In The New State of the Economy published in 1977 Fred C. Allvine and Fred A. Tarpley, Jr., document the end of the United States' economic "rocket ride", a twenty-five-year trip during which the automobile and its support systems, plastics, air transportation, television, and the computer restructured our businesses, our landscape, and our lives. The rocket, Allvine and Tarpley argue, drew its power from three sources, all of which dried up in the early 1970s: cheap energy, unexploited technical innovation (largely a result of development during the war), and widespread public belief in the beneficence of technology. From the first two sources flowed the suburban community of one-family homes with two-car garages, filled with washers, dryers, dishwashers, disposals, electric ranges, radios, television sets, and the myriad of consumer goods that synthetic fibers, lightweight alloys, and plastics made available to all. From the third source flowed the sense of well being, indeed of progress toward the ideal life, that pervaded the culture. One of the most popular exhibitions at the 1964 World's Fair was General Electric's "Wheel of Progress"in which mechanical people --and some marvelous mechanical dogs-- extolled the virtues of increased domestic convenience. The good life would soon be available to all Americans. It manifested the virtues of the democratic system. The exhibition has a permanent home: in Florida's Disneyland and Epcot Center, itself a paean to technology and traditional American values.
Other hands now control the flow of oil, and no essentially new technology sits awaiting exploitation. Yet, even before energy became expensive and progress stopped accelerating, our society began to doubt the benefits of technology. During the '60s, in part (but only in part) as a result of dismay over the fruits of military technology, the assumed link between material progress and social improvement came under scrutiny, much of it hostile from the outset. Only a minority espoused abandonment of technology itself. The tuned-out, turned-on counterculture proved an ephemeral force. Yet, at the political center where choices had to be defined and made, social advocacy increasingly took a position in conflict with technical progress, forcing an alternative where we had once seen a union. In the drive for control over pollution, for reliability and safety of products, and for affirmative action in the workplace, Americans chose to redirect investment and innovation toward ends defined politically rather than technologically. Granted, some of the new goals called for technical innovation, e.g. control over pollution, but on the whole they reflected a deepening feeling that technology was becoming more a threat to our well being --especially our democratic well being--than a promise of it. Our current wariness of technology contrasts sharply with our former faith in it and constitutes part of present challenges to past values.
It is not the first time in our history that we have been wary. Off and on from the earliest days of the new republic down to the present, Americans have felt uneasy about technology, especially about industrial technology. To embrace it, they have had to convince themselves --or pretend to convince themselves-- that it is something other than what it really is. Only then have Americans been able to fit technology into the image they have held of their land, an image from which they have derived their democratic ideals. Technology has had to fit into the "middle landscape".
As Leo Marx explains in his book, The Machine in the Garden, published in 1964, the middle landscape belonged originally to the topography of the pastoral scene, a literary genre shaped essentially by Virgil in the Eclogues, the shepherd tends his flock in green pastures located between the wholly artificial city and the wholly natural wilderness. He lives in nature, but in a cultivated nature; his domesticated herd grazes on land cut out of the forest. The violence of the wild poses as much of a threat to him as does the complexity of city life, though they are threats of different kinds, the one physical, the other moral. In the balance of art and nature lies the serenity of both the shepherd's flock and the shepherd's soul.
Virgil's pastoral scene remained a literary stock-in-trade right through the eighteenth century. At the beginning of that century, however, elements of the scene had begun to change. The pasture itself disappeared, to be replaced by the garden: not so much the formal garden of England as the "natural" garden of France and Italy. The naturalness was, of course, contrived --indeed, artfully contrived-- as all who evoked the image knew. Like the pasture, the garden lay poised between the city and the wilderness and thus set a fitting scene for the reconciliation of the rational and the animal in humans.
To European eyes so accustomed to looking at the world, a newly settled and increasingly prosperous America took the shape of one vast garden. Between the savage Indian of the American forest and the decadent aristocrat of the European city stood the American farmer and husbandman, taming nature while drawing moral sustenance from her, cultivating the land while living on it, equally suspicious of town and wilderness. That image could only gain force as first England and then France began to experience the dislocations of the Industrial Revolution, in particular the enclosure of land and the eruption of factory cities. "It may in truth be said," noted the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1797, "that in no part of the world are the people happier ... or more independent than the farmers of New England."
The image appealed to Americans, too. Leo Marx reports D.H. Lawrence's observation that (in Marx's words) "only the 'spirit of place' can really account for the singular voice we hear in American books." Americans identified themselves with their new land, for it made possible a new life unattainable in the Old World. It was precisely life on a farm carved from the wilderness that freed the American farmer from the social hierarchy into which history had by then locked European nations. Created by common art from a timeless nature, an essentially rural America had no history to block the exercise of the natural equality among men. Democracy rested in the pastoral landscape. There American writers would continue to seek it: Thoreau, Hawthorne, Twain, to name just a few.
But the landscape itself does not constitute the whole of the pastoral form in literature. At the edge of the scene looms the threat that is being counterbalanced by the bucolic life. In Virgil's poem, the exile tells the shepherd of the evils and injustice of the city. Above the peaceful landscape of the early modern painting float the words Et in Arcadia ego, "I too am in Arcadia", and the I is Death. In the American pastoral, the interruption comes from the machine; hence the title and theme of Marx's book. In Hawthorne's "Sleepy Hollow" and in Thoreau's Walden, it is the railroad screeching unseen through the woods just beyond the author's view. In Melville's Moby Dick it is the tryworks used to reduce blubber to oil. In Twain's Huckleberry Finn it is the steamboat that shears off the end of Huck's and Jim's raft. "Indeed," says Marx, "it is difficult to think of a major American writer upon whom the image of the machine's sudden appearance in the landscape has not exercised its fascination." That fascination, as Marx suggests but does not outrightly say, is rather akin to the fascination induced by the cobra before striking.
More than personal safety or tranquillity is at stake here. For the middle landscape supports a way of life. No one has captured the situation in words better than did Thomas Jefferson in Query XIX of his Notes on Virginia, composed between 1780 and 1785. What he said concerning The present state of manufactures commerce, interior and exterior trade deserves full quotation:
We never had an interior trade of any importance. Our exterior commerce has suffered very much from the beginning of the present contest. During this time we have manufactured within our families the most necessary articles of clothing. Those of cotton will bear some comparison with the same kinds of manufacture in Europe; but those of wool, flax and hemp are very coarse, unsightly, and unpleasant: and such is our attachment to agriculture, and such our preference for foreign manufactures, that be it wise or unwise, our people will certainly return as soon as they can, to the raising raw materials, and exchanging them for finer manufactures than they are able to execute themselves.
The political economists of Europe have established it as a principle that every state should endeavor to manufacture for itself: and this principle, like many others, we transfer to America, without calculating the difference of circumstance which should often produce a difference of result. In Europe the lands are either cultivated, or locked up against the cultivator. Manufacture must therefore be resorted to of necessity not of choice, to support the surplus of their people. But we have an immensity of land courting the industry of the husbandman. Is it best then that all our citizens should be employed in its improvement, or that one half should be called off from that to exercise manufactures and handicraft arts for the other?
Here Jefferson shifted his tone, from the political to the moral.
Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breast he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth. Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example. It is the mark set on those, who not looking up to heaven, to their own soil and industry, as does the husbandman, for their subsistence, depend for it on the casualties and caprice of customers. Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition. This, the natural progress and consequence of the arts, has sometimes perhaps been retarded by accidental circumstances: but, generally speaking, the proportion which the aggregate of the other classes of citizens bears in any state to that of its husbandmen, is the proportion of its unsound to its healthy parts, and is a good-enough barometer whereby to measure its degree of corruption. While we have land to labor then, let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a workbench, or twirling a distaff. Carpenters, masons, smiths, are wanting in husbandry: but, for the general operations of manufacture, let our workshops remain in Europe. It is better to carry provisions and materials to workmen there, than bring then to the provisions and materials, and with them their manners and principles. The loss by the transportation of commodities across the Atlantic will be made up in happiness and permanence of government. The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body. It is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigor. A degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution.Manufacturing is, in short, to the American garden what the snake was to Eden.
Whatever hopes Jefferson held in 1785 for a new agrarian, nay, pastoral democracy, by 1816 he knew it had become an unattainable ideal. "I am quoted by those who wish to continue our dependence on England for manufactures," he wrote to Benjamin Austin in January of 1816.
There was a time when I might have been so quoted with more candor, but within thirty years which have since elapsed, how are the circumstances changed! ... Experience has taught me that manufactures are now as necessary to our independence as to our comfort. ... In so complicated a science as political economy, no one axiom can be laid down as wise and expedient for all times and circumstances, and for their contraries.Reality had beset the dream on two fronts. First, the land without history could not escape the history of other lands. France and Britain at war with each other could not leave the United States at peace. The new republic could not claim its political autonomy while depending on the old monarchies for manufactured necessities. Embargoes, impressment, and piracy obstruct the best intentioned commercial neutrality, forcing either partisan choice or a war on two fronts. In theory, a nation of republican husbandmen could prosper in the pastoral landscape, drawing sustenance from the soil and purchasing dry goods from European stores. In practice, the storekeepers demanded too high a price; they wanted to own their customers and annex them to the business. Republican virtues rooted in the soil needed manufactures to flourish.
Second, not all of Jefferson's countrymen shared his bucolic vision on, as he well knew. In the eyes of some like Alexander Hamilton and his ambitious young assistant, Tench Coxe, the laws of political economy dictated that economic reliance on European workshops would lead to political dependence on the European powers. While the gentleman farmer from Virginia was compiling his notes, merchant leaders in Philadelphia were forming the Pennsylvania Society for the Encouragement of Manufactures and the Useful Arts and lobbying as "friends of American manufactures" for tariffs protective of a nascent American industry. These people saw no reason to send abroad materials that could be processed here or to import goods that native hands could produce. True, they conceded, the new nation lacked what seemed to be the prerequisites of profitable manufacturing: labor was scarce and expensive, land open and cheap; the sparse population lay spread about in small communities linked by little more than trails; and both excess capital and entrepreneurial know-how were hard to find.
Yet except perhaps for the last, these deficiencies might be overcome and even turned to advantage by the technical innovations that were then transforming British industry. Power machinery housed in a factory needed not workers but fast-moving water to drive the main wheel. America had an abundance of swift rivers. Steam engines mounted in boats made those rivers into highways, whatever the wind or current. America had no shortage of fuel for such engines. Canals could make the connections between river systems and thus bring communities into touch. In short, invention was the key, and in an age of invention what better spur could one find to patriotic ingenuity than the needs of American manufactures? John Fitch's steam-driven boat, the Middlesex Canal linking the Charles and the Merrimack, and Oliver Evans's fully automatic, water-powered grist mill supplied some of the evidence for this argument in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
From the outset, then, machine technology formed the foundation of American manufactures, and the strains that industry placed on the Republic's agrarian ideals became symbolically the interruption of the machine into the garden. The symbol is cultural, which is to say that all Americans have had to deal with the strains. Some few throughout our history have sought to avoid them by retreating to the wilderness where the machine cannot go or by throwing a fence up around the garden. However satisfying personally, that response denies the fact of a pervasive technology and hence leads to social irrelevance and political impotence. The writers whom Leo Marx has studied all faced the strains and tried either to learn to live with them or to relieve them. That is, Americans by and large have responded to technology in two ways. Some have treated the machine's interruption as an interruption and have explored critically its effect on the middle landscape, with an eye toward correcting or at least minimizing the damage. Often the exploration has led to no means of accommodation, either because the interruption has seemed only temporary (as with Hawthorne or Thoreau) or because no real accommodation seemed possible (as in Twain's Huckleberry Finn).
Other writers and thinkers have, as it were, ridden with the machine into the garden and, conscious of the sensibilities of those already there, have sought accommodation either by arguing that the machine belonged properly to the garden or by proclaiming a new middle landscape altogether, one defined by the machine. For example, Chapter 14 of Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi expounds "The Rank and Dignity of Pi1oting", opening with a disquisition on the perfect freedom of the pilot, "the only unfettered and entirely independent human being that lived in the earth." Everyone else served someone and had to strike a compromise with that master: kings with parliaments and people, parliaments with constituencies, editors with readers, clergymen with parishioners. "In truth every man and woman and child has a master, and worries and frets in servitude; but, in the day I write of, the Mississippi pilot had none. Once cast off and headed up or down the river, the boat was under the sole, unquestioned command of the pilot.
He could do with her exactly as he pleased, run her when and whither he chose, and tie her up to the bank whenever his judgment said that that course was best. His movements were entirely free; he consulted no one, he received commands from nobody, he promptly resented even the merest suggestions. Indeed the law of the United States forbade him to listen to commands and suggestions, rightly considering that the pilot necessarily knew better how to handle the boat than anybody could tell him. (Bantam Pathfinder ed., l963, pp.70-71)The steamboat underway, and so carrying out its technological function, became a "middle landscape". It freed its pilot from the constraints of an overwrought civilization, one in which the fabric of society knitted everyone to someone else out dropped stitches of truth.
[T]he editor ... must ... be content to utter only half to two-thirds of his mind, . no clergyman . . . may speak the whole truth. We write frankly and fearlessly, but then we 'modify' before we print.The pilot was enabled by art on the middle landscape of the riverboat to know his mind and to speak it freely. And for all the autocracy in that unfettered freedom, for all that the pilot showed no embarrassment in the presence of foreign princes because they were "in his own grade of life," Twain saw the pilot as an essentially democratic figure, the yeoman of the pilothouse, if you will.
The freedom had its limits, too. The pilot enjoyed his authority and his complete discretion precisely because the river's wildness always threatened to slip the taming harness of the steam paddles and turn on the tamer. As wild nature, the river counterpoised the shore's civilization; the Mississippi's savagery lay just beneath the surface or just beyond the bend. The boat, balanced between the extremes, made the pilot's life possible as long as he respected the dangers of the wild and employed his art with care.
Occasionally, the world of human contrivance intrudes on the pilot's pastoral, as it does just before Twain obtains his certificate and leaves the river for twenty-one years. Pilots will race, either with each other or with the clock, and boilers will explode. The glow of a boat burning unseen around the next bend lights up the horizon of young Twain's pastoral scene, and he is reminded of the fearsome death of his friend Henry that "I too am in Arcadia".
The pastoral image of Life on the Mississippi discussed here is not the one Leo Marx chooses from the same work. Jut it exemplifies his theme both directly and indirectly. A pastoral locale in itself, the steamboat becomes an incursion on another locale when it severs the end of Huck Finn's raft. Twain' s middle landscape shifted back toward nature over his career. The promise of a benign, ennobling technology inherent in the rank and dignity of the pilot became ultimately the promise of mass death in the undignified ambition of the Connecticut Yankee.
Especially in this century, we have sought to relocate our democratic ideals in technology itself as a middle landscape --the modern suburb is the image that flashes to mind. The effort has had at best mixed results, since it contains an inherent difficulty. The agrarian landscape scattered people about, fostering personal autonomy, local democracy, and tight communities. Technology comes in large, connected systems; as a landscape it fosters social dependence, central administration, and mass populations. I mean this as an empirical judgment rather than a logical proposition and should like to offer some examples.
In 1821 a group of Boston businessmen purchased several acres of farmland in East Chelmsford on the Merrimack River. In 1832 they opened on that land, now renamed after one of their recently deceased number, Francis Cabot Lowell, the first factory of the Merrimack Manufacturing Company, which was to be an experiment in republican virtues. As described in John F. Kasson's Civilizing the Machine, the owners knew what they did not want. They did not want the "dark, Satanic mills" of Manchester, Birmingham, and the other industrial cities of England, with their miserable workers shuffling between fetid workroom and stench-filled hovel. They did not want a permanent, impoverished urban proletariat, as it would soon come to be called. So they built their factories on open land, powered them by water, and most importantly hired as workers young girls from New England farms. The girls were to come to work for a year or two only, to earn a dowry, to send a brother through school, or perhaps just to escape the drudgery of farm life. The Company promised them and their families a total environment conducive to republican virtues: clean, well aired workrooms; supervised dormitories; church and polite society on Sundays. Technology made it possible. The new textile machinery demanded neither strength nor skill, but only attention and resupply.
For a decade or two, self-interest and economic conditions meshed with social purpose to make Lowell a model of enlightened industrialization. But as the economy began to falter in the 1840s, competition required increases in productivity attainable only by more work for less money. The girls, who had been growing less docile about their totally controlled lives, began to organize as a work force. But their bargaining power was diminished by the now plentiful labor of Irish immigrants. Gradually, the men and their families supplanted the girls, the dormitories gave way to tenements, and Lowell became a mill town.
At just about the time this transition was taking place, the railroads began to spread out over the east coast. Daniel Webster was only one of who saw in this new technology a boon to American ideals. The railroad brought the farmer's produce to market and in turn brought the market to the farmer. It widened and united the middle landscape. A Currier and Ives print showed it opening the way to the frontier, bringing civilization in tow. After the Civil War, the railroad spanned the continent and joined together everything in between. It made possible, so its advocates argued, a nation of democratic, independent, small communities thriving by their access to industry yet isolated from its destructive effects.
The story of the railroad and the robber barons is well known and need not concern us here. Rather, as contemporary critics toward the end of the nineteenth century pointed out, the nature of the railroad itself, rather than its mismanagement or exploitation, posed a threat to the democratic ideals it supposedly fostered. For the railroads --and the telegraph that grew with them-- all led to the big cities. Indeed, in the case of Chicago and others, the railroad created the cities as centers of processing and marketing. Those who controlled the railroads controlled the markets. Moreover, as market competition demanded a level of farm productivity attainable only through machine technology (e.g. McCormick's reaper and, later, the steam tractor), it was again the railroad that brought that technology out from the cities onto the land. Viewed initially as a vehicle of local rural independence, mail-order distribution of consumer goods (Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck) acted ultimately to centralize and concentrate economic and political power in urban corporations.
The automobile led to the same ambivalent results. Perhaps against the backdrop of the labor disputes of the late 1930s and mid-'40s it is difficult to think of Henry Ford as motivated by democratic ideals, but it would be a serious mistake to underestimate their influence on him during the early l900s. For the spectacular growth of the automotive industry rested on Ford's concept of the $500 car. Such an automobile would be financially accessible to small businessmen and prosperous farmers, but to attract them it would have to serve their needs. The Model T, introduced in 1908, matched in its characteristics those of its intended customers (and Ford surely meant the compliment): tough, flexible, reliable, independent. Its three-point suspension and high axles carried it over rocky trails; its light weight allowed it to be lifted out of ditches; its vanadium steel crankcase, crankshaft, and gears made it resilient; its planetary transmission enabled anyone to drive it; its simplicity (and the availability of spare parts) permitted the owner (especially the mechanically adept farmer) to repair it; its versatility made it a touring car, a truck, a skimobile, or a portable power plant. The Model T was designed and built for rural and small-town America. Ford meant it to support that America, from which he drew his own values of independence and enterprise; he continued to build the T until 1927, agreeing only at the point of corporate disaster to shift to a design that more closely fit a new America that he had unwittingly created. For beyond his or anyone's expectations, he put this country on wheels; by 1924 there were enough T's registered in the United States to carry every man, woman, and child at one time. (Today  a population of 250 million owns over 100 million cars.)
The secret was mass production. Allowing himself only $100 margin on each car, Ford sought profit in productivity and productivity in technology. He built only one model; each component had only one version (bodies were added separately). To produce in the requisite volume, Ford worked his way between 1908 and 1913 to the full-scale assembly line comprising not only the familiar moving belt of chassis but more importantly lines and clusters of specially designed machines turning out engines, transmissions, wheels, etc. to feed that belt. In the first year of assembly-line production, Ford stepped from 20,000 units to 250,000; by 1917 he was up to 750,000. As production went up, the price came down; by 1924 it reached a low of $290. At that price it found a market Ford had not anticipated: his own workers.
In January 1914, concerned about high turnover among those workers, Ford decided, literally overnight, to award them part of the previous year's $27 million in profits as a bonus distributed over the year and to make such a bonus a regular item in future budgets. In practice, that meant an immediate average raise from the industry's standard of $2.30 to $5 a day, or roughly $1500 a year. The raise was not entirely automatic. Ford felt that such an income entailed a standard of living to which some workers had to be trained. Under the direction of John R. Lee, the company's Sociology Department (as the Personnel Office was called) prodded workers toward the ideal of a single nuclear family living in a single family dwelling (with no boarders) tended by a non-working mother whose children attended school. Ford workers were expected to maintain bank accounts, to purchase the domestic products of technology, to learn to speak English if they did not already, and to pursue an American way of life based on the industrial virtues of sobriety, punctuality, and reliability. To automotive workers in Detroit in 1914, all this spelled the American dream of dignity and prosperity for all. Technology had made it possible.
Yet it had its countervailing price. The prosperity was based on an intricate organization of production that eliminated any need or room for judgment by the worker. The machines did the work; for the most part workers simply moved pieces into position. There was no job on the line that a worker could not learn in a day or two, and except for the machine shop no area of production required skilled craftsmen. Independence and dignity enjoyed outside the factory all but disappeared inside it. Moreover, the level of Ford production spelled the end of the small, independent entrepreneur, at least in the mass market. Like other pioneers Ford had been able to start in 1904 for about $25,000 cash; he financed all subsequent expansion out of his own profits. By the time he was through, nothing short of some $5 million of starting capital would suffice to compete with him. To provide personal transportation it democratic quantity required immense corporate concentration.
In a classic of American sociology Robert S. and Helen Lynd explored the effects of assembly-line production, of inexpensive consumer goods, and of the automobile on the social institutions of Muncie, Indiana, which in publishing their results in 1927 they rechristened Middletown. What their admittedly Marxist eyes saw behind a facade of material prosperity was a town split along class lines, with political and social control firmly in the hands of its businessmen and professionals. The workers had steadily lost their sense of community and of political force since the turn of the century, when living together in a neighborhood close by the factories and organized in various trade unions they had formed an integral part of the town's life and leadership. The Lynds placed the blame squarely on the technology that had provided the prosperity: "It's 'high-speed steel' and Ford cars that's ruined the machinists' union" says an old machinist. The first item points to Frederick Winslow Taylor and his methods of efficient shop organization, of which the best, though unwitting example was Ford's shops. The application of Taylor's Principles of Scientific Management (1911) undercut the leadership of the craft unions by reducing the need for craftsmen. Ford cars spread the workforce throughout the environs of Middletown and took them to second jobs elsewhere in the county. What they gained in mobility as individuals, they lost in solidarity as a class.
The Lynds's political reading of Middletown is less important here than their unconscious evocation of a new middle landscape. As a reference point for the democratic values they thought Middletown's workers had lost, they pointed back not to an agrarian order but to an industrial one. The machinist and his union embodied the ideals of personal autonomy and local self-determination that Jefferson had found in the farmer. The garden into which the Model T had intruded was an urban garden, an industrial system that had drawn a balance between poverty and oversupply and that had fostered democratic community.
That new landscape, however, was of a different order from the old. The old looked to nature as a restorative against over-ingenious human contrivance. The new pitted one contrivance against another, benign technology against malign, thus denying a priori what recent scholars of quite varied political stripe have commonly identified as the essential feature of all technologies: they come in large packages known as "systems". In a superb study titled Autonomous Technology: Technics Out of Control as a Theme of Political Thought, Langdon Winner, formerly of MIT's STS program, sets out as the characteristics of technological systems their artificiality, rationality, size and concentration, division into components, the complex interconnection of those components, the resulting interdependence among them (an interdependence that is hierarchical rather than democratic -- we are all part of the Bell System, but it doesn't need any one of us in particular), and hence susceptibility to apraxia (breakdown of coordination through failure of a component). In short, all technological systems centralize, concentrate, and interconnect the goods, services, and people they comprise.
As James W. Carey and John J. Quirk
pointed out in an article in The American Scholar in 1970, a new
technological landscape lies inherent in what they call "The Mythos of
the Electronic Revolution", and it embodies the same contradictory ideals.
The American character since early in its history has been pulled in two
directions and has been unable to commit itself to either. That first
directions is togward the dream of the American subline, to a virgin
land and a life of peace, serenity and community. The second directions
is the faustian and rapacious, the desire for power, wealth,
productivity and universal knowledge, the urge to dominate nature and
remake the world. In many ways the American tragedy is that we want both
these things and never seem to respect the contradiction between them.
The dream of the American sublime has never been used to block the dream
of American power primarily because the rhetoric of the technological
sublime has collapsed the distinctions between these two directions.
As a result, American has allowed technology and the urge for power
unrestricted room for expansion. Americans have also tried to insulate
themselves from technology's more destructive consequences by
projecting a zone, a spatial place, outside of and independent of the
destructiveness of industrial society. Nature, the first such zone, was
naively seen as impervious to the force of machine technology. It
remained the middle landscape, the zone of peace and harmony. When
nature fell before the powerhouse center of society, the zones were made
metaphysical: new tribes, world communities, omega points, cosmic states
The theme of the electronic revolution today continues ancient attitudes
of American popular culture and serves up contradictory messages to the
American public. For American communications and electrical goods
industries, the rhetoric of the electronic revolution provides a
rationalization of the status quo and a legitimation of the
purposes of the new technology. For the mass public, the rhetoric
resuscitates those themes of a sublimity that contain the contradictory
desires of the American imagination.
Electricity and then electronics has served writers from Lewis Mumford
in the 1930s to Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s as the technology for a new
middle landscape. The hydroelectric plant feeding a vast power grid electrifying
rural America would keep American down on the farm while bringing them
the benefits of modern technology. Nestled unobtrusively in the landscape,
producing clean energy, it offered a vehicle for returning to the American
ideal of local and regional autonomy and community. That has scarcely been
Then we heard that radio and television would foster a national community, indeed a "global village" (note the juxtaposition of ideals in what can only be an oxymoron). The democratization of information and entertainment would again facilitate decentralization and local autonomy; communication could overcome distance. But on many counts to think that overcoming distance is the problem is to take an instrumental approach to an essential question. Consider, for example, the middle landscape implicit in the electronic wonder of the 1980s. Through cable TV with facilities for viewer response --a system in which entertainment technology interconnects with microelectronics and the optical-fibre technics of the telephone system--Americans were promised a return to "town-meeting politics", now on a national scale.(1) Such a system by its nature has an immediate and wholly undesirable corollary: through our responses we would quickly characterize ourselves for social and political analysts, who then could advise officeholders, candidates, and advertisers which of several simultaneously broadcast versions of a talk or pitch to send into our particular home.
But, putting that possible misuse and others aside for a moment, consider the central claim. What is a "town meeting"? It is a gathering of a small community of people who live together, work together, love and fight each other within the sane local limits over a relatively long period of time. They communicate with one another in ways only friends and familiar enemies can, ways that transcend words, for they carry into their meetings their personal and communal history, known to all. That is what lies behind the politically evocative image of the town meeting; that is what makes the meeting in our eyes the ideal forum for direct democracy and the proper vehicle for representative democracy.
How could any nationally broadcast discussion, choosing responses by statistical sampling and analytical models of representation --i.e. a process requiring precisely the artificiality, analytic rationality, size, concentration, etc. of a technological system-- emulate in any significant way the American town meeting? It could not, but whether it could is not really the question, anyway. The town meeting is a means to an end. It is the end, and not the means, that needs reexamination in the light of a new sociotechnical system. I don't want here to attack or defend any particular political system. Rather, I want to point to the language --and through it to the conceptualization-- used to discuss the promise of cable TV. We hear America's agrarian, local, independent, democratic ideal united with an urban, national, interdependent technological system in an electronic middle landscape.
And the search goes on.
1. In the mid-1990s, the form of that interconnection has changed with the Internet and the World Wide Web, but the promise remains the same. So too do the problems: "cookies" return to the Web information about the tastes and choices of the client, which the server can then use to tailor responses to the client's future requests. The fundamental misunderstanding remains exactly the same: a "virtual" town meeting verges on the oxymoronic.