One of the most tedious features of the coming of the millennium will be the efforts of journalists and commentators to sum up the twentieth century and to identify its place in history. We know that centuries have no intrinsic identity, but they seem to have an irresistible hold on the way historians conceptualize the past and we can be sure that the twentieth century will no more escape being categorized than have its predecessors. But how will it be labeled? Will posterity look back upon it as the age of two world wars, the Holocaust, and the cold war? As the age of decolonization and the emerging third world? As the age of modernism and postmodernism?
No doubt the twentieth century will be associated with all these things. But a good case can be made for saying that what has most distinguished it from earlier epochs has been the spectacular growth of organized science and the unprecedented speed of technological change. Just as there are said to be more scientists alive today than there were in all the past put together, so the difference in scale between the technological resources available in 1900 and those available now is far greater than for any previous period. To list the changes of the century in travel, communications, medicine, pharmaceuticals, weaponry, robotics, information processing, and genetic engineering, to take only a few obvious examples, is to chronicle a revolution, and one, moreover, which is incomplete and daily accelerating.
How are these epoch-defining changes to be explained? There is not, and probably never will be, any single agreed-upon theory of technological growth, but most of the explanations currently advanced by historians and economists invoke the interaction between economic needs and political imperatives on the one hand and individual curiosity and ingenuity on the other. The desire to cut costs and maximize profits leads business concerns to spend huge sums upon research and development, while the urge to keep up with or surpass the neighbors encourages governments to do the same. The proliferation of institutions of higher learning generates an ever-increasing supply of professional scientists who are trained to value research and innovation and who advance their careers by securing large grants from governments and industrial foundations. International rivalry, corporate profit, and personal ambition thus combine to produce a culture of ever-accelerating technological innovation.
These are the circumstances that most historians of science and technology would emphasize when attempting to explain why it is that the twentieth century has produced such marvels as space travel, antibiotics, and the World Wide Web. David F. Noble’s approach in The Religion of Technology, however, is different. For him, the moving force behind these innovations comes not from material circumstances, but from the beliefs of the scientific innovators themselves; and he sees those beliefs as essentially religious in character. Technologists, he claims, are driven not just by the pursuit of utility, power, and profit, but by “spiritual yearnings for supernatural redemption.” Their true inspiration lies in an…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.