Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 17, No. 620.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
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Date: Sun, 08 Feb 2004 13:25:46 +0000
From: Willard McCarty <email@example.com>
Subject: science, technology and modern culture
In a trenchant article in the American Journal of Sociology 11.5 (1906):
585-609, "The Place of Science in Modern Civilization", economist and
social commentator Thorstein Veblen wrote that "science gives its tone to
modern culture.... Seen in certain lights, tested by certain standards,
[our culture] is doubtless better [as a result]; by other standards, worse.
But the fact remains that the current cultural scheme, in its maturest
growth, is of that complexion... That such is the case seems to be due
chiefly to the ubiquitous presence of the machine technology and its
creations in the life of modern communities. And so long as the machine
process continues to hold a dominant place as a disciplinary factor in
modern culture, so long must the spiritual and intellectual life of this
cultural era maintain the character which the machine process gives it."
Science and humanities scholarship are not natural adversaries, he
argues, as both are fundamentally motivated by disinterested inquiry, or
what he charmingly calls "idle curiosity"; in fact this idle curiosity
(i.e., unfettered imagination) gives science many of the same qualities of
mind as the myth-maker's. The greater gulf is between idle curiosity and
the pragmatic drive to getting things done. This drive, manifested in
machine technology, is in fact, he argues further, culturally primary to
science, giving it its hold on us and its particular character. (Note how
different this perspective is from that of the argument from "applied"
Now my question. Note that Veblen was writing in 1906, barely less than a
century ago, when "modern" machines were things of iron and steel,
dramatically visible and responsible for dramatic changes in daily life.
(The railroad had not long before transformed the village in which I live
from a relatively wealthy place of 5,000 souls, from which it was not
practical to make a daily journey into central London, to a busy
working-class suburb of 50,000, whose income was directly dependent on the
daily commute.) If the human craft of technology articulates and shapes our
predominant form of life, then what happens to science operating in a world
where the machines are so very different? What of this science's relation
to us? And if Veblen is right about the priority of techne to logos, then
how do we need to think about our machines?
Veblen's article is in JSTOR; more about the man (better known for his
book, The Theory of the Leisure Class) at
http://www.mnc.net/norway/veblen.html and elsewhere.
Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
Humanities | King's College London | Strand | London WC2R 2LS || +44 (0)20
7848-2784 fax: -2980 || firstname.lastname@example.org
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