TAMING THE TIGER: The Struggle to Control Technology by Witold Rybczynski
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TAMING THE TIGER: The Struggle to Control Technology

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The author of a first-rate critique of the Appropriate Technology movement, Paper Heroes (1980), has taken the logical but hazardous step of challenging the larger antitechnology/antimodernism outlook: the fear of machines, the dread of mechanical labor, the horror of cultural decimation, the attempts to turn back the clock--and, at the beginning of the second section, the roots of those sentiments. The book is not as assured as its predecessor: Rybczynski is a professor of architecture (at McGill) and a practitioner of AT. Also, he tends more to hector here: to scorn the varied opponents of technology from a viewpoint barely distinguishable, sometimes, from that of the conservative futurologists. Nonetheless, he puts forth some vital, even head-turning, insights. The Luddites, he finds, were not mere ""machine-bashers""--their basic objection, and that of their labor-union successors, was to ""the use of machines to control."" Analogously, the Burmese and Cambodian rejections of modernism (in favor of self-reliance) reflected ""nothing more than the rejection of a hated colonial past."" Less convincingly, Rybczynski holds that the technological ""revolution need not result in worker displacement or alienation ""--although ""a lot will depend on the unions' ability to shift exclusive control of technology at least partly to their members."" His general conclusion, however--with specific reference to the American Indians' ""cultural crisis,"" but also weighing in the more complex Chinese and Iranian upheavals--would be hard today to rebut: ""the ghost dance of technological counterrevolution can never succeed."" More original--and more attuned to the unenthusiasts--is his succeeding attempt to demonstrate that the historical record (from Thoreau's use of nails to the cheap, ""cosy"" Airstream trailer) ""does not support the dour theory of technological inevitability"": technology can not only be controlled, and put to human purposes, it can also--he goes on to argue--be rejected (the samurai return-to-the-sword, poison gas, the zeppelin). ""Society determines the use of technology""; ""poverty has sometimes created the need to improvise ways of using technology"" (in India, China, Mexico, Poland); ""When a technology is viewed as a means to an end, its appropriate development is much more likely."" The tone is sometimes contemptuous (which may not hurt in the marketplace); the implications are positive--and huge.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1983
Publisher: Viking