I have been doing some “design thinking” (to use the currently fashionable term) which has led to an essay in New Geographies 09 (“Posthuman”) published out of the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 2017. It picks up some of the themes in my 1993 essay “Cultural Origins and Environmental Implications of Large Technological Systems,” which you can find elsewhere on this website. “Redesigning Design” is difficult (impossible?) to find online, so here is a copy that is very close to the published version.

Rosalind Williams
14 March 2017

Writing in 1994, in his overview of 20th century history titled The Age of Extremes, Eric Hobsbawm notes a proliferation of words beginning with “post”:

“When people face what nothing in the past has prepared them for they grope for words to name the unknown, even when they can neither define nor understand it. Some time in the third quarter of the century we can see this process at work among the intellectuals of the West. The keyword was the small preposition “after,” generally used in its latinate form “post” as a prefix to any of the numerous terms which had, for some generations, been used to mark out the mental territory of twentieth-century life.”

He lists examples: post-industrial, post-imperial, post-modern, and post-structuralist, among others. Adding the prefix “post” to familiar words, Hobsbawm concludes, signifies an event of consciousness:

“In this way the greatest and most dramatic, rapid and universal transformation in human history entered the consciousness of reflective minds who lived through it.”

The terms posthuman and posthumanism (with or without a hyphen) were just coming into fashion then. They have become much more common since and should be added to Hobsbawm’s list. Their meaning is cloudy, because essentially all these post-combinations are saying “I can’t find words for what is going on.” What is this “greatest and most dramatic, rapid and universal transformation in human history”? This question, and not the specific term posthuman, will be the focus of attention here.

In the whole middle part of The Age of Extremes, Hobsbawm explains that for him the transformation is essentially the “death of the peasantry” in the third quarter of the twentieth century, when the Neolithic era, characterized by the harvesting of land and sea, ceased to be the material and cultural foundations of human life. Many other historians have defined the transformation as the vast expansion of productivity in the Industrial Revolution beginning in the late 1700s, extending through the Second Industrial Revolution and continuing in the still ongoing Information Revolution.

More recently, other historians have borrowed terms and concepts from geology to describe the transformation as the advent of the age of the Anthropocene. This label may be seen as a bold act of disciplinary border-crossing—or as an admission that traditional historical language is inadequate to express new historical events. On the other hand, the language of natural history is inadequate for describing human history. Its time constants are far too sweeping to fit the temporal scales of human experience. The evidence it seeks in stratigraphic and other geological markers rarely register struggles for power within the human species, much less the role of human consciousness in co-evolving with its habitat.

All these ways of looking at “the greatest and most dramatic, rapid and universal transformation in human history” have this in common: they describe its essential feature as the creation of a new habitat for human existence. Since the emergence of the species, non-human nature has been the ground of human life. The relationship between figure and ground—or, better yet, figure and surround–has shifted so that now we dwell in a hybrid world, in which human-generated technologies and the given world are inextricably mixed. In this new habitat, humans start processes—biological, meteorological, and radioactive, to take some examples–that would never have happened on the planet without us. We are not the only agent in our habitat, but we are the primary agent. The substance of this great transformation is humankind’s creation of a new habitat, which humans dominate but do not control.

How do we talk and therefore think about this as a historical event? Usually we do so from the outside, using as evidence things and systems we have made and continue to make and operate: plows, mills, knives, steamboats, photographs, computers, highways, spacecraft, and so much more. The re-creation of our habitat through making and using all these material things has been a process taking place in many dimensions with many complicated feedback loops. At moments, however, these processes crystallize into events that make us realize what is happening over large stretches of time and space. These are events that, in Hobsbawm’s words, show that the transformation of the human habitat has “entered the consciousness of reflective minds who lived through it.”

Such an event of consciousness took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Within the space of a few decades, the great, centuries-long project of the modern West–the mapping of the planet, as “mapping” was defined by the mappers themselves–drew to a close. World atlases of the time show that just a few areas of the globe (most notably the Poles and the interior of Africa) had not been surveyed. The map implicitly proclaimed that soon these “empty places” would soon be filled in. The notable features of the lands and waters of the globe would be known. The great project of the Renaissance, the surveying of the entire planet, would soon be accomplished.

Americans learn about this event as “the closing of the frontier” (famously described as such by Frederick Jackson Turner in an 1893 lecture to the American Historical Association). It was not just the American frontier that would soon be gone, however. Everywhere around the globe, lightly populated lands were being brought into markets, technological systems, and political oversight. This process involved more than a “scramble for Africa.” It brought a speedy and final end to indigenous peoples all over the world, in a relentless genocide due to a revolution in firearms. The mapping of the planet went with a global invasion of Western civilization, so-called.

But if mapping and conquest of the planet was regarded as a great triumph by many Westerners, it was also a source of anguish for them. Henceforth there would be precious little space available for adventure, discard, refuge, and experimentation. More and more would the planet be dominated by human desires, needs, and actions. The end of the age of exploration opened a new age of geography, when the world is both known and closed.

This event of consciousness is the context—not a cause, but an important element of historical context–for the emergence of design as a key word and concept. Design is something humans have done since the Neolithic. (Indeed, the very concept of a “new stone age” is based on the design of stone tools.) The end of the world frontier, however, raised consciousness of the opportunities and necessities of better organizing the known world to fit human needs and desires. What is new in the late nineteenth century is the emergence of design as a conscious project, with articulated goals and methods, offering new ways to explore and take control in a new habitat.

As the age of exploration was drawing to a close, the word and concept of design changed dramatically. Before then, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, neither as a verb nor a noun did design have anything like its current meaning. As a verb, from its first appearance around 1400, design had the meaning of appointing, nominating, or designating. Later on the verb could refer to planning or intending, but only in the mind. As a noun, design appeared in the late 1500s, but again referring to a plan conceived in the mind. The use of the word as having something to do with a sketch, drawing, or physical plan emerged only in the late 1600s. And only in the mid to late nineteenth century did design assumes its current meaning, in referring to the arts of drawing or sketching, the processes of modeling and constructing, and planning features of an object in conformity with aesthetic or functional criteria.

At the same time new professions, arts, manufactures, and markets emerged that proclaimed themselves to be organized around design. The sequence is especially notable in Britain, where there is a clear and striking series of episodes: the role of Owen Jones in the decoration of the London Great Exhibition of 1851, the influence of John Ruskin, the work and ideas of the Pre-Raphaelites, the career of William Morris, and the founding of the Century Guild and of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. In the later nineteenth century this stream of events broadened into the Arts and Crafts movement, and eventually Art Nouveau, as practices, ideals, and forms spread to the Continent and the Americas and beyond.

This is not the place to follow this story into the twentieth century and twenty-first centuries. It is enough here to point out that the rise of design consciousness has continued to expand and intensify to this day. One of the markers would surely be the founding of the Harvard Graduate School of Design under that name in 1936. Another might be the even more recent convergence of engineering education and design education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which in 2016 began a new Minor in Design, and which has, in the words of its current president, “taken steps to promote design thinking across the Institute through the lens of problem setting.”

What is consistent in all this history is the tone of celebration for the brave new world of design, with its open frontiers and boundless opportunities. This tone is expressed in the statement of purpose for this journal, New Geographies, which begins:

“The journal…aims to examine the emergence of the geographic—a new but for the most part latent paradigm in design today—to articulate it and bring it to bear effectively on the agency of design…. It is time to consider the expanded agency of the designer.”

The editors of New Geographies want the journal to ask how “design practices can have a more active and transformative impact on the forces that shape contemporary urban realities.”

Thinking of design in such ambitious terms comes from awareness that human domination of the planet requires and offers a much greater role for human design. What challenges, and what opportunities! But here too the sense of triumph is muted by a sense of anxiety, even anguish. As the scope of design keeps expanding and evolving, it inevitably reduces the scope of the undesigned world as a source of inspiration and knowledge. Inevitably, too, the expanded agency of the designer may prove unmatched to the power of historical forces such as those that “shape contemporary urban realities.”

Let us look at some of the complexities of this new design consciousness by focusing on William Morris (1834-1896), arguably the individual most responsible for its rise of design in the nineteenth century, both in theory and in practice. No one presents a broader, deeper vision for the future of design—but no one better understands its limits.


In 1883, when Morris filled out his membership card for the Democratic Federation (later the Socialist Democratic Federation), he identified himself in one word: “Designer.” Twenty years earlier, when he had started out in life upon graduating from Oxford, he had taken an apprenticeship in an architectural firm. It lasted only nine months, partly because he was tempermentally unsuited the tedium of office work, and partly because he had higher ambitions. Morris had discovered Ruskin while a student at Oxford. Towards the end of a revelatory tour of Gothic cathedrals in northern France, on the docks of Le Havre, Morris and his travel companion and friend Edward Burne-Jones vowed to dedicate themselves to “a life of art.”

For Burne-Jones, art meant painting. For Morris, it was not so clear what his art would be. Over time, under the influence of Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, and his own defiant spirit, Morris was increasingly drawn to the “lesser arts” of decoration, committing himself to narrowing the distinction between them and the fine arts. He would later write, in an essay titled “The Lesser Arts,” that he wanted to “help bring forth decorative, noble, popular art.” Such art would sanctify the human-built world:

“That art will make our streets as beautiful as the woods, as elevating as the mountain-sides: it will be a pleasure and a rest, and not a weight upon the spirits to come from the open country into a town… ”

The artistic brotherhood slowly evolved into a creative collective. In 1861, along with six others of this group, Morris founded a decorative arts company that became known simply as The Firm. At the outset, the Firm primarily executed commissions for wall paintings and papers, stained glass, metalwork, jewelry, sculpture, embroidery and furniture. The painters among the group were commissioned to produce drawings for stained-glass windows or tapestries. Morris’s architect friend Philip Webb designed sturdy simple furniture. The Firm used flexible production methods for a specialty market. Some items were made by hand; other items were produced by machinery in the Firm’s workshops or were outsourced to other manufacturers.

As the business grew, the Firm moved to various locations in and around London. Eventually in 1875 Morris took over sole management of what became Morris & Co. He was the epitome of the hands-on manager. In developing new lines of business, and also for his own pleasure, he took up one art after another, teaching himself oil painting, calligraphy, embroidery, and illumination, among others. As a more or less conventional designer, his strongest talent lay in creating patterns for two-dimensional products like fabrics, carpets, and wallpapers. He would hand-sketch the patterns, adding to the side directions for the colors of each detail of the drawing, identifying the threads or paints by number.

But for Morris the work of design extended to all steps of the manufacturing process. Since most of the fabric and paper production was outsourced, he worked closely with the manufacturers to make sure the dyes were true and that they were correctly adjusted to the different materials being printed. He got interested in dyeing wools for tapestries and carpets. He researched the water flow around the mill sites to be sure they would be adequate handling the dyeing vats as well as running the machinery. Morris became interested in weaving techniques displaced by those of mass production. Eventually he installed a loom in his bedroom at his London home, where he enjoyed the rhythmic labor of handweaving.

For Morris, then, the work of design included design of the labor process. When he came out publicly as a socialist in an Oxford lecture in 1883–with Ruskin in the chair, and in shock to hear Morris’s declaration of himself as a revolutionary–the leading theme his lecture was “art is man’s expression of his joy in labor.” When the lecture was printed as a pamphlet, that theme was set forth boldly, on a separate line, in capital letters. The enemy of joy in labor, Morris declared, was not machinery but class division: not the “tangible steel and brass machine…but the great intangible machine of commercial tyranny, which oppresses the lives of all of us.” The Firm was his design for a business that would bring some pleasure to worker and consumer alike within the context of the greater machine of capitalism.

For Morris there was no contradiction between being an owner-manufacturer and a socialist. But there are contradictions between his “desire to produce beautiful things,” which engaged him as a designer-manufacturer, and his other two strongest desires: love for the non-human life of the earth and for human history. This tension is expressed most clearly in one of his best-known essays, “How I Became a Socialist,” written in 1894 at the request of the editor of the periodical Justice. In it Morris declares, “Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things, the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization.” He then goes on to describe how downcast he felt before his “conversion” to socialism because “modern civilization” seems to be destroying the two things he cares about most: “a deep love of the earth and the life on it, and a passion for the history of the past of mankind.”

The “beautiful things” that Morris designed were intended to provide connections, for him and for others, with the life of the earth and with the human past. But no matter how much they resist the oncoming tide of “modern civilization,” the tide keeps coming: it is stronger than the designs are. Over and over again, in his letters and talks, Morris expresses his dismay that junky buildings are encroaching everywhere; that cathedrals are being “restored” in false and ugly ways; that the forests and rivers are being channeled and trimmed into well-manicured parks; that wonderful stories of human heroism and devotion are being lost and forgotten; that a lovely city like Oxford is being cut up and developed. While Morris was not conventionally religious, he saw the world and the past as sacred precincts constantly being profaned.

Worse yet, to some extent the designer is complicit in this process. His or her designs may be beautiful, but they still have a role in the constant extension of human presence, in the constant acceleration of human conquest of the planet. They are inherently, unavoidably, associated with humankind and the present, rather than non-human nature and the past. Just as mapping the world devours the unknown, so does the activity of design devour the undesigned, which Morris continues to value as a resource for art and a source of consolation and perspective.

Biographer E.P. Thompson analyzes Morris’s turn to socialism as his way of reducing the anxieties, depression, even despair that had accumulated in him over the years. Upon joining the socialist party in 1883, Morris wrote to a fellow Socialist that

“I have not failed to be conscious that the art I have been helping to produce would fall with the death of a few of us who really care about it, that a reform in art which is founded on individualism must perish with the individuals who have set it going.”

Morris spent most of his time speaking, writing, and organizing for the party, in the firm conviction that socialism would shape the forces of history in a way that design alone was not capable of doing. By the later 1880s, however, his energies were increasingly consumed by internecine quarrels among the British left. Morris never ceased to be a socialist, but he came to realized that the revolution would not come in his lifetime, and might not come for a long time afterwards.

Thompson concludes that “we may see in William Morris not a late Victorian, nor even a `contemporary,’ but a new kind of sensibility.” It is a sensibility shaped by the triumph of human empire, where delight in new mastery over the planet goes along with countless, endless experiences of change and loss. Human connections with nature and history always seem fragile. The expectation that the world will provide a stable, predictable platform for design cannot be taken for granted. Morris was pugnacious and energetic, but he lived with a constant sense of loss and of foreboding. He was bravely realistic in accepting the fact, as he saw it, that he was fighting a losing battle.

The example of Morris suggests that design is not just a new profession, a new way of transforming the world through art, but also a new consciousness: reveling in the broad new possibilities for human powers, but also constantly sensible of the prospects for loss and of the limits to design. To have the whole planet, and maybe some distanced beyond, available to design, can seem a wonderful thing—or a frightening thing—or both at the same time. Is the fully known world really a welcoming one for human life? Is the fully designed world one that is truly comfortable for us? Can design be redesigned to address loss and instability, or does it inevitably, if unintentionally, contribute to the burdens of “modern civilization”?

Morris himself responded to such questions by extending his activities of design in new directions. In the spring of 1890, when anarchists and other factions drove his group of socialists out of the party, Morris responded by finding two new outlets for his “life of art.” He shifted the focus of his design and manufacturing activities to bookmaking, which eventually became a new business venture, Kelmscott Press. He also started writing stories about the deep historical origins of just, equitable societies. The two projects merged when in 1891 he used the Press to publish as a book one of those stories, The Story of the Glittering Plain.

This turn to story-telling was by no means sudden or surprising. From the time he entered university, Morris was what we would now call a folklorist. He retrieved, studied, translated, and disseminated romances, epics, and sagas from European and non-European sources. Eventually some of these tales formed the basis of a long poem, The Earthly Paradise, published in four parts between 1868 and 1870. It was a best-seller and became staple reading among the English Victorian bourgeoisie.

Morris himself moved on to folktales closer to what he considered an art of the people. He started reading Nordic sagas, first in translation and later in the original tongue, in collaboration with an Icelandic scholar. Morris immediately took to their “delightful freshness and independence of thought…the air of freedom…their worship of courage (the great virtue of the human race,) their utter unconventionality…” He began to write stories about early Europe, experimenting with various mixtures of prose and poetry. He wanted to go back in time before the rise of the Roman Empire, to retrieve the sense of freedom he imagined there when European tribes still ruled themselves. Morris also went into the future in his imagination, writing a utopian prose romance, News from Nowhere, that imagines a society connected with the life of the earth and with the human past.

At the same time he was writing News from Nowhere, Morris was working on another project, a sort of fairy tale. He wrote to his wife, “I have begun another story but do not intend to hurry it—I must have a story to write now as long as I live.” This was the story that would eventually be published, first serially and then by Kelmscott Press, under the title The Story of the Glittering Plain. One scholar has written about it that this brisk and engaging story is entirely original in style and story: “It is simply unlike anything else in English literature before it.” In it Morris designs a coherent, independent habitat, earthlike, but not identifiable as any place on earth, that presents an engaging field for action, learning, and heroism. In subsequent stories, Morris invented a whole series of new geographies. The importance of their imagined boundaries between land and water are evident in the titles: The Well at World’s End, The Water of the Wondrous Isles, The Wood Beyond the World, and The Sundering Flood.

These stories are the prototype of a whole new type of design: alternative worlds that can be inhabited by the reader, or viewer, or player. In the next generation, J.R.R. Tolkien, deeply influenced by Morris as linguist, folklorist, and writer, would call them Secondary Worlds. Today they are called fantasies, and Morris is respected as a pioneer fantasist. For Morris, they are realistic visions of what human life could and should be like. They provide a setting for how humans should live, when the actually existing world of “modern civilization’ does not.

This synthesis of two kinds of design—of Secondary Worlds, and of splendidly crafted books–occupied William Morris from 1890 until his death in 1896. Although he did not see the socialist revolution on the horizon, he was not trapped by history. The worlds he invented offered a sense of possibility, a lessening of the sense of entrapment and bondage. “William Morris: Designer” redesigned design to include new geographies.

Design, as we know it today, is characterized by beliefs in the agency of the designer and in the potential of design to transform the human-built world for the better.

William Morris shared these convictions, but he also had strong doubts about them. He expanded the concept of design to include the labor process as part of the design process. Later he became a revolutionary Socialist because he believed design practice, no matter how broadly defined, could not bring about the collective changes that human life deserved. In the last years of his life he turned to designing imaginary worlds as settings for adventurous stories. He did this to nourish himself and others with comfort, inspiration and pleasure. He was no longer trying to change the world, but to enjoy and accept the world as it exists—a world, as he explained in a letter to a dear friend, that “goes on, beautiful and strange and dreadful and worshipful.”

Morris’s brave realism, his coming to terms with the forces of modern civilization without illusion or evasion, provides a model for designers today who face political and environmental problems that seem and to some extent may be insoluble. One response to these problems is to keep expanding the scope of design to new things and systems: more of the same, but with grander scale and scope. Morris’s example suggests that another response. Giving design the burden of changing history may be too heavy a load for it to bear. There may be other ways that design can make the world a better place through rethinking what design means and does.

Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991 (New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 1996 [1994], 278.
Ibid., 288. Hobsbawm’s passage echoes the title of one of the best-known books on this topic, Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, first published in 1944 as The Origins of Our Time, with The Great Transformation as a subtitle. Later the phrases were reversed, in a 2001 edition titled The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our time. The term and debates about it continue in lively fashion: see Johan Schot, “Confronting the Second Deep Transition through the Historical Imagination,” Technology and Culture 57:2 (April 2016): 445-456.

For a summary of the intellectual history of these terms, see Cary Wolfe, What Is Posthumanism? (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), xi-xxxiv.
Hobsbawm, 289.
See discussion in Rosalind Williams, “The New Human Habitat,” in Retooling: A Historian Confronts Technological Change (Cambridge MA and London: The MIT Press, 2002), 19-26. Like Hobsbawm, I call upon the Neolithic Age as the closest reference point for the transformation of recent times (23-4). The distinction between domination and control has been explored by Michel Serres (“Our very mastery seems to escape our mastery”), especially in Serres with Bruno Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time, trans R. Lapidus (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995): 171-72.

Rosalind Williams, The Triumph of Human Empire (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2013), ix-xi, 9-11. The title of the well-regarded work by Paul N. Edwards, The Closed World (The MIT Press, 1988) is echoed here, though as its subtitle (Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America) suggests, this book does not focus on the events I am describing here.
MIT President Rafael Reif, “Design at MIT: Inventing Excellent Answers,” Spectrum, Winter 2017, p. 1. In January 2015 Hashim Sarkis, professor at the Harvard University GSD, was chosen as dean of MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning.
Graeme Sutherland, “William Morris, Designer,” insert in Asa Briggs (ed.), William Morris: News from Nowhere and Selected Writings and Designs (London: Penguin 1962 [1984]), n.p.
William Morris, The Collected Work of William Morris, ed. May Morris, 24 vols., (London: Longman, Green, 1910-15), 22:26-27.
Williams, 154-57.
Ibid., 190-91. Examples of these drawings are found in Sutherland, passim.
Sutherland, n.p.
Briggs (ed.), 33 (the word “conversion”): 35-36
Williams, 228-29.
Briggs (ed.), 32; from a letter to Andreas Scheu.
Williams, 227.
Briggs (ed.), 31; from a letter to Andreas Scheu.
Williams, 215.
Richard Mathews, Worlds Beyond the World: The Fantastic Vision of William Morris (San Bernardino, Calif.: The Borgo Press, 1978), pp. 34-35.
Williams, Triumph, p. 223-27.
Quoted in Williams, 195, from Fiona MacCarthy, William Morris: A Life for Our Time (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), pp. 363-64. The letter was written in 1876 to a beloved friend, but we do not know which one, and the letter was never sent.

Posted on by Rosalind Williams | Comments Off on Redesigning Design

50th Reunion: Personal and Collective History

Next weekend I will be attending my 50th reunion at Wellesley College. Here (slightly edited) is what I wrote last fall for the Wellesley ’66 Class Reunion Book:

Our personal biographies will be all over the map, but almost all of us share a collective biography, which goes something like this:

Born at the end of three catastrophic decades of war, genocide, terror, and economic collapse;

Graduating from college in the midst of three decades of astonishing growth and change, when the conditions of human life were transformed more rapidly and decisively than ever before in history;

Living our adult lives in a rolling apocalypse of interactive crises (military, political, environmental, economic). One of the greatest gifts of our collective life is that we came of age in the Sixties believing we could change the world for the better. I think we have done this, but we have also learned that some historical forces are larger than we are.

In 1966 it seemed that some of the most interesting historical action was taking place at Berkeley, so I headed there, intending to get a PhD. in history. I ended up finding some historical action and a lot of personal confusion. I left Berkeley with a master’s degree and headed back east. In 1968 I married and moved to Florida, where my husband worked for a doctorate in oceanography, motivated by love of science and also desire to avoid the draft. After some years there doing socially conscious work, I belatedly realized that I am an academic type and should develop a career in this direction.

When my husband got a postdoc in Amherst, Massachusetts, I went back to school and earned a doctorate in history at U.Mass. Amherst. I wrote a dissertation on the origins of consumer society at a time when historians of technology rarely thought of “consumption” as part of their research field. Dissertation published, I started teaching writing at MIT, got on the tenure track there, wrote a second book (on underworlds as thought experiments for understanding human-built worlds), and ended up with tenure in 1990, at the academically advanced age of 46.

Five years later I was asked to serve as MIT’s dean of undergraduate education, a job that soon evolved into serving as MIT’s first dean of students and undergraduate education. For MIT to ask me to do this–a woman and a humanist—was an honor and opportunity I could not refuse. It was a demanding and difficult position, but one that was hugely educational for me. My on-the-job experiences led to another book, Retooling, which reflects on how MIT, birthplace of the digital information age, itself confronts the brave new world of information technology.

Since stepping down as dean, and after serving a stint as department head, I continue to enjoy the varied activities (teaching, mentoring, lecturing, committees, consulting, reading, writing) that make academic life such a privilege. Slowly but surely I have come to understand that my calling as a scholar: to use imaginative literature as a source of evidence of and insight into the emergence of a human-dominated world. This is the theme of my recent book, The Triumph of Human Empire. I am still at work on thinking through the implications of this triumph.

But everything now has a much shorter time horizon. I will write more, but Triumph will be my last long book. I will retire from the MIT faculty in a couple years. Last October I lost my husband to cancer. Life still offers much to look forward to, but major projects are over.

This makes me sad but also gives me a sense of liberation. My personal history may be slowing own, but collective history is barreling forward with events coming at such a pace and on such a scale that I find myself wondering what an historical event is at all. I feel confused again, this time as a scholar. I don’t have another fifty years to sort things out, but I am still trying to go, at least mentally, where the action is.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on 50th Reunion: Personal and Collective History

Inside Out

After long distraction, I have been catching up on movies, along with much else. Last week I got around to renting “Inside Out.” I was especially eager to see it because of rave reviews and also because it stole my title. Two years ago, when I had the honor of giving the da Vinci Prize Address before the Society of the History of Technology, I titled it “Our Technological Age, from the Inside Out.” Just so you know, I was there first….[see link at end of post]

What I meant by the inside out, in speaking to my SHOT friends, was uncomplicated. I had begun with the non-controversial suggestion that as historians of technology we should aim high and ask really Big Questions. I went on to propose that one such question is asking what we mean when we say we live in a “technological age.” All the time we are referring to “our technological age.” What defines a technological age and why is it ours? How is it different from previous ages of history? Didn’t people in the past have technology too?

In the da Vinci address I suggested that we answer this Big Question from the inside out: not by looking at the objects in the world around us, but by examining our subjective experience of the world. Maybe the essence of our technological age is not any invention or device but a shared consciousness: “a redirection of human energies and desires toward inquiry into and manipulation of the material world for all sorts of utilitarian and non-utilitarian purposes” (to quote from the lecture). I went on to give examples of how we might observe this redirection in various ways from imaginative literature. Writers like Jules Verne, William Morris, and Robert Louis Stevenson, I said, explored “the history of technology as a history of consciousness, from the inside out.”

Did the movie make the same point? Its mission was to look at a series of events through the consciousness of one eleven-year-old girl named Riley. But this runs counter to the medium of cinema, which are notoriously challenged in expressing subjectivity. The premise of movie-making is a focus (literally) on material reality. Moods may be set by sound and color and manipulations of the visible, consciousness is more than moods. Reality, in cinema, keeps returning to what we see.

In “Inside Out,” much of the fun came from clever ways of representing what we think as what we see: cartoon characters that incarnate different emotional states; spheres that represent memories; the mazelike path leading from the conscious to the subconscious; islands of consumer stuff that represent clusters of everyday experience. The inside experiences were turned into new types of visibilities that were both apt and amusing. By animating the findings of neuroscience, the movie illustrates the workings of “our technological age.” It redirects human curiosity about the workings of our own consciousness into manipulation of the material world. Complex emotions and memories are shown as striking and amusing gadgets. The movie uses magical realism to remind the moviegoer that conventional realism–reproduction of the visible world–does not well express what goes on inside human consciousness.

But what about the series of events that put all this into motion: that is, the plot? It is very simple. The parents in a one-child nuclear family decide to move from Minnesota to California for unspecified but apparently job-related reasons. Whatever they are, these economic pressures follow them from their old home to their new one, as conveyed by the parents’ worried expressions, gestures, and conversations. At the semi-happy ending, Riley and her parents reunite in mutual empathy, appreciating that everyone has a hard time adjusting to the move, but that in the long run it will be for the better.

Nothing could be a more American story than this: westward migration to find a better life. These days, for the relatively well-off, we call it relocation, but it is still migration. Talk about core memories! This is the core collective American experience, of people migrating across the country, or across the borders, in response to fierce demographic and economic pressures. In the movie, however, that history is scarcely mentioned, much less examined. Why did the parents decide to move? What were the pressures on them to do this, and the pressures on them once they were there? Feelings are probed but not the plot that gives rise to them. The animated gadgets are so vivid and eye-catching that the plot almost gets lost in the action – but the action of the plot, as it were, is what set the rest in motion.

The plot, too, is “our” technological age, but these forces are often off-stage, revealing themselves indirectly and mysteriously. They may have something to do with “globalization,” which is another way to think about “our technological age”—but this requires thinking from the top down and the bottom up, in the social world, as well as from the inside out in the individual one. For big questions, the historian has to think big, in many dimensions at once.

The moral of the movie Inside Out is that we must embrace sadness as well as joy as essential human experience. This is not just a message about individual psychology, because joy and sadness also have collective sources and meanings. The plot of migration is always mixed. We Americans prefer to read the story line as a happy one –migration equals progress equals joy—but it is also always a sad story. Much may be gained, but much is inevitably lost.

This is the note on which I ended my talk on “Our Technological Age, from the Inside Out.” The imaginative writers Verne, Morris, and Stevenson all illustrate, I concluded

“a deep and fundamental contradiction in historical consciousness. They are excited by a realm of new possibilities, while also preemptively mourning the inevitable losses it entails….This deeply conflicted inward experience of history—more than any technological object or process—is a defining quality of our technological change.”

Now that I have seen “Inside Out,” I can add another name to the list: Verne, Morris, Stevenson, and an imaginary eleven-year-old girl named Riley. For all of them–no matter how much neuroscience tells us about their consciousness–historical experience remains mysterious, troubling, and deeply conflicting.


Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Inside Out

Farms and Chickens Meet Their Doom

My brother and I are trying to sell 280 acres of mixed farm/forest land near Laurel, Delaware. This has been an education in the value, or lack of it, of some rural land these days.

Chuck and I inherited this land from our mother upon her death in 2005. Her father, our grandfather, had been born and raised on Spring Garden Farm, only a few miles away. Her grandfather, our great-grandfather, bought the acreage in 1928 and gave it to our mother—for reasons known only to himself– when she was ten years old.

Since the first railroad line came to Southern Delaware in 1859, the region raised fruits and vegetables for east coast markets, especially Philadelphia. By the time our grandfather was growing up on Spring Garden Farm in the late 1800s, tomatoes were the big cash crop, sold to local canneries for $6/ton. Our grandfather told us that this is how his parents paid for his college tuition.

The canneries went out of business many years ago, and in the 20th century southern Delaware could not compete with California in the market for fresh fruits and vegetables. Farmers could still grow grain, but land in southern Delaware tends to be low and soggy. Such areas are often designated as “wetlands,” which means they cannot be cleared for expanded cultivation. So what is this land good for now?

When our mother’s estate cleared probate in 2007, there was a brief interval when we might have found a buyer interested in subdividing the land for residential development. That market blew away with the wind in 2008 and has not yet returned to southern Delaware. The land is too soggy to be cleared for further farming beyond the 42 acres already under cultivation. The trees on it were cut about 25 years ago, but the replanted seedlings didn’t take, so the current timber isn’t worth much. We tried marketing the land as a country retreat and hunting preserve, but no one was interested. We began to understand, if not to forgive, one neighbor just down the road (the road being Route 9, a major east-west artery) who sold similar land for its topsoil, leaving behind a big muddy ditch.

What the land is good for is raising chickens. This is now the big business in southern Delaware: Sussex County is the nation’s largest producer of meat chicken. When I was on the phone recently with a local farmwife who lives near the land we own, she that it was a special day, one she and her husband always looked forward to: at 1 PM the “serviceman” was coming to pick up 6000 chickens from them. I asked her to tell me more about this. She said they raise ca. 6000 chickens at a time (fewer in the summer, when because of the heat there are fewer chickens in each house) to the age of about 7 1/2 or 8 weeks. Then they are picked up by Perdue, Tyson, Mountaire, or one of the other major poultry businesses to be taken, in her words, “to their doom.”

She went on to explain that raising chickens had become an important source of income when farming is not good. I asked when chicken-raising started to be a serious business in southern Delaware. She said that her father was one of the first to do it, possibly in the 1920s and certainly by the 1930s. She mentioned giving a photograph of her father holding chicken crate to an acquaintance who has set up a small museum of the chicken industry next to his home in Selbyville, Delaware. In other words, the chicken industry was just getting started at the time my mother was given the 280 acres of mixed farm and forest land that my brother and I now hold.

The industry may be good for the economy of Sussex County, but it doesn’t do much for land prices. It takes a lot less space to raise 6000 chickens, who have a market value of something like $6/pound, than to raise tomatoes, with a wholesale value of $6/ton. My brother and I are at this point planning to enlist our acreage in a state agricultural preservation program, which reduces taxes on the land in return for a promise to keep it as working cropland. Then we would sell it to a local farmer who will continue to cultivate what is already cleared. We figure our ancestors would be pleased to see the land continue to be farmed. However, we have to wonder how much longer crop-based farming will survive in southern Delaware, with its uncertain climate and low-lying soil. Maybe these farms, like the chickens, are doomed.

(For more on the history of chicken-raising in Sussex County, Delaware, see a recent article in the New York Times that gives the date of 1923 as the start of the industry:

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Farms and Chickens Meet Their Doom

fascinating and altogether indispensable…read at once

And that advice [about The Triumph of Human Empire] is given in bold face! Talk about rave reviews!

It’s from a Nov. 18, 2014 blog post by Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska. After quoting the publisher’s description of The Triumph of Human Empire, Prof. Dixon writes:

“This is an absolutely remarkable achievement, managing to effortlessly synthesize science and the arts – two supposedly polar pursuits in the modern era – and demonstrates that each cannot function without the other, and that all of us are interconnected by both areas, which are of equal importance in the creation and continuance of our shared cultural heritage….

“Williams argues convincingly, without being strident about it, that without the Romantic instinct we will never really fully comprehend our human condition, and at the same time, provides a thorough yet concise outline of the work of Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne – who despite his futuristic fantasies was not all that taken with the notion of what was then considered “progress” in the industrial era – and the author William Morris, whose work clearly needs wider attention.

“The result is a fascinating and altogether indispensable book, which I urge you to read at once.”


Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on fascinating and altogether indispensable…read at once

Science Fiction at the End of the World

I am happy to report that a long essay review of The Triumph of Human Empire was recently published in Science Fiction Studies. There are a lot of things about this review that make me happy. First, the journal where it is published indicates that readers are making the connection between The Triumph of Human Empire and what is now commonly called science fiction (but which has a richer, deeper history beyond works usually given this label). Second, the review is very positive (ending with the comment that the book “reads like a fascinating journey into the uncharted territory of the creative process”). Third, the review is itself creative and perceptive, making connections I wish I had thought of when writing the book. Finally, the review is written by Marie-Helene Huet, an eminent scholar of French literature, culture, and Enlightenment philosophy, whose work I have long admired. Put all this together and the outcome is a very happy author.

Science Fiction Studies
Vol. 41 (2014): 642-49.

Marie-Hélène Huet

“Art, Bricolage, and Engineering at the End of the World”
Rosalind Williams. The Triumph of Human Empire: Verne, Morris, and Stevenson at the End of the World. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2013. xi + 416 pp. $30 hc.

In her new book, The Triumph of Human Empire, Rosalind Williams explores what she describes as “an age of anxiety,” when increasing knowledge and control of the surface of the earth seemed to consecrate the triumph of human empire, while reducing and altering the landscape over which it ruled. Williams borrows the term “human empire” from a short utopian fiction by Francis Bacon, New Atlantis, first published in English in 1627, in which the survivors of a shipwreck discover in the South Seas an island ruled by the descendants of the lost city. The island offers the model of a culture based on religious beliefs, rationality, and thirst for knowledge. The head of Salomon’s House, which could be described as an ideal research institution, sums up its goals and ambition in these simple words: “The End of our Foundation is the Knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible” (qtd. in Williams 17). It may be worth noting that the title page of New Atlantis bore the phrase “A Worke Unfinished.” Some readers argue that Bacon had planned to return to the tale, but one may suggest that Bacon himself knew that the intellectual and scientific model he had sketched out was an open-ended program that could lead to unimaginable powers and prowess, but on a far distant horizon: the acquisition of knowledge is an endless work-in-progress.

By the end of the nineteenth century, however, part of the scientific program described in New Atlantis had been accomplished: the mapping of the world was almost complete, and the planet, writes Williams, “had been reshaped according to human desires with increasing scope, scale, and speed” (334). But progress and the active pursuit of knowledge had a cost. “The intention may be the so-called ‘conquest of nature,’ but these interventions also have the effect of making the planet less stable, durable, and predictable…. World loss, whether through change or migration or both, is the ghost in the machine of human empire, the specter that haunts it with foreboding of endless losses to come” (334-36). Williams proposes to examine the doubts and pessimism that pervaded the times—what she also describes as fin-du-globe anxiety (16)—through the works of three authors: Jules Verne, William Morris, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Citing their distrust—at times rejection—of civilization as it was understood by the European powers, she notes that “they write of it as an exogenous force and contemplate with anguish the loss entailed by its inexorable advance” (20). Verne, Williams, and Stevenson came from different backgrounds and expressed in their works a variety of political opinions; but all three exemplify in their own way what it meant to feel “trapped by and alienated from their civilization” (20).

Williams’s choices are intriguing and will no doubt surprise those who still consider Jules Verne as an author for children, admire William Morris for his contributions to the Art and Crafts movement, or know Robert Louis Stevenson only as the author of Treasure Island (1883). But, although their lives followed different paths, Williams notes some intriguing similarities in their experiences and beliefs: the importance of water and the North Sea, their sense of exile, their political activities, and, more importantly, their turn to romance in defiance of social and literary tradition.

Verne, the most read and widely translated of the three, has long been known to his readers as a writer fascinated by the powers of scientific imagination and haunted by their consequences. The magnificent machines he describes reflect, to use Arthur B. Evans’s words, a kind of “mechanical mysticism” (130). If these technological wonders open the way to unforgettable worlds, they are also linked to wars and destruction; they engage in battles, they kill, and they do not survive at the end of the novels. The Nautilus, which is presumed lost along with Captain Nemo at the end of Vingt mille lieues sous les mers [Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas, 1870], will be solemnly buried with its captain under the volcanic grotto of L’Île mystérieuse [The Mysterious Island, 1874]. Nothing will be saved from this masterpiece: the machine has become a coffin. The fate of the submarine could be read symbolically as Verne’s conflicted feelings about human civilization. If Pierre-Jules Hetzel, Verne’s publisher, was absolutely clear about the positive message he wanted conveyed by the works of his author, the manuscripts, correspondence, and the later publication of Paris au XXe siècle [Paris in the Twentieth Century, 1994] all illustrate Verne’s pessimism and his more or less successful resistance to his publisher. Hetzel exemplifies the triumphant will of nineteenth-century expansionism when he writes in his preface to the Géographie illustrée de la France: “Our civilization is endowed with such an expansive force, it is armed with such powerful means and is a power growing so rapidly that no country, as remote as it may be, will evade its investigations and escape its domination” (iii, my translation). But Verne was perhaps the more clairvoyant when judging of the consequences.

While acknowledging that Verne did not escape from his conservative bourgeois environment, Williams offers, along with a detailed biographical account, perceptive analyses of Verne’s conflicted views about the growing powers that oppressed legitimate national aspirations and led to the eradication of native populations. She notes the initial triumphalism that permeates Cinq semaines en ballon [Five Weeks in a Balloon, 1863], concluding that this novel—the first in the VOYAGES EXTRAORDINAIRES series—“presents two assertions of superiority: the collective superiority of Western technical and scientific adeptness and the personal authority of the instrumentally adept, emotionally repressed commander whose mission carries him away from the muddy earth to the great currents of air and water endlessly flowing around the planet” (95). Nemo’s personification of resentful anarchy, his masterful use of technology coupled with his hatred of colonial powers and his compassion for freedom fighters, certainly speaks to Verne’s own views on the dangers and limits of human empire. Williams pays particular attention to the late novels, Magellania (written 1897; published as Les Naufragés du “Jonathan” [The Survivors of the “Jonathan”] in 1909) and Le Phare du bout du monde [The Lighthouse at the End of the World, 1905], in which “the heroes move from defiance of civilization to acceptance of missions of human improvement, symbolized by the construction of lighthouses that triumph over the elemental powers of darkness and chaos” (125). Verne, she concludes, “speaks for human empire and also defies it” (129).

The second part of the book, devoted to William Morris, develops a theme that will acquire considerable symbolic importance in his works: landscapes, from the flat marshlands of Essex to the great river Thames and its tributaries threatened by industrial development. Morris’s residences along the river all play a role in his literary imagination. If Verne sought a particular form of escape through what Williams prefers to call “geographical romance,” Williams turned resolutely to the past, more specifically to the Middle Ages he studied at Marlborough College and Oxford. While launching his textiles and painted papers firm, Morris started composing poetry, The Earthly Paradise (1868-1870), and translating old Norse stories. His discovery of Iceland in the summer of 1871 played a major role in his life. It would be interesting to compare Morris’s account of his travels in Iceland with Verne’s beginning of the Voyage au centre de la Terre [Journey to the Center of the Earth, 1864] where humans (Hans in particular) and horses survive, far from industrial development, in the splendid isolation of the volcanic country.

Morris, unlike Verne, became a Socialist, joining the Democratic Federation in 1883. From then on, his literary works were marked by his conviction that the accelerated pace of progress was accompanied by “a pervasive insensitivity to all the problems of change” (Williams 194). News from Nowhere: or, An Epoch of Rest (1890) is a melancholy quest for a better world that takes the hero up the Thames to a future society where “all signs of squalor or poverty had disappeared” (Morris qtd. in Williams 206). The Well at the World’s End (1896), another fantasy, leads the heroes to Iceland in search of restorative waters. Morris turned to imaginary worlds that have been seen as the forerunners of Tolkien’s works.

Morris’s predilection for northern sagas as a way of reconnecting humans to their past and to nature reminded me of the tremendous success of Ossian, the Gaelic cycle of epic poems James Macpherson started publishing in 1760. Macpherson presented the epic as a translation of authentic tales he had collected through oral transmission. Ossian’s success was prodigious throughout Europe and doubts about the authenticity of the poems did not prevent Ossian from becoming one of the most influential works in the history of Romanticism from Goethe to Chateaubriand. Jules Verne himself quoted Ossian on several occasions to express the unique character of Gaelic landscape and spirituality. The revival of Gaelic and Nordic mythology corresponded to a desire for a new form of expression that rejected the strict constraints of literary classicism and allowed a free range of exalted emotions. Morris, too, was a Romantic. But he was also haunted by the desire to send a social message.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s literary fame is inseparable from Treasure Island, which quickly became a classic of literary adventure. The youngest of the authors considered by Williams, Stevenson shares with his predecessors a love of the seas and a particular connection with coastlines: his grandfather had received a contract from Parliament to build several lighthouses on the Scottish coast. Educated as an engineer, he spoke with eloquence of a craft that led a man to harbors and wild islands, ships and seas, but ultimately led him back to his drawing and the drudgery of office life. Jules Verne again would have embraced the first part of Stevenson’s description, and his ideal engineers (Nemo, Cyrus Smith) apply their knowledge only to gain more freedom. When Stevenson turned to writing and fiction, he drew fascinating parallels between art and mathematics as two methods of creating a limited amount of order in a world dominated by chaos.

Stevenson’s first travel stories, unlike Verne’s ambitious Cinq semaines en ballon, related more modest inland trips on a canoe or on the roads. But his affair with Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne, an American woman separated from her husband and living in France, changed the course of Stevenson’s life. Recalled to San Francisco by her husband, Fanny left. After receiving an alarming letter from her in 1879, Stevenson joined Fanny in America, a long voyage for a young man who had already suffered from acute lung problems. In the section describing Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic and the railway trip across the continental United States, the reader starts to imagine Stevenson himself as a Vernian character endowed with the wit and the observational capacity typical of Verne’s journalists and the romantic inclinations of his artists.1

But the most striking affinity between Verne and Stevenson, at this point, is their attention to coastlines. One remembers the detailed outlines of Verne’s L’Île mystérieuse or his descriptions of the rocky Grecian peninsula in L’Archipel en feu [Archipelago on Fire, 1884]. Stevenson noted during his trip in the United States that “we are creatures of the shore” (qtd. in Williams 285). On his return to England, now married to Fanny, Stevenson wrote his bestseller, Treasure Island, followed by two of his best-known works, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and Kidnapped (1886). By 1884, Stevenson had realized part of his dream: he had become a successful writer and had married the woman he loved. But there was to be no rest. His search for a better climate that would cure his lung problems took him to the South Seas, which he explored for several years, from Tahiti to Hawaii, before settling down in the Samoan islands where he would die.

Williams speaks at length of his South Seas experiences and Stevenson’s efforts to find a literary form that would convey his deep conviction that the historical changes he had witnessed in England, America, and the Pacific islands threatened the survival of local populations. His The Wrecker (1892; co-written with his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne), his correspondence, and A Footnote to History: Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa (1892) all reflect his continued wonder at the seas, his undiminished taste for adventure, and his ambitious desire to express his views on the expansion of colonial powers in the Pacific. The modestly entitled A Footnote to History received high praise from the New York Times reviewer who seized on both the political and literary importance of the book: “Such a story deserves to have an ample record in these times. Mr. Stevenson has not only recorded it in an ample way; he has made the record an entertaining and brilliant piece of narrative” (“R.L. Stevenson”). As Williams notes of the last work: “He was writing an epic appropriate not for the Roman empire, but for the human empire” (316). Many other texts would follow, described by Williams as “hybrid romance-realism” about the islands (322).

One in particular attracts the reader’s attention, a violent tale entitled The Ebb-Tide (1893), co-written with Stevenson’s stepson. This grim account of the violence of imperialism echoes, Williams notes, many aspects of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899). The epidemic of smallpox that has decimated the first crew of the ship at the beginning of the story—and that is found again later in the most remote island in the Pacific—testifies to the fate of future colonies. Like Tahiti, ravaged by the diseases the Europeans had brought with them in the eighteenth century, the most isolated island in the South Seas is threatened by the most disgraced European adventurers. The islands have not only been corrupted by industrial powers, but also European powers have produced among their own people miserable creatures that have long “gone downward” in an infinite spiral of despair. Stevenson died a year after the tale was written.

In the concluding chapter, Williams sums up the themes that effectively linked three authors as apparently different as Verne, Morris, and Stevenson—in particular, their shared anxiety about the rapid global changes they witnessed and distrusted: “Verne, Morris, and Stevenson all respect the material powers of organized humankind, but they also tell cautionary stories related to these powers…. They see truth in the utopian story and the dystopian one. There are also moments when they see the truth in a story about the world disappearing completely and forever” (334). “Romance,” she adds, “not only expresses their sense of a haunted world but also serves to exorcize its ghosts…. It tells stories about the larger forces, sometimes mysterious ones, at work in the individual and in the world” (336). These authors’ lives, of course, are also a form of lesson in courage, especially their decision to embrace an art to which they were not initially prepared by their upbringing or family tradition. They all became involved in public affairs, although Verne’s public role and political contributions were rather modest. The art of romance the three authors adopted, Williams concludes, “points to experience liberated beyond the tyranny of circumstances, beyond the triumph or the fall of human empire” (347).

The choice of the word “romance” or “geographic novel” to describe Verne’s works, rather than “speculative fiction” or “scientific novel,” may be surprising—particularly from Williams, a distinguished historian of technology. But Verne himself described the VOYAGES EXTRAORDINAIRES as both “geographic and scientific novels” (Dumas et al. 88). The reader will also think of H.G. Wells, who would have perfectly completed this gallery of literary portraits. Trained as a biologist, Wells was also a Socialist who chose literature to express his political convictions. But Wells belongs to the next generation, and Williams’s thoughtful analysis of his predecessors helps us to understand Wells’s debts to the hybrid genre they had developed.

For those particularly interested in the relationship between literature and science, or science fiction as genre, Williams describes in two distinct passages the relationship between art and engineering. In the first one, she discusses Morris’s vast range of activities as “engineering.” “It is not a term Morris himself used,” she notes, “since he typically identified engineers as culturally stunted Philistines. In practice, though, he sought to redefine engineering as much as he sought to redefine socialism. His activities add up to an alternative mode of engineering, lay rather than professional, and linked with history and art rather than with science as primary source of practical knowledge” (212). A little later, Williams cites Stevenson’s comparison between mathematics and art: “Life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant; a work of art, in comparison, is neat, finite, self-contained, rational…. A proposition of geometry does not compete with life; and a proposition of geometry is a fair and luminous parallel for a work of art” (qtd. 251) Williams adds: “This is not engineering as ‘messing around,’ as it was for William Morris…. Through mathematics, the engineer creates order and abstraction, not by imitating the messy complexity of life but by reducing it to manageable forms” (251).

These reflections bring to mind Lévi-Strauss’s famous lines on “bricolage,” and the distinctions he makes between the bricoleur and the engineer:

“Consider [the bricoleur] at work and excited by his project. His first practical step is retrospective. He has to turn back to an already existent set made up of tools and materials, to consider or reconsider what it contains and, finally and above all, to engage in a sort of dialogue with it and, before choosing between them, to index the possible answers which the whole set can offer to his problem…. But the possibilities always remain limited by the particular history of each piece and by those of its features which are already determined by the use for which it was originally intended or the modifications it has undergone for other purposes. The elements which the bricoleur collects and uses are “pre-constrained” like the constitutive units of myth, the possible combinations of which are restricted by the fact that they are drawn from the language where they already possess a sense which sets a limit on their freedom of manoeuvre.” (18-19)

But the difference between the bricoleur and the engineer, Lévi-Strauss adds, is not absolute:

“The engineer no doubt also cross-examines his resources…. It might be said that the engineer questions the universe, while the bricoleur addresses himself to a collection of oddments left over from human endeavors, that is, only a sub-set of the culture. Again, Information Theory shows that it is possible, and often useful, to reduce the physicists’ approaches to a sort of dialogue with nature. This would make the distinction we are trying to draw less clear cut.
There remains, however, a difference even if one takes into account the fact that the scientist never carries on a dialogue with nature pure and simple but rather with a particular relationship between nature and culture definable in terms of his particular period and civilization and the material means at his disposal…. He too has to begin by making a catalogue of a previously determined set consisting of theoretical and practical knowledge, of technical means, which restrict the possible solutions.” (19)

From Morris’s “messy engineering” to Stevenson’s admirable definition of the limited, complete, rational world of mathematics and art; from Nemo’s secret conception of the Nautilus to Cyrus Smith’s ingenious bricolage on Lincoln island, it is fair to say that speculative fiction and fantasy play with all the possibilities of mastering the infinitely complex world of nature. “Any classification is superior to chaos” (15), Lévi-Strauss asserts. The art of Romance explored by Williams, the scientific novel Hetzel wanted to promote and Verne reluctantly produced, Asimov’s robots, Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), all aim to create, at the same time and by different means, a seemingly finite, self-contained world—that is, a world under control. But the scientific/mathematical model that sustains this clear and luminous world is itself shattering its completeness and destroying its order. In 2001, HAL kills and destroys the safe and closed environment of Discovery One as surely as the volcano that had previously ruined all of the heroes’ efforts on L’Île mystérieuse. At the end of the movie, a free-floating embryo travels through space, “beyond the infinite.” There will be no closure. The Vernian traveler closes a cycle and returns home, but at what cost? Hatteras was initially meant to die at the North Pole, but at Hetzel’s insistence, Verne rewrote the end: Hatteras survives his expedition and returns to England, but he has lost his mind. Initially, in the first version of L’Île mystérieuse, Nemo never repudiated his love for freedom, and still died absolved of murder. Similarly the “bricolage” that presides over Morris’s tales influenced by Norse mythology gathers and builds models from preexisting materials to produce a new but also unstable world. Stevenson’s Ebb-Tide shows, among other things, the incapacity to find or imagine a truly complete world, be it the furthest island, free from the disease and corruption of human empire.

The Triumph of Human Empire: Verne, Morris, and Stevenson at the End of the World brilliantly explores the troubled consciousness of writers who were fully aware of the mixed rewards of political expansion and scientific knowledge. The book addresses the complexity of translating human experience into an artistic vision. Williams’s attention to landscapes and geographical discoveries, from the poetry of shorelines to the glory of the Jubilee Atlas, also describes a literary world born from triumph and disillusion. “The mission to chart the globe,” she writes, “is inseparable from the race to claim it” (14). Her book itself reads like a fascinating journey into the uncharted territory of the creative process.

1. See, in particular, Harris T. Kymbale and Max Réal in Le Testament d’un eccentrique [The Will of an Eccentric, 1899].
Dumas, Olivier, Volker Dehs, and Piero Gondolo della Riva, eds. Correspondance inédite de Jules et Michel Verne avec l’éditeur Louis-Jules Hetzel (1886-1914). Vol. 1. Geneva: Slatkine, 2004.
Evans, Arthur B. “Jules Verne’s Dream Machines: Technology and Transcendence.” Extrapolation 54.2 (2013): 129-46.
Hetzel, Pierre-Jules. “Au Lecteur.” Géographie Illustrée de la France et de ses Colonies by Jules Verne and Théopile Lavallée. Paris: Hetzel, 1870. i-iv.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Savage Mind. Ed. Julian Pitt-Rivers and Ernest Gellner. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1966. 18-19.
“R.L. Stevenson: Eight Years of Trouble Have Him for Historian.” New York Times 14 Aug. 1892. Online. 8 Aug. 2014.
Verne, Jules. Le Testament d’un eccentrique. Paris: Hetzel, 1899. Translated (anon.) as The Will of an Eccentric. London: Sampson, Low, 1900.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Science Fiction at the End of the World

Advice for the History-lorn

My academic project for the summer does not involve writing anything: from that I can use a break. Instead I have been going through a pile of clippings and notes (both hard copy and on-line) accumulated while writing The Triumph of Human Empire. It is my mulch pile for some future crop. It’s mostly words, some numbers, and some images (maps are crucial). The only way I can make any sense of it at all is to sort it into folders labeled by other words, which is to say by keywords.

A lot of my folders are categorized by keywords from the Human Empire project, which tend to be biggies: Water, Romance, Historiography, Phenomenology, Modernity, Nature, Place, and so forth. I will be working with those keywords until my dying scholarly breath. I have also discovered, however, that I am ditching some biggie labels–notably “Environment” and “Technology,” which have become everything and nothing, at once vacuous and “hazardous” (Leo Marx’s warning label for the word/concept “technology”).

Then there are more narrowly defined topics, less grand but also less hazardous: Belgian agricultural history, Saint-Simonianism, Symbolism, Romanticism, and fin de siècle (the 19th century, that is), for example. I have also added some new categories, such as Exploration and Migration, that I should have introduced long ago.

Finally, and most important, there is a new category that had to be invented, as I began to accumulate a stack of clippings and notes that didn’t fit into any of the above. Some of them were going into “Nostalgia,” some into “The End” (in the sense of the “rolling apocalypse” discussed in Human Empire), some into “Crisis.” But what they had in common wasn’t so much a topic as a tone—the tone of an advice column. They address an implicit audience of readers who feel spurned by history, who want to “make a difference” but who find it hard to have any confidence that they can at the beginning of a century that keeps tossing up reminders of The End.

AT first I tried the label “Loss and Change” (after one of my favorite books, by Peter Marris), but this didn’t fit all the items in the pile. I also tried “Mourning,” Marris’s larger theme, but that didn’t work either. I ended up labeling the pile “Psychic Management,” though I am not crazy about it either. For one thing, “psychic “ may be be too much associated with thinking and not enough with feeling. Stuff in this pile shows how history looks from the inside out, and the human “inside” is heavy with feelings.

Furthermore, both thoughts and feelings are inseparable from behavior. Developing a sense of history may sound highly academic, but it includes a lot of tacit knowledge, and all sorts of practical life decisions depend on it. The advice column tone is responding to an implicit practical question: how you make a life in a world that you think and feel is at the mercy of historical forces far beyond your power to influence, much less to control ?

Well, the historian is compelled to ask, so what else is new? What is new in the modern world is the conviction that it might be otherwise [see: The Enlightenment}. What is new in the 21st century is the common underlying assumption that the driving force in history is now climate change. There are many other historical forces at work in the world, but this has been the game-changer in how many people think, feel, and increasingly behave as historical actors. I am not saying the focusing on economics or militarism would make anyone feel less history-lorn – but the conviction of environmental determinism has come to dominate how people think about history altogether.

It will be interesting to see how this pile stacks up over time. Contributions to it are welcome. So are suggestions for a better label.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Advice for the History-lorn

Our Technological Age, from the Inside Out

Even–especially–in “our technological age,” which is so often equated with “our digital age,” it can be nice to see something you have written in hard copy, on paper. A hand-written letter, for example, or, in this case, the printed version of the da Vinci Medal lecture I gave last fall in Portland, Maine, at the annual meeting of the Society for the History of Technology. The Society always publishes these lectures afterwards in its journal Technology and Culture. The April issue of T&C arrived yesterday, in the mail, in hard copy. I have to say that seeing the talk in print was a soul-rewarding moment.

These circumstances explain why the talk begins with some brief personal comments. It moves on to recall an important debate about the history of technology starring Leo Marx, Mel Kranzberg, and Tom Hughes, all founders, movers, and shakers in the history of technology. From there the talk goes on to discuss some even longer-ago but not far-away writers who still speak to us, such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne, and William Morris (the latter a major inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien). The talk ends with manifesto calling for the history of technology to be understood as the history of consciousness. It’s not short, but it’s also not too long. I hope that you enjoy it all.

(Note: Formatting is imperfect in this version. For a much better copy, go to Project Muse, where T&C is published on line by the Johns Hopkins University Press.)

Our Technological Age, from the Inside Out

By Rosalind Williams

Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Da Vinci Medal Address
Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the History of Technology
Portland, Maine, October 2013

Published in Technology and Culture, Vol. 55, No. 2 (April 2014): 461-76

From Context to Big Questions
The spirit of come-one-come-all has long pervaded our fair society. It is evident in the warm hospitality of our annual meetings, in the carefully chosen title of our journal Technology and Culture, and in founding father Melvin Kranzberg’s tireless invocation of the “contextual history of technology” without specifying any limits or rules as to what context might include.

Nevertheless, I have to admit that at times I feel like an imposter among my friends and colleagues here. I may come from a family of engineers, but I myself majored in a combined history and literature program as an undergraduate, wrote a senior thesis on Methodist hymns and Romantic poetry, got a doctorate in intellectual history, avoided math and science courses, never took a course in the history of technology, and never studied with a historian of technology.

The ways I have pursued the history of technology work around these embarrassing deficiencies and all too obviously display my apparently unrelated obsessions. Consequently, being awarded the da Vinci Medal feels like an out-of-body experience: this can’t be happening to me! My great pleasure and privilege is to accept this medal on behalf of all SHOT members who also wonder if they belong here. If the society so honors me, then it reaffirms that the SHOT tent is bigger and stronger than ever, and that your deficiencies and obsessions are still welcome here. The remarks that follow are intended to promote such inclusion by suggesting that some humanistic obsessions—notably consciousness and language—do not necessarily result in weak versions of the history of technology but in different and arguably sometimes stronger versions. [End Page 461]

A generation ago, in the early 1990s, SHOT’s generous spirit of inclusion gave rise to a debate about contextualism that has never really reached a conclusion, and probably never should. It arose from the publication in 1988 of an edited volume titled In Context: History and the History of Technology—Essays in Honor of Melvin Kranzberg, edited by Stephen Cutcliffe and Robert Post and published upon Mel’s retirement by Lehigh University Press. Three years later, in 1991 (the wheels of the academy can turn slowly), my MIT colleague Leo Marx published a review of the book in the pages of Technology and Culture. At the end of the first paragraph, Leo rather disingenuously raised what he claimed to consider a simple question: What is the rationale for distinguishing the history of technology from history? More generally, what is the rationale for distinguishing specialized histories from general history?

Leo Marx was not arguing that technology is unimportant in history. On the contrary, he was arguing that it is so pervasive and influential that it cannot be bracketed off as a special category in the same way that, say, the history of music, or of mathematics, or even the history of science, could be so distinguished. The boundaries of technology are unusually obscure, he proposed, for there is no human activity that does not involve it: “If we grant the claims of the contextualists, how can we justify segregating the history of technology … from the history of the societies and cultures that shape it?”1 Broadening the concept of technology to that of “technological systems,” as had been done in the 1980s, only underscored (in Leo’s view) the lack of a rationale for making this a specialized inquiry. He quoted a remark made by Mel Kranzberg: “We call ours a ‘technological age.’ … How did it get that way? That indeed is the major question that the history of technology attempts to answer.”2

Leo agreed with the centrality of the question. He did not, however, accept Mel’s tacit assumption that its answer would be found in artifacts or processes commonly referred to as technological. Instead, Leo claimed, the most respected scholars who had taken up this question—he listed among others Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, and Thomas Parke Hughes—were open to the possibility that the answer lay in “a culturally nurtured propensity to mechanize as many aspects of life as possible.” Marx was especially intrigued by Hughes’s concept of technological momentum, in which Hughes avoids the trap of technological determinism but “asks us to imagine a critical point, or moment of tilt, when a people’s dependence on such a [technological] system, or system of systems, becomes the chief determinant of their behavior.”3

A year later, in April 1992, Mel responded to Leo’s review in a Communication to Technology and Culture. He was understandably upset, [End Page 462] given that his core professional mission in life had been to define the history of technology as a distinct branch of historical studies. In responding, Mel repeated his conviction that for historians of technology “truly to understand our technological age,” they needed to study machines “both internally and externally—that is, contextually.” He concluded with a remark that suggested how wounding Leo’s comments had been: “Leo,” he wrote, “let’s not change ‘the machine in the garden’ to ‘the snake in the grass.’”4

Leo’s counter-response followed in the same Communication. He ignored the allusion to personal betrayal and repeated his point: the disagreement is not about the importance of the role of technology in history, but about the appropriateness of a separate teaching and research program for it. He went on to suggest that “all this is, in the telling phrase, merely academic.” He proposed an alternative approach that would be less so: “The history of technology is here to stay, so why not opt for a bolder, more interesting, if more problematic, rationale? Why not start with the intuitively compelling idea that technology may be the truly distinctive feature of modernity?”
Historians of technology could adopt Mel’s concept of a “technological age” as a central hypothesis and then build a teaching and research agenda around it: “The aim would be to understand all of the ways that technological knowledge, processes, and behaviors in fact distinguish modernity from other ages—other societies and cultures. Such a program could open many avenues of investigation, too many in fact to enumerate here.”5

Well, why not? Why not take the history of technology up a notch, or two? Why not turn up the volume to 11? Why not clear some new avenues of investigation, and swagger a bit in self-importance? If the history of technology is worth our efforts as a separate program and distinct branch of the historical discipline, we should ask some really big questions, and also make sure other people know what we are up to.

At the time Leo and Mel were jousting in the pages of Technology and Culture, I had just published a book titled Notes on the Underground, which begins with this sentence: “What are the consequences when human beings dwell in an environment that is predominantly built rather than given? This book seeks to answer that question. It explores the psychological, social, and political implications of living in a technological world.”6

I thought then and still think that examining the advent of a “technological world” is a big and important question. I now think it is an even bigger and more important question, at least for a historian, to ask about the advent of a technological age, as both Mel Kranzberg and Leo Marx were discussing it. More specifically, this big question is the one Leo attributes [End Page 463] to Tom Hughes in asking us “to imagine a critical point, or moment of tilt,” when conditions of history were altered, “when a people’s dependence on such a [technological] system, or system of systems, becomes the chief determinant of their behavior.”7

Asking this question shifts the focus from space (underground or otherwise) to time. Examining the advent of this technological age of ours does not take for granted that its defining characteristic is the physical environment of human life. It leaves that question open. If we test this hypothesis, we are not giving up context; we are, however, defining contextualism as a method rather than an end in itself. My most recent book is dedicated to Leo Marx and Tom Hughes, and it represents my best effort to answer the big question they raised, as did Mel, in asking how our technological age got that way.8

From Technological World to Technological Age

When we wonder when and why history tipped toward a “technological age,” we commonly look to material surroundings for the answers. We do this not only as historians but also as ordinary human beings living in a material world that is full of sharp sense-based contrasts between past and present. So, for example, when Jules Verne was asked to write a brief autobiographical sketch for a Boston-based children’s magazine in 1891, he looked back over the decades to his hometown of Nantes, on the river Loire, where he had been born in 1828. He wrote:

“I have seen the birth of phosphorus matches, fake collars, cuffs, letter paper, stamps, the overcoat, the opera-hat, the ankle boot, the metric system, steamboats on the Loire, called “inexplosible” because they blew up a little less often than the others, omnibuses, railways, tramways, gas, electricity, the telegraph, the telephone, the phonograph! I am of the generation between these two geniuses, [George] Stephenson [inventor of the steam locomotive] and [Thomas] Edison!”9

On the whole, like Verne, historians of technology are struck by human-built artifacts like these as primary evidence of technological change, especially in what we all agree is a critical period between the age of steam and that of electricity. For layman and professional historian alike, material artifacts define the history of technology—items such as tools, gadgets, and consumer products, as well as larger systems of transportation and communication and power. These are the black boxes that we open, contextualize, [End Page 464] and analyze as to their motivation, design, construction, maintenance, and even that ugly commonplace word “impact.” In all this we assume the world of technological reality is out there: we are users, spectators, even the creators, but the real thing is material and external to us. The world of our own inner experience may have its power and interest, but it is not the stuff of technological reality.

Such assumptions are by no means limited to historians of technology. In an 1899 essay William James discusses “a certain blindness in human beings,” which keeps us from entering into “the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves.” We are constantly aware of the strength of our own feelings, James writes, but this inward world is largely hidden from and unappreciated by others. “The subject judged knows a part of the world of reality which the judging spectator fails to see, knows more while the spectator knows less.”10

In his essay James quotes, with high praise, another essay, by Robert Louis Stevenson, published in 1888 and titled “The Lantern-Bearers.” The sport of lantern-bearing, Stevenson explains, occupied himself and his friends during black nights on the coast north of Edinburgh in those precious autumn days just before they returned to school. The boys would equip themselves with a tin bull’s-eye lantern, available at that season in any general grocery store. After being lighted with lamp oil, it remains dark until the bearer opens its door: then it shines forth a focused light, the rough equivalent of switching on a flashlight. The boys would put the lighted lanterns under their topcoats and venture out after dark. If two or more of them met, they would ask each other if they had their lanterns. If the answers were affirmative, the boys would start gathering in some isolated place on the shore, unveiling their lanterns to each other and indulging “in inappropriate talk.” “The essence of this bliss” of lantern-bearing was to walk as a “mere pillar of darkness in the dark,” all the while knowing “you had a bull’s-eye at the belt, and to exult and sing over the knowledge.”

Stevenson drew the lesson that what is most real and powerful in human experience is not the external material reality of the lantern but “the mysterious inwards of psychology” of its bearer. Those “inwards” are missed, Stevenson wrote, by “the observer (poor soul, with his documents!)” who is deceived if he looks at the coated person and misses the “true realism” of the intense inner experience: “The true realism, always and everywhere, is that of the poets to find out where joy resides, and give it a voice. … For to miss the joy is to miss all.”11 [End Page 465]

So here we are, we historians, poor souls with our documents, looking intently at lanterns but much less intently, usually, at lantern-bearers. What if we seek to understand our technological age beginning with subjective experience of the world rather than with the objects in it? What if the black box we pry open is first and foremost the human one? What if we seek “true realism” and examine what we like to call technology from the inside out?

I have tried to do something like this in my just-completed book The Triumph of Human Empire. The title is lifted from Francis Bacon, who used it in the early 1600s in a utopian tale in which he imagines the discovery of a new Atlantis. This make-believe island is not an empire in the usual sense of territorial control. Instead, it is the center of a vast, general expansion of human knowledge and power centered in a research foundation called Salomon’s House. Its leader describes its mission in a single sentence: “The End of our Foundation is the knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible.”12

Bacon’s tale is a work of imagination, and the reorientation of human imagination is the fundamental element of the advent of our technological age: a new historical condition of reorientation toward “technological knowledge, processes, and behaviors,” to quote Leo’s description of the critical point of tilt. Such imagination becomes the dominant site for human creativity and goals. This is more than technological enthusiasm for particular inventions or devices. It is a redirection of human energies and desires toward inquiry into and manipulation of the material world for all sorts of utilitarian and non-utilitarian purposes. It is an event of consciousness.

In The Triumph of Human Empire I have chosen three writers, from numerous possibilities, who more than most provide insight into this reorientation. Their imaginative works comprise an archive of consciousness for probing this crucial event of consciousness. These three writers—Jules Verne (1828–1905), William Morris (1834–1896), and Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894)—are all active in that epoch between Stephenson and Edison. They all set out on literary careers intending to write romances, defined as stories not too constrained by fidelity to the externals of material and social realism, stories featuring (in Henry James’s wonderful definition of romance) “experience liberated.”13

But all are frustrated by the mismatch between the inherited traditions of romance and the world emerging in their lifetimes. They reorient their work through encounters with what we would now call science and technology—encounters that redirect their story telling and allow them to reinvent romance for a technological age. In doing this, each of them became an influential artist in his own time and ever since, with a deep effect in [End Page 466] shaping modern consciousness with no end to their influence in sight. I will give a very brief description of how each writer accomplished this, before ending with some general observations on writing the history of technology as a history of consciousness, from the inside out.

Three Inventors

Jules Verne left Nantes in the revolutionary year of 1848, at the age of twenty, setting out for Paris to become a playwright. As the upheavals subsided into the Second Republic and then the Second Empire, Verne headed for “the whole Romantic coterie” (his expression) then dominating the theatrical world of the capital and started composing romantic comedies for the stage.14

However, his theatrical career never took off. While he was trying to hold body and soul together (with the help of his father and later with a job on the Paris stock exchange), Verne became more and more interested in exploration, engineering, and the science of his day. He read everything he could find on these subjects in newspapers and magazines of what was then called the “scientific press.” He made friends with like-minded souls such as Nadar (Félix Tournachon), the much-publicized photographer-balloonist. For fifteen or so years after 1848, living in the Paris of the Second Empire, Verne made many moves from one cheap apartment to another, allegedly taking with him a writing desk having two drawers, one labeled theatre and the other science.15

Verne merged the two drawers, so to speak, in the early 1860s, beginning with the publication of an adventure story, Five Weeks in a Balloon. With encouragement and sometimes heavy-handed guidance from editor Pierre-Jules Hetzel, Verne invented what he called the geographical romance, which led to a life-consuming project of mapping the globe and beyond in eighty-odd “extraordinary journeys.” These adventure stories are packed with information about inventions and expeditions of the type Verne had written about in nonfiction or lightly fictionalized articles for popular magazines. At the same time, the stories are staged like romantic comedies, featuring witty dialogue and racy innuendo on an especially imaginative set. About eight of Verne’s novels were actually staged in his lifetime, some of them running for hundreds of performances and reaping enormous profits. To this day Verne’s imaginary journeys are routinely restaged in the movies, while the basic plotlines and décor are endlessly recycled into steampunk mash-ups.

Verne’s fascination with the new material of contemporary science and engineering is evident through his works. Words, numbers, names, facts—the [End Page 467] narrative voice creates the story from detailed, precise, often specialized information, lovingly collected and assembled in unexpected combinations, with “vertiginous precision.”16 Futurist poet Guillaume Apollinaire is reputed to have exclaimed of Verne, “What style! Nothing but nouns (substantives)!”16 Verne composed his novels through the grafting and collage of textual fragments from scientific reports, myths, and popular tales, methodically recording them on index cards (supposedly 20,000 unused cards remain in his archives) and then folding them into a secondary world of text.

Critic Timothy Unwin calls Verne “the inventor par excellence.” Verne might also be called a textual engineer. He was acutely aware of the constructed character of his works and of his own active role in building them from pieces of information produced by others. He has one foot in the Renaissance age of exploration and the other in the information age.

A similar pivot may be seen in the experience of William Morris. As an artist he came of age nourished on the romances of medievalism, but he outgrew their constraints to invent new forms of romance ranging far beyond the ur-text of medievalism, the King Arthur stories. Morris’s passion for the Middle Ages began with his boyhood obsession with story telling, his adolescent wonder at Gothic cathedrals, and his discovery as a young man of a talent for design through his connections with other Pre-Raphaelite artists. Eventually this talent led to the establishment of a manufacturing company that became known simply as the Firm, engaged in flexible production and marketing for a specialty trade in the decorative arts, with an emphasis (especially at the outset) on motifs from the Middle Ages.

Thus Morris evolved from a youthful medievalist into what we would now call an innovator, entrepreneur, or maker. He could also be called a lay engineer, reminding us that in that remarkable epoch between Stephenson and Edison, the ancient profession of engineering was complicated in ways that have largely been forgotten. It was a time when engineering was becoming routinely and tightly connected with scientific research: in Bacon’s terms, power and knowledge were being methodically joined. But it was also a time when engineering was still a “mirror twin” of art as well as of science. As Eric Schatzberg has reminded us, “Before ‘applied science’ and ‘technology’ became keywords, the concept of art was central to discourse about material culture and its connections to natural knowledge.”17

For Morris, art was central because, as he proclaimed in an 1883 lecture, “ART IS MAN’S EXPRESSION OF HIS JOY IN LABOR.” The occasion for the speech was to announce his conversion to revolutionary socialism: the capital letters are in the written text, which Morris delivered to a hushed audience, shocked that a respectable manufacturer would support [End Page 468] this cause. But Morris, like Stevenson, felt that the “true realism” was to be found in giving a voice to art as the place where joy resides in human beings.

One way he did this was through manufacturing beautiful things. So, for example, while he understood the appeal of new aniline dyes for ease of use and durability in manufacturing fabrics and wallpapers, he believed they were unforgivably ugly. The more he worked with them, the more he became convinced that this was because they were supposed to last indefinitely. The mortality of the dye, Morris believed, was a primary source of its beauty; its graceful aging should be accepted, not resisted. This conviction led him to test a range of old dyes, working with craftsmen who had tacit knowledge of processes of matching colors and controlling fermentation in the vats, adjusting the process for different fabrics. Morris used similar approaches in developing production processes for weaving, carpetmaking, and tile- and glassmaking. In all these forms he was a sort of archeo-engineer, methodically researching techniques of the past to design a more beautiful home for humankind.

Morris also sought to give an artistic voice to joy through story telling. As a young man he developed an “encyclopedic approach to romance,” with an “ambition to collect every major story in literature and retell or translate it.”18 Later in life he published such stories in books that he himself designed and made by starting yet another manufacturing activity, the Kelmscott Press. Also later in life, Morris invented a new kind of romance, set in an indeterminate time and in an indeterminate setting—what J. R. R. Tolkien would later call a Secondary World.19 These late stories (such as The Story of the Glittering Plain and The Well at the World’s End) originated the modern genre of fantasy, with Tolkien himself as a crucial link between Morris’s reinvention of romance and the present day.20

If Morris was a lay engineer, Robert Louis Stevenson was a professional one. He was of the family of the “lighthouse Stevensons,” a dynasty established by his grandfather Robert and carried on by his father Thomas and his two brothers.21 Collectively they constructed dozens of lighthouses around the northern coast of Scotland and enjoyed a thriving practice in less glamorous river and port improvements throughout Scotland and England. When Louis (as his family called him) entered the University of Edinburgh in the fall of 1867, it was taken for granted that he was headed [End Page 469] for a career in engineering. He studied with Fleeming Jenkin, an outstanding electrical engineer of the time, and did summer internships at building sites associated with the family firm. Shortly after graduation, Louis received a prize for his senior thesis on intermittent lighthouse illumination.

Soon thereafter he renounced the family business (to the bitter disappointment of his father) to pursue his ambition of becoming a writer. But Louis maintained a deep, lifelong respect for the skills and hard work of engineers, and in his own work engineering and romance were constantly in dialogue. He was keenly alert to the romance of civil engineering—the open air, the dangers of the coast, the demands for dexterity, ingenuity, even heroism—while also recognizing the engineering skill required by writing. Whether the design is for a breakwater or a story, Louis explained in some of his critical essays, the designer needs the simplifying powers of symbolic expression to clarify the otherwise bewildering complexities of the world.

By the 1880s Stevenson had achieved a worldwide reputation as a writer of what we would now call genre fiction, including bestsellers such as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Treasure Island, and Kidnapped. He expanded and reconfigured his understanding of romance when he journeyed to a new (for him) part of the world, the South Pacific. Not long after his father’s death, in the early summer of 1888, Louis set forth from San Francisco with his wife, her two children, and his mother. It was basically a business deal: the South Seas cruise was paid for by a New York publisher in return for letters in which the famous author would recount adventures and picturesque encounters there. Stevenson himself hoped the warm, humid climate would help restore his precarious health.

Nothing could be more romantic than Stevenson’s account of the July morning when the chartered sailing vessel approached an island of the far Marquesas: “The first experience can never be repeated. The first love, the first sunrise, the first South Sea island, are memories apart and touched a virginity of sense.”22 But almost immediately the Edenic romance began to fade and history began to reassert itself. A few days later, Louis and his wife Fanny paid a visit to some natives of the Marquesas, the son and daughter-in-law of Tari, a native of Hawaii. The couple, who brought their infant daughter with them, asked Louis to tell them about England. He tried to describe, with gestures and props such as shells, “the over-population, the hunger, and the perpetual toil.” There was a pause; he was not sure they understood. Then the mother held out her baby, who had been suckling at her breast, saying, “Tenez—a little baby like this; then dead. All the Kanaques [people] die. Then no more.”

Stevenson was taken aback by “so tranquil a despair” on the part of a mother who foresaw this same fate for her own flesh and blood. Suddenly he had a vision of universal death, global [End Page 470] extinction, not just of the people of the South Pacific but of people and cultures everywhere: “in a perspective of centuries I saw their case as ours, death coming in like a tide, and the day already numbered when there should be no more Beretani [whites], and no more of any race whatever, and (what oddly touched me) no more literary works and no more readers.”23

From that point on, he began to write a journal, intending it to be turned into publishable letters, to bear witness to this extinction. In it Stevenson tried to piece together, from a multiplicity of discrete events, encounters, and observations, the historical forces at work that were decimating the native Polynesians—history from the inside out, beginning from the natives’ own perception of their doom, not just inevitable but already enveloping them.

After leaving the Marquesas, Stevenson and his wife spent some months in Hawaii, which gave them what he considered a glimpse of an ugly but inevitable future, in which the “complications of civilization” submerge and drown every other possible way of life. Here he began to show the first signs of political engagement in South Seas affairs. He visited a leper colony on the island of Molokai and had conversations with the native king (Kalakaua) at a time when it was becoming clear that the Hawaiian monarchy was soon to be replaced by American rule.

When Stevenson eventually published some letters about the South Seas, they were short on the supposed romance of the region. Instead, he wrote about the experiences of loss and sorrow. In one letter he mentions the Hawaiian Tari, grandfather of the baby whose mother assumed it would soon die:

“I wonder what [Tari] would think if he could be carried there indeed, and see the modern town of Honolulu brisk with traffic, and the palace with its guards, and the great hotel … or what he would think to see the brown faces grown so few and the white so many; and his father’s land sold for planting sugar, and his father’s house quite perished, or perhaps the last of them struck leprous and immured between the surf and the cliffs on Molokai. So simply, even in the South Sea Islands, and so sadly, the changes come.”24

Stevenson spent the rest of his too-brief days in the South Pacific, taking three extended cruises and eventually settling in 1890 in Samoa. Once there he began experimenting with new forms of romance, trying to craft ones adequate to expressing the collective effects of these simple, sad changes. He pioneered what in the mid-twentieth century would be known [End Page 471] as “new journalism” in his polemical account of a dirty little colonial war in Samoa (A Footnote to History).25 He reworked Polynesian tales for a global audience (“The Isle of Voices” and “Something in It”) and wrote dark, gritty romances of colonial encounters (“The Beach of Falesá” and The Ebb-Tide).26

These works, like Stevenson’s few published letters from the South Seas, were largely ignored or even ridiculed by his contemporary readers. Only in the last generation have they begun to be appreciated as accounts of a historical turning point, where “our” (as seen from the West) “technological age” became “theirs” too, irrevocably altering both Europeans and Polynesians. This event is summed up in the first sentence of The Ebb-Tide: “Throughout the island world of the Pacific, scattered men of many European races and from almost every grade of society carry activity and disseminate disease.”27


In a feat of condensation, this unforgettable sentence implies a set of interactive processes now routinely described by a flock of abstract terms. Some of these terms imply “activity” of a beneficial kind: such as globalization, mobility, progress, development, innovation. Others have the negative connotation of “disease”: not just epidemics but also human trafficking, environmental collapse, and militarism.

These remarks began with the observation that historians of technology, like nearly everyone, suffer from a “certain blindness” that keeps us from apprehending the inner world of other creatures. In our particular case, this means that when we consider the history of technology, we are more likely to look at objects rather than the lived experience of human beings. In other words, we should resist the habit of identifying technology only with external objects.

These remarks come to a close with the observation that we face an equal if not even greater challenge in resisting the temptation to identify technology with abstract entities seemingly dissociated from objects and humans alike. As Leo Marx has contended, the concept of technology is “hazardous” because it “has been endowed with a thing-like autonomy and a seemingly magical power of historical agency. We have made it an allpurpose agent of change.”28 The same could be said of other abstract concepts mentioned above, both positive and negative in valence. Like the wizards in Stevenson’s short story “The Isle of Voices,” based on a Polynesian tale, processes like globalization and innovation may seem like invisible [End Page 472] but powerful forces, scooping up shells and setting fires on the beach while filling the air with loud but senseless babble.

One defining characteristic of our technological age is our crisis of language. How can we possibly understand this age when there is such a profound mismatch between lived experience and symbolic representation? On the one hand, we habitually discuss the technology of our technological age as an assemblage of material objects—a representation that deceives not by being untrue so much as by being incomplete, in omitting the reality of subjective experience. On the other hand, we also use the language of surrealism to point to historical forces that seem beyond our understanding, ghostly presences even if we ourselves have created them.

In “The Lantern-Bearers” Stevenson remarks on the “haunting and truly spectral unreality” of so-called realist novels, which miss the “true reality” of an individual, who dwells “in the warm, phantasmagoric chamber of his brain, with the painted windows and the storied walls.”29 Such “truly spectral unreality” also characterizes the language of particulars of the computer age where reality is assumed to be hardware, software, systems, and information, all exterior to the individual user. A similar unreality characterizes the never-ending discussions of disembodied processes such innovation and globalization, treated as fictive superselves engaged in neo-epic struggles, also acting outside and beyond the minds and powers of individuals.

Neither neo-realism nor neo-epics enable us to think clearly about our world and our age. Both individuals and history need plot, characters, and settings to make sense of who we are and where we are headed. Verne, Morris, and Stevenson all turned to imaginative literature for this understanding, using language that is allusive, rich, integrative, and value-laden. They revived and reoriented romance to fuse story line, characters, gestures, events, and the visible world into “a single, unified conscious field, a subjective awareness of the total conscious experience.”30

Verne’s geographic romances of exploration, Morris’s tales set in fantasy worlds, and Stevenson’s yarns of outlaw adventures all fed into the great revival of romance that began in the last half of the twentieth century. This revival continues to swell, with no end in sight, as science fiction, genre fiction, and fantasy all mix together in a seemingly boundless reservoir of imagination. These three writers have been enormously influential in defining our technological age, by giving it a story.

Or rather stories, given the underlying contradictions of the age. In many ways Verne, Morris, and Stevenson express the progressive understanding of history that has dominated the West since the time of Bacon: the conviction (to borrow Bacon’s language) that knowledge of causes and secret motions of things will lead to the enlarging of the bounds of Human [End Page 473] Empire and to the effecting of all things possible. Verne, Morris, and Stevenson are excited by these possibilities, and each of them, in his own way, explores the frontiers of science and engineering in his time.

But they see another pattern in the history of their time, one of spreading centers of loss and calamity, reinforcing each other in intersecting circles of unpredictability and uncertainty. Their belief in progress endures, but it is increasingly in conflict with their perception of history as rolling apocalypse. Stevenson foresaw the “unjust but inevitable extinction” of the Polynesians. Morris wondered if all the beautiful old cathedrals would be allowed to crumble and if all joy in labor would be crushed by the tyranny of wealth. As a young man in Paris, Verne bitterly concluded that bankers and business were sweeping away all the old languages and literatures. As an older man, visiting his hometown of Nantes one last time after the death of his parents, he lamented the destruction of the green hillsides running down to the Loire.

All of them faced, in the spirit of true realism, the prospect that what they most treasured in the world was disappearing. In this new historical condition, crisis is no longer imminent, out there on some future horizon. It has become immanent, incorporated into ongoing history. Verne, Morris, and Stevenson know that the end of the world in space is nigh. They also worry that this new condition of history might lead to the end of the world in time, as humankind runs out of room for error, evasion, and discard. How can we continue in the path to peace and prosperity when there is no relatively unsettled space for people to take their quarrels, or dump their refuse, or find new markets or cheap labor?

The lanterns of consciousness in Verne, Morris, and Stevenson project a deep and fundamental contradiction in historical consciousness. They are excited by a realm of new possibilities, while also preemptively mourning the inevitable losses it entails. This contradiction has become only more acute in our own age, where excitement about the latest software application coexists with a sense of environmental doom. This deeply conflicted inward experience of history—more than any technological object or process—is a defining quality of our technological age.

This contradiction runs through history and through ourselves as individuals. Verne, Morris, and Stevenson turned to literature as a supremely sensitive register of historical change and as a source for understanding, if not necessarily reconciling, these conflicting historical patterns. Like these writers, we historians turn to symbols—maps, numbers, images, and above all words—to try to understand the complexities of history. Like them, we discover that we have to keep reorienting ourselves and our work as we live through the very changes we are trying to understand and express. In doing this, we go where they have gone before, living in our technological age, asking the big questions, from the inside out. [End Page 474]


Allotte de La Fuÿe, Marguerite. Jules Verne, trans. Erik De Mauny. New York: Coward-McCann, 1956; Paris: Hachette, 1953 [1928].

Bacon, Francis. “New Atlantis.” In Selected Writings of Francis Bacon, edited by Hugh G. Dick, 543–84. New York: Modern Library, 1955.

Bathurst, Bella. The Lighthouse Stevensons. New York: HarperCollins, 1999.

Beer, Gillian. The Romance. London: Metheun & Co., 1970.

Clute, John. “Secondary World” and “J. R. R. Tolkien.” In The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, edited by John Clute and John Grant, 847, 950–55, respectively. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1997.

Costello, Peter. Jules Verne: Inventor of Science Fiction. New York: Scribner, 1978.

Frye, Northrop. The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976.

James, William. On Some of Life’s Ideals. New York: Henry Holt, 1912 [1899, 1900].

Kranzberg, Melvin. “Communications: Comment and Response on the Review of In Context.” Technology and Culture 33, no. 2 (1992): 406–7.

Langford, David. “William Morris.” In The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, edited by John Clute and John Grant, 664–66. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1997.

Marx, Leo. “Review of In Context: History and the History of Technology—Essays in Honor of Melvin Kranzberg.” Technology and Culture 32, no. 2 (1991): 394–96.

_____. “Communications: Comment and Response on the Review of In Context.” Technology and Culture 33, no. 2 (1992): 407.

_____. “Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept.” Technology and Culture 51, no. 3 (2010): 561–77.

Schatzberg, Eric. “From Art to Applied Science.” Isis 103, no. 3 (2012): 555–63.

Searle, John R. “Can Information Theory Explain Consciousness?” Review of Christof Koch, Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist. New York Review of Books, 10 January 2013, 54.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. South Sea Tales, ed. Roslyn Jolly. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

_____. In the South Seas, ed. Neil Rennie. London: Penguin, 1998 [1896].

_____. “The Lantern-Bearers.” In Stevenson on Fiction, edited by Glenda Norquay, 139–50. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.

_____. A Footnote to History: Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa. Rockville, MD: Serenity Publishers, 2009.

Tolkien, J. R. R. “On Fairy-Stories.” In Essays Presented to Charles Williams, [End Page 475] edited (anonymously) by C. S. Lewis, 38–89. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1966; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1947.

Unwin, Timothy. Textes réfléchissants: Réalisme et réflexivité au dix-neuvième siècle. French Studies of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, vol. 6. Bern: Peter Lang, 2000.

Verne, Jules. “Souvenirs d’enfance at de jeunesse,” translated and published as “The Story of My Boyhood,” in The Youth’s Companion 64 (9 April 1891), 211.

Williams, Rosalind. Notes on the Underground: An Essay on Technology, Society, and the Imagination. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990.

_____. The Triumph of Human Empire: Verne, Morris, and Stevenson at the End of the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

_____. “The Lantern-Bearers of the History of Technology,” History and Technology 29, no. 3 (2013): 262–77. [End Page 476]


1. Leo Marx, Review of In Context, 395.
2. Marx, quoting Kranzberg, in ibid., 396.
3. Marx, ibid.
4. Melvin Kranzberg, “Communications,” 406–7.
5. Leo Marx, “Communications,” 407.
6. Rosalind Williams, Notes on the Underground, 1.
7. Marx, Review, 396.
8. Rosalind Williams, The Triumph of Human Empire.
9. Jules Verne, “The Story of My Boyhood.” For further bibliographical details, see Williams, The Triumph of Human Empire, 2n2 and also 8.
10. William James, On Some of Life’s Ideals, 3, 4, 6 I also discuss James’s essay in Williams, “The Lantern-Bearers of the History of Technology.” I was finishing work on this article when I learned that I would be receiving the da Vinci Medal. Its themes were relevant to what I wanted to say in the da Vinci lecture, so there is some overlap between the two works.
11. Robert Louis Stevenson, “The Lantern-Bearers,” 144, 149.
12. Francis Bacon, “New Atlantis,” 574.
13. William James in The Americans, quoted by Gillian Beer, The Romance, 12.
14. Marguerite Allotte de La Fuÿe, Jules Verne, 39.
15. Ibid., 89 Allotte de La Fuÿe is not a very reliable biography, and this may be one of those stories that is too good to be true. There is no doubt that Verne took with him many unpublished manuscripts in his frequent moves.
16. Quoted by Timothy Unwin, Textes réfléchissants, 120 Unwin in turn cites Peter Costello, Jules Verne, 53.
17. Eric Schatzberg, “From Art to Applied Science,” 555.
18. Northrop Frye, The Secular Scripture, 4.
19. Tolkien routinely capitalized the term. J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories.” This essay is an expanded version of a lecture first given by Tolkien in 1939 It was further expanded for publication in Tolkien, Tree and Leaf (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1964).
20. Frye, Secular Scripture, 4 See also John Clute, “Secondary World” and “J. R. R. Tolkien”; also David Langford, “William Morris.”
21. See the SHOT Hacker Prize–winning book by Bella Bathurst, The Lighthouse Stevensons.
22. Robert Louis Stevenson, In the South Seas, 6.
23. Ibid., 22–23.
24. Ibid., 20–21.
25. Robert Louis Stevenson, A Footnote to History.
26. All these are found in Robert Louis Stevenson, South Sea Tales, 123.
27. Stevenson, “Ebb-Tide,” in South Sea Tales, 123.
28. Leo Marx, “Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept,” 577.
29. Stevenson, “Lantern-Bearers,” 149.
30. John R. Searle, “Can Information Theory Explain Consciousness?”
Copyright © 2014 Society for the History of Technology

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Our Technological Age, from the Inside Out

A tribute to history museums

I am honored to be part of this short film:


It is part of an exhibition celebrating the 50th anniversary of the opening of the National Museum of American History on The Mall in Washington, D.C. The history of technology has always had a creative interplay with the museum world: this film reminds us how enriching this has been for both.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on A tribute to history museums

BBC The Forum: “Uncharted”

In April the BBC weekly program “The Forum” featured the theme of “uncharted,” with yours truly as one of three guests. It’s an intriguing topic for a world where we think everything is charted….until (for example) an airliner is lost with all aboard, not in space but somewhere on this planet — just where, no one yet knows….

Check out the show here.

And also check out my favorite [or as they would say in BBC Land, “favourite”] part of the show: my 60 Second Declaration of Aquatic Liberation, calling for freeing the waters of the earth.

The idea for the 60 second segment is to imagine something that would make the world a better place, with the emphasis on imagination. See what you think!

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on BBC The Forum: “Uncharted”