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After 1776, the former American colonies began to reimagine themselves as a unified, self-created community. Technologies had an important role in the resulting national narratives, and a few technologies assumed particular prominence. Among these were the axe, the mill, the canal, the railroad, and the irrigation dam. In this book David Nye explores the stories that clustered around these technologies. In doing so, he rediscovers an American story of origins, with America conceived as a second creation built in harmony with God's first creation. While mainstream Americans constructed technological foundation stories to explain their place in the New World, however, marginalized groups told other stories of destruction and loss. Native Americans protested the loss of their forests, fishermen resisted the construction of dams, and early environmentalists feared the exhaustionof resources. A water mill could be viewed as the kernel of a new community or as a new way to exploit labor. If passengers comprehended railways as part of a larger narrative about American expansion and progress, many farmers attacked railroad land grants. To explore these contradictions, Nye devotes alternating chapters to narratives of second creation and to narratives of those who rejected it. Nye draws on popular literature, speeches, advertisements, paintings, and many other media to create a history of American foundation stories. He shows how these stories were revised periodically, as social and economic conditions changed, without ever erasing the earlier stories entirely. The image of the isolated frontier family carving a homestead out of the wilderness with an axe persists to this day, alongside later images and narratives. In the book's conclusion, Nye considers the relation between these earlier stories and such later American developments as the conservation movement, narratives of environmental recovery, and the idealization of wilderness.
The assembly line was invented in 1913 and has been in continuous operation eversince. It is the most familiar form of mass production. Both praised as a boon to workers andcondemned for exploiting them, it has been celebrated and satirized. (We can still picture Chaplin'slittle tramp trying to keep up with a factory conveyor belt. ) In America's AssemblyLine, David Nye examines the industrial innovation that made the United States productiveand wealthy in the twentieth century. The assembly line -- developed at the FordMotor Company in 1913 for the mass production of Model Ts -- first created and then served anexpanding mass market. It inspired fiction, paintings, photographs, comedy, cafeteria layouts, andcookie-cutter suburban housing. It also transformed industrial labor and provoked strikes and uniondrives. During World War II and the Cold War, it was often seen as a bastion of liberty andcapitalism. By 1980, Japan had reinvented the assembly line as a system of "leanmanufacturing"; American industry reluctantly adopted this new approach. Nye describes thisevolution and the new global landscape of increasingly automated factories, with fewer industrialjobs in America and questionable working conditions in developing countries. A century after Ford'spioneering innovation, the assembly line continues to evolve toward more sustainablemanufacturing.
Technology matters, writes David Nye, because it is inseparable from being human. We have used tools for more than 100,000 years, and their central purpose has not always been to provide necessities. People excel at using old tools to solve new problems and at inventing new tools for more elegant solutions to old tasks. Perhaps this is because we are intimate with devices and machines from an early age--as children, we play with technological toys: trucks, cars, stoves, telephones, model railroads, Playstations. Through these machines we imagine ourselves into a creative relationship with the world. As adults, we retain this technological playfulness with gadgets and appliances--Blackberries, cell phones, GPS navigation systems in our cars. We use technology to shape our world, yet we think little about the choices we are making. In "Technology Matters," Nye tackles ten central questions about our relationship to technology, integrating a half-century of ideas about technology into ten cogent and concise chapters, with wide-ranging historical examples from many societies. He asks: Can we define technology? Does technology shape us, or do we shape it? Is technology inevitable or unpredictable? (Why do experts often fail to get it right?) How do historians understand it? Are we using modern technology to create cultural uniformity, or diversity? To create abundance, or an ecological crisis? To destroy jobs or create new opportunities? Should "the market" choose our technologies? Do advanced technologies make us more secure, or escalate dangers? Does ubiquitous technology expand our mental horizons, or encapsulate us in artifice? These large questions may have no final answers yet, but weneed to wrestle with them--to live them, so that we may, as Rilke puts it, "live along some distant day into the answers."
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