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Buffeted by Change

Does technology bring progress, or a rolling apocalypse?
December 17, 2013

In 1890, living in Samoa, Robert Louis Stevenson sent a letter to fellow writer Henry James, explaining a momentous decision: disillusioned with a rapidly changing, technologically driven world, he intended to remain in “exile” on the island. “I was never fond of towns, houses, society or (it seems) civilisation,” Stevenson wrote. He died in Samoa four years later.

book The Triumph of Human Empire
The Triumph of Human Empire
By Rosalind Williams
University of Chicago Press, 2013, $30

Stevenson, who grew up in a family of Scottish civil engineers, was no reactionary technophobe. But he was appalled by the social consequences of technology he witnessed on his travels. Large modern ships and trains, for example, led to mass migration in squalid conditions and transported diseases that wiped out Pacific cultures.

This kind of uneasy response to technology’s consequences is the subject of Rosalind Williams’s new book, The Triumph of Human Empire: Verne, Morris, and Stevenson at the End of the World. The book examines the ambivalence about technology felt by three famous authors—Stevenson (1850–1894), Jules Verne (1828–1905), and William Morris (1834–1896). All three embraced some innovations while bemoaning the large-scale effects of technology.

Verne loved new forms of travel, such as submarines, but lamented that unexplored reaches of the earth were disappearing; Morris hated the way industrial growth erased nature and wiped out traces of the older human past.

“There is a deep belief in progress of science and technologies that you can see in the 19th century, and is extremely powerful today, but there is also the anxiety that comes from that belief,” says ­Williams, a professor in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society (STS) and winner of the 2013 Leonardo da Vinci Medal, the highest honor awarded by the Society for the History of Technology.

Verne responded to the anxiety by writing fiction in which technology frees people to explore but ultimately traps them in their vehicles of exploration. ­Morris, a renowned poet, started translating Icelandic sagas to immerse himself in a society more pristine than Britain’s; he also explored ways for his decorative arts firm to preserve the distinctive techniques and natural materials of artisanal crafts to combat the onslaught of low-quality mass-made objects.

“All of them had to do some sort of pivot,” Williams says. “They grew up in one world and had to realize they were living in another one.” They also experienced technological change not as a clean break with the past, Williams writes, but as an ongoing erosion of their cherished worlds.

“I think this shows two coexisting visions of history,” she says. “One is history as progress, but there is also this other vision of history as rolling apocalypse. A lot of us are living with that ambiguity today.” Such changes, she adds, are of our own making; we may speak of “technology” and “globalization” as autonomous, inevitable forces, but they result from human choices and actions. The danger, she says, “is in attributing everything to technology rather than asking: Who are the people at work here?”

Recent Books from the MIT Community

Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities
By Craig Steven Wilder, professor of history, Bloomsbury Press, 2013, $19.99

Production in the Innovation Economy
Edited by Richard M. Locke, professor of political science and management, and Rachel Wellhausen, PhD ’12, MIT Press, 2014, $35

Lonely Ideas: Can Russia Compete?
By Loren Graham, professor emeritus of the history of science, MIT Press, 2013, $27.95

Taming Tibet: Landscape Transformation and the Gift of Chinese Development
By Emily T. Yeh ’93, SM ’95, Cornell University Press, 2013, $26.95

The Real Estate Solar Investment Handbook: A Commercial Property Guide to Managing Risks and Maximizing Returns
By Aaron Binkley, SM ’07, Routledge, 2013, $64.95

Phantasmal Media: An Approach to Imagination, Computation, and Expression
By D. Fox Harrell, associate professor of digital media, MIT Press, 2013, $40

Hierarchical Capitalism in Latin America: Business, Labor, and the Challenges of Equitable Development
By Ben Ross Schneider, professor of political science, Cambridge University Press, 2013, $27.99

Sungbook: A Collection of Korean Short Stories
By Suil Kang, SM ’86, Branden Books, 2013, $15.95

Please submit titles of books and papers published in 2013 and 2014 to be considered for this column.

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