Friedel, Robert. A Culture of Improvement: Technology and the Western Millennium. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2007. Pp. x + 588. Hardcover, $42.95.
John von Neumann’s observation “Technological possibilities are irresistible to man” sums up a central idea: someone will be compelled to improve whatever can be improved. The domain of the exposition extends from an English plowman in the year 1000 or so who exclaims “O dear master, I work very hard: …” to the cloning of Dolly. The book’s focus is strongly on Europe and North America. Technological leadership seems to migrate among countries, from Italy to Germany to Britain to the United States, although the appearance of such movement may be an artifact of the presentation. Friedel mentions by name the traditionally recognized innovators but also points out that technological change is generally the integral of many small improvements. It is striking how much research and development was supported by the military, especially in recent years when expenses became enormous. Although economists might disagree, it appears the motive for inventions were not generally an attempt to become rich but an effort to save work, which may be equivalent to increasing profit. A very important motivator is the satisfaction of solving a problem—as von Neumann points out above. Irresistible urges, to innovate or otherwise, do not always lead to socially beneficial results. Eugenics, discussed at some length, is one outcome of this drive to improve. Friedel indicates that the climate of opinion about technology has changed in the last several decades, with heightened concern about consequences, vide Environmental Impact Statements. (An Atlantic Monthly article a year or so ago asks “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”) The book, though, makes only passing reference to the Luddites. I enjoyed most the descriptions of the technology and the people. A technological example is how spinning and weaving moved out of households into factories and in the process became “Men’s Work,” rather than “Women’s Work.” A people example is the last statement by the last astronaut on leaving the moon: “Okay, Jack, let’s get this mutha outta here.” The questions of why technology changes and whether the change is controllable will probably remain with me longer though than the particulars of the history. This is a very satisfying book.