Notes and quotes from Daniel Boorstin's "The Republic of Technology"

  • “An athlete of steel and iron with not a superfluous ounce of metal on it” exclaimed William Dean Howells when he recalled the gigantic 700-ton Corliss steam engine that towered over Machinery Hall at the Philadelphia International Exhibition.   A festive crowd cheered as the engine set in motion a wonderful assortment of machines—pumping water, combing wool, spinning cotton, tearing hemp, printing newspapers, lithographing wallpaper, sewing cloth, folding envelopes, sawing logs, shaping wood, making shoes—8,000 machines spread over 13 acres.  Others, especially visitors abroad were troubled by the American spectacle.  Said Thomas Henry Huxley: “I cannot say that I am in the slightest degree impressed by your bigness or your material resources, as such. Size is not grandeur and territory does make a nation. The great issue, about which hangs a true sublimity and terror of overhanging fate, is what are you going to do with all these things?” p 1
  • For the most of human history, the norm had been continuity. Change was news.  Daily lives were governed by tradition. The most valued works were the oldest. The great works of architecture were monument that survived coming antique. Furnishings became increasingly valuable by becoming antique.  Great literature never went out of date. “Literature,” Ezra Pound observed, “is news that stays news.” he new enriched the old and was enriced by the old. Shakespeare enriched Chaucer. Shaw enriched Shakespeare. It was a world of the enduring and the durable. p 4
  • The importance of a scientific work, as the German mathemtician David Hilbert once observed, can be measured by the number of previous publications it makes superfluous to read. p 4
  • Each political revolution has its ancien regime and so inevitably looks backward to what must be redressed and revised. Even if the hopes are utopian, the blueprint for utopia is made from the raw materials of the recent past. p 22
  • Like each political revolution, every technological revolution has its ancien regime, an order that must be overthrown for the new.
  • We cannot forecast what will be the ruiles of any particular new world until after that new world has been discovered. It can be full of all sorts of outlandish monsters; it could be ruled by diabolic logic. Who for example coulpd have predicted that the internal-combustion engine and the automobile would spawn a new world of installment buying, credit cards, franchises, and annual models—that it would revise the meaning of cities and tranform morality by instigating new institutions of n-fault reparations? p 24
  • Gamut Fallacy: “Gamut” an English word rooted in the Greek “gamma” for the lowest note in an old musical scale, means the complete range of anything.  When we think, for example, of our future political life and our governmental forms, we can have in mind substantially the whole range of possibilities… But the history of technology, again, is quite another story. We cannot envisage, or even imagine, the range of alternatives from which future technological history will be made. p 31
  • When looked back upon, the series of events between 1776 and 1789 are interesting not so much for the rationalized political ideology, but for the political technology—the application of English ideas to the circumstances of time and place. p 49
  • The Declaration of Independence was not like the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen or the English Bill of Rights, it was a set of grievances. It was a list of practical problems that the Crown had failed to properly consider.
  • The Swiss writer Max Frisch once described technology as “the knack of arranging the world that we don’t have experience it” p 59
  • The Census of 1890 declared that there was no frontier line.  In 1893, Turner published his thesis on the Frontier, connecting American virtue with the openness of the country. Once manifest destiny had ended, the country soon closed itself off to others. In 1917, Congress adopted a comprehensive immigration law which required a literacy test, added new classes of exclusions and established a barred zone in the Southwest Pacific which excluded immigrants not already kept out by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1883 and the Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907-1908. p 78-83

First published Jul 16, 2012