Human-Built World: How to Think about Technology and Culture


"Do we 'think' about technology? Probably not. It is the stuff that surrounds us. Yet even if we no longer wonder at the internet or mobile telephony, we worry about chemical weapons and human cloning. Indeed, as Thomas P. Hughes shows in this brilliantly concise history, people were arguing about the rights and wrongs of technology long before the term gained currency in the late 20th century."—Mark Archer, Financial Times

"Thomas P. Hughes presents a wide-ranging yet deeply insightful view of technology and how its relationship to society and culture has changed over time. Readers of this book will benefit greatly from Hughes's informed and understanding perspective on what technology is and how it is perceived."—Henry Petroski, Duke University, and author of Small Things Considered

"A compelling synthesis of the history of modern technology and technological culture, tapping into the creative juices that have energized both from the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century to the information revolution of our own day. Attentive to art, architecture, and cultural thought on both sides of the Atlantic, it is at once erudite and accessible, stunning in its intellectual range. In all, a tour de force."—Daniel Kevles, Yale University, and author of The Baltimore Case

"Tom Hughes is more than his generation's most eminent historian of technology: as someone who seeks meaning in both history and technology, he is also what the French call a moraliste. This book is the culmination of a lifetime of thinking about technology as an expression of human values. At once deeply personal and far-ranging, it is an indispensable guide to understanding technology—its past and even more its future."—Rosalind Williams, MIT, and author of Retooling: A Historian Confronts Technological Change

An excerpt from
Human-Built World
How to Think about Technology and Culture
Thomas P. Hughes

Chapter Two
Technology and the Second Creation

Today we rarely attempt to understand technology by placing it in a religious context. In the late nineteenth century, the evolutionary science of Charles Darwin persuaded open-minded Western people that a religious perspective did not help them understand science, much less applied science, or technology. They understood technology as materialistic and practical, requiring a commonsensical approach in order to use it. Engineers, mechanics, and artisans practiced technology, and they did not need a philosophical or theological grounding to excel at their tasks.

Earlier, however, literate men and women in Europe and America contemplating technology's transformation of a natural into a human-built world situated technology as a creative tool into a religious context. Many persons with a theological or philosophical turn of mind who thought about technology believed it to be a God-given way in which to recover a lost paradise, or Edenic state.

The concept of a second creation and the Edenic recovery has a long history. Cicero in De natura deorum (45 B.C.) conceived of a second nature that humans create by channeling the rivers to suit their needs, by sowing and fertilizing the soil of the plains and the mountains to bear fruit and wheat, and by planting trees to shade their gardens and parks. Medieval Catholic and later Protestant theologians believed that Christians possessed a divine creative spark that would enable them to design tools and machines capable of transforming the land into a new Garden of Eden.

Mephistophelean Creativity

The second creation theme reaches a peak in nineteenth-century America, but the theme has a long history in Western religious and philosophical thought. German poet, statesman, and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe vividly expressed the creative drive of his contemporaries in his epic poem Faust. Goethe's presentation of the hoary Faust myth differs from other versions in its emphasis upon demonic creativity. Human creativity for Goethe became the mark of a divine life. At the same time, Goethe found creative humans, such as Faust, guilty of the sin of pride, which, from a theological perspective, is the worst of the seven deadly sins. A prideful human, like the fallen angel Mephistopheles, challenges the almighty power of God as the Creator. Goethe's Faust allows us to see the egotistical and controlling nether side of creativity.

Completed in 1832, Faust presents subtle insights into the second creation, or the technological transformation of the material world. Goethe plumbed the depths of human creativity, finding there both the benign and the wicked. In the poem's opening, we find Faust, an aging scholar, waging his eternal soul that Mephistopheles, a fallen angel who involves himself in human affairs, will be unable to provide him with an earthly experience sufficiently engaging to cause him to abandon his ceaseless striving and to rest content with an earthly achievement. He dares Mephistopheles to provide food that does not satiate, gold that does not pass through his fingers, and a woman who does not lust for his neighbor. Undaunted, the fallen angel promises Faust experiences that will cause him to ask the moment to linger.

The wager made, Mephistopheles conjures up for Faust one earthly pleasure after another—intellectual, sensuous, and sensual—without Faust's finding fulfillment in such fleeting moments. Only after Mephistopheles helps Faust preside over one of the most symbol-laden, large-scale technological projects in literature is Faust brought to ask that the moment of fulfillment linger. Not knowledge of the innermost workings of the world, not the love of the maid Margarete, not union with Helen of Troy, not the fleshpots of Walpurgis night, but the prospect of a land-reclamation scheme—of nature transformed—almost causes him to lose his spirit to Mephistopheles. Creating land by parting the waters in the manner of God in the book of Genesis, Faust exults in the creation of order from chaos and the making of a new Eden populated by a community of free men and women.

Goethe also explored the nether side of creativity by having Faust exhibit a neurotic craving to control land and people. He is irritated beyond reason to discover that an elderly couple, Philemon and Baucis, have reclaimed and settled a small plot of land long before his arrival and that they doggedly resist the "developers" who would level their cottage and chapel. Faust finds this defiance, this exception to his masterpiece, intolerable. Frustrated in the unbounded exercise of his godlike will by a patch of land still outside his control, he allows Mephistopheles to violently remove the old couple, who die from the shock. Like some other technological system builders, Faust also exposes the morally questionable side of his project by having Mephistopheles use diabolical means to provide thousands of slavelike workers to build the dikes and drainage canals that will reclaim the land from the sea.

Goethe uncannily anticipated the behavior of twentieth-century system builders engaged in totalitarian projects. Motivated by Marxist moral arrogance and empowered by authoritarianism, Soviet engineers and managers with an American-style affection for megaprojects ran roughshod over workers and local communities as they built canals, railroads, hydroelectric projects, and industrial complexes. Construction workers often survived miserably in tents and mud huts surrounded by open sewers. The technocratic politicians insisted that the projects prepared the way for a socialist utopia. The Soviet style of system building has spread recently to China. The Three Gorges Hydroelectric Project on the Yangtze River now under construction may displace more than a million people and flood more than 100 towns, 800 villages, and almost 100,000 hectares of prime farmland.

Mechanical Arts

Goethe's conviction that humans exuberantly express themselves in second creation projects involving the domination of nature was deeply rooted. The instinct to transform the world in a godlike manner can be traced back at least to medieval and Renaissance culture. In sharp contrast to believing a fallen angel to be their creative ally in questionable pursuits, medieval Catholic and later Protestant theologians imagined Christians fulfilling divine purpose as they mastered the earth. They reasoned that possessing a divine creative spark, humans could design tools and machines that would allow them to transform the land into a new Garden of Eden.

The Benedictine order of monks stressed the importance of manual landscape-altering work along with meditation and liturgical praise. The reforming Cistercian order became known in the twelfth century for its development of mechanical devices such as water mills and windmills that ground grain, sawed wood, worked metals, and reclaimed the wetlands.

The success of second creation work depended upon the invention and use of tools and machines. John Scotus Erigena (ca. 810-ca. 877), who flourished at the Carolingian court, and Hugo of St. Victor, the twelfth-century director of the School of St. Victor in Paris, celebrated machine technology by discussing the mechanical arts and raising them to the status of the liberal arts so celebrated in antiquity. They argued that humans should cultivate the mechanical arts of weaving, weapon making, navigation, agriculture, hunting, medicine, and drama so that they would flourish alongside the liberal ones of grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and harmony.

In handsomely illustrated sixteenth-century books describing military and civil machines, architects and engineers continued the celebration of the mechanical arts. They argued, like Hugo of St. Victor before them, that the mechanical arts offered a way to recover the Edenic paradise. They believed that over the millennia humans have gradually recovered reason lost with the ouster from Eden, and that with reason the competence for mathematical thought and, therefore, for machine design and construction would develop.

As instruments embodying reason, machines could be used to create an environment equal to, or even surpassing, the one enjoyed before the Fall. Furthermore, several of the authors believed that designing and using machines for such ends is far more spirit fulfilling than lounging about in Eden as Adam and Eve did before their ouster from the Garden. In essence, machine book authors assumed that the ability to develop machines is God-given and that machines are wondrous means of satisfying the human longing to create.

A sixteenth-century German physician, alchemist, and chemist, Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim, or Paracelsus, also stressed that the mechanical arts make possible godlike creativity. His version of the second creation theme has God leaving nature unfinished and its essential usefulness concealed in dross, thus providing a creative challenge for humans. According to Paracelsus, before the Fall and ouster from Eden, humans did not need the mechanical arts, and they did not have to work in order to transform the landscape. After the Fall, their circumstances changed and became like ours today. Even though a merciful God allowed the angels to impart their knowledge of the mechanical arts to Adam and Eve, they could only survive through work, discovery, and invention. Humans, henceforth, would eat their bread in the sweat of their brow as they engaged in a second creation. In the wilderness into which they were thrust, God had concealed the secrets of natural forces and the materials that humans needed. These they had to ferret out by reason and craft.

Technological Millennium

In the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, Puritanism spread from Geneva, where Protestant reformer John Calvin governed a theocracy through northern Europe, England, and Scotland. A reform movement, Puritanism rejected the primacy of the pope, called for the translation of the Latin Bible into German and English, rejected the celibacy of the clergy, and instituted an austere church architecture. Puritanism also spread a Protestant work ethic, or set of values, that continues to influence Western attitudes toward technology. Calvin preached that worldly success in trade, manufacturing, and mining indicated that a person was among the elect chosen for salvation by the Almighty. An individual's commitment to work likewise suggested election. The work ethic reinforced a belief that work and technology would restore the Edenic state.

Calvinists and like-minded Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Quakers in England, Scotland, and colonial America believed that natural philosophy, or natural science, as well as mechanical arts and work provided a rational and empirical means to improve their earthly condition, or material circumstances. Francis Bacon, an influential English essayist and statesman, articulated a philosophy of science and technology that drew upon earlier Christian thought and that substantially molded the work ethic and the Puritan worldview. In Advancement of Learning (1605), he wrote that scientific activity has as its appropriate end the glory of the Creator and the improvement of man's estate. In his Novum Organum (1620), he foresaw technological knowledge, especially as embodied in machines, as a way to recover from the Edenic Fall and to regain a paradise characterized as within the reach of all men.

Bacon urged elite men of philosophy to converse with craftsmen in order to unite natural philosophy and the mechanical arts. Philosophers could rationalize craft practice, and craftsmen could bring the philosophers face-to-face with the physical world that they sought to understand. In his essay New Atlantis (1627), Bacon imagined wise men in a house of philosophy (Solomon's House) applying philosophy to the mechanical arts. They and other Puritans of a New Jerusalem would have dominion over nature.

Bacon perceived voyages of discovery, developments in printing, metallurgy, optics, and ballistics, the rise of Protestantism, and the general increase of knowledge as evidence that the millennium, the New Jerusalem, was close at hand. He anticipated a dawning day when God and man again would become coworkers in creation. In preparation for the coming of the New Jerusalem, Puritans following Bacon dedicated themselves to the pursuit of practical scientific knowledge and technology, values that did then and do now characterize Western culture.

A poet, John Milton, author of Paradise Lost (1667), stressed the nature-domination theme, too. Humans armed with the mechanical arts and science would have dominion over the earth, seas, and heaven. Mother Nature would surrender to man. Characterization of nature as feminine became an oft-sounded theme among second creators in the Old and New Worlds.

Other influential Puritan thinkers predicted that a great Puritan-inspired instauration, or restoration after social decay, would bring on the millennium. In their millenarian faith, the Puritans foresaw an early victory over the Antichrist and the rule of the saints in a New Jerusalem not unlike the old Eden. Those who colonized the New World, especially the Puritans of New England, believed that the second creation of the New World would bring the millennium. Even today many Americans see themselves as the world's most technologically creative people who are presiding over the making of a promised land.


Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 17-27 of Human-Built World: How to Think about Technology and Culture by Thomas P. Hughes, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2004 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Thomas P. Hughes
Human-Built World: How to Think about Technology and Culture
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