provocateurs. But he also wades in as a participant,
conducting his own hilarious experiments: an e-mail fad (which turned
into the worldwide “flash mob” sensation), a viral website in a
monthlong competition, a fake blog that attempts to create “antibuzz,”
and more. He doesn’t always get the results he expected, but he tries
to make sense of his data by surveying what real social science
experiments have taught us about the effects of distraction,
stimulation, and crowd behavior on the human mind. Part report, part
memoir, part manifesto, part deconstruction of a decade, And Then There’s This captures better than any other book the way technology is transforming our culture.

AtLeastInTheCity Wade Rouse's (third) memoir At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream: Misadventures in Search of the Simple Life tells the story of his trying to become a self-described “modern-day Thoreau.” Sounds fairly amusing, and I like the cover.

In a slightly similar vein is One Square Inch of Silence: One Man's Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World by Gordon Hempton. Hempton is an "acoustic ecologist" and writes about his experiences recording the quietest places in the country. The book comes with a CD and is an outgrowth of the One Square Inch project, which seeks to preserve a quiet space in Olympic National Park.

Galileo Goes To Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion

Galileo Interesting new book edited by historian Ronald L. Numbers: Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion. From the publisher's page:

Revisiting Snow’s Two Cultures

New Scientist asked several prominent people for an update on C.P. Snow's Two Cultures: Science and Art: Still Two Cultures Divided?  I finally got around to reading Two Cultures a few months ago. What I liked best was Stefan Collini's historical introduction (which takes up about half the book and is worth the price).

Collini is the first respondent in New Scientist's article:

C. P. Snow intended to call his lecture "The Rich and
the Poor" – and regretted not doing so. This title points to what
remains valuable about the essay now. Helping the world's impoverished
majority meet their basic needs remains an obligation of richer
societies, and applied science is a vital tool.

In
other ways, though, Snow's lecture is superficial and misleading.
Despite its subsequent reputation, it does not make useful distinctions
between types of enquiry or discipline, making a thin contrast between
"physicists" and "literary intellectuals" (mostly modernist poets and
novelists, not scholars in the humanities). It also identified a rather
outdated element of English cultural attitudes and snobbery, rather
than a true divide between disciplines. It makes better sense to talk
of "two-hundred-and-two cultures" than of "two cultures". […]

The
more damaging influence of Snow's lecture has been to encourage the
prejudice that natural science is the only reliable source of
"objective" knowledge, and to support the misguided belief that science
and technology are undervalued in the UK and so should receive
preferential treatment.

Update: Seed Magazine has a similar feature about Two Cultures, but theirs is video  because Seed is all hip and youthful: Are We Beyond The Two Cultures?

Chris Hedges on Atheism, Science, and Moral Progress

Chris Hedges's When Atheism Becomes Religion* might be of interest to readers of this blog for its critique of the scientistic thinking underlying recent books about atheism by the likes of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens.

The book is not a defense of religion (and Hedges wrote a previous book criticizing Christian fundamentalism) but a defense of moderation. He sees these new figures as scientific utopians who have an irrational belief in moral progress and are just as dangerous as religious fundamentalists.

A quote from the last chapter:

The contemporary atheists, while many are noted scientists, are deluded products of this image-based and culturally illiterate world. They speak about religion, human progress and meaning in the impoverished language of television slogans. They play to our fears, especially of what we do not understand. Their words are sensational, fragmented and devoid of content. They appeal to our subliminal and irrational desires. They select a few facts and use them to dismiss historical, political and cultural realities. They tell us what we want to believe about ourselves. They assure us that we are good. They proclaim the violence employed in our name a virtue. They champion our ignorance as knowledge. They assure us that there is no reason to investigate other ways of being. Our way of life is the best. They indulge us in our delusional dream of human perfectibility. They tell us we will be saved by science and rationality. They tell us that humanity is moving inexorably forward. None of this is true. It defies human nature and human history. But it is what we want to believe.

*This is the title of the new paperback edition of a book published in hardcover with the too-clever title I Don't Believe in Atheists. He should have retitled his War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning while he was at it.

There's more info about Hedges at Truthdig, where he writes a column.