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Human-Built World

How to Think about Technology and Culture

To most people, technology has been reduced to computers, consumer goods, and military weapons; we speak of "technological progress" in terms of RAM and CD-ROMs and the flatness of our television screens. In Human-Built World, thankfully, Thomas Hughes restores to technology the conceptual richness and depth it deserves by chronicling the ideas about technology expressed by influential Western thinkers who not only understood its multifaceted character but who also explored its creative potential.

Hughes draws on an enormous range of literature, art, and architecture to explore what technology has brought to society and culture, and to explain how we might begin to develop an "ecotechnology" that works with, not against, ecological systems. From the "Creator" model of development of the sixteenth century to the "big science" of the 1940s and 1950s to the architecture of Frank Gehry, Hughes nimbly charts the myriad ways that technology has been woven into the social and cultural fabric of different eras and the promises and problems it has offered. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, optimistically hoped that technology could be combined with nature to create an Edenic environment; Lewis Mumford, two centuries later, warned of the increasing mechanization of American life.

Such divergent views, Hughes shows, have existed side by side, demonstrating the fundamental idea that "in its variety, technology is full of contradictions, laden with human folly, saved by occasional benign deeds, and rich with unintended consequences." In Human-Built World, he offers the highly engaging history of these contradictions, follies, and consequences, a history that resurrects technology, rightfully, as more than gadgetry; it is in fact no less than an embodiment of human values.


"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 20th century. Hughes, a former Pulitzer Prize finalist and the US’s most eminent historian of technology, is correct to interpret the term in the broadest sense. . . . Drawing on the views of philosophers, churchmen, artists, social theorists and engineers, Hughes shows how much of the controversy surrounding technology has reflected an ambivalence about the human will to create. . . . As Hughes shows, these arguments have grown more acute, especially as technology has moved from the idealism of the "machine age" to a more modern and more insidious development based on systems, controls, and communication."

Mark Archer | Financial Times

"Human-Built World offers a thoroughgoing, incisively rendered, and engaging history of humanity’s relationship to technology. . . . Although Hughes gives invention and engineering a central role in the creation of our world, the purpose of his sprightly polemic is to rail against technological determinism. . . . Human-Built World is, in one sense, a call for greater and more widespread education about technology. . . . As technically based systems already invisibly govern so much of our daily lives and will continue to penetrate our culture still further, this is a timely and urgent book."

Adam Wishart | Times Literary Supplement

"America’s foremost historian of technology."

Eliot A. Cohen | Foreign Affairs

"A virtuoso overview of the various relationships between technology, commerce, society, art, and the military."

Graham Farmelo | Nature

"Hughes goes on to provide a compelling story of how engineering was thought to have the capability, and indeed the destiny, of providing a second (and better) edenic creation. . . . An excellent overview of how to think about culture and technology. The book should be required reading for anyone who aspires to participate meaningfully in our technological society."

Domenico Grasso | Science

"In Human-Built World, Thomas Hughes draws on the breadth and depth of his long career as one of the 20th century’s most eminent historians of technology. This concise book not only charts a course through a rich sea of intellectual engagements . . . it also implicitly documents Hughes own intellectual journey."

Emily Thompson | American Scientist

"Were I to teach a survey course on the history of modern technology, I would strongly consider using this book. Thomas P. Hughes takes the reader over a vast stretch of time and through complex ideas and scores of individuals to present an intellectual history of technology."

Paul Josephson | American Historical Review

“Do not be deceived: this work may be short and written for the general public, but this senior statesman of our field distills a great deal into Human-Built World. . . . [Hughes] argues that particularly after the industrial revolution, Western cultures reconstructed the material world and reconceived their relationship to nature, as people ‘believed that they had the creative technological power to make a world according to their own blueprints.’ . . . If a doctoral thesis crawls over one patch of ground, this book jets over the landscape of our discipline, emphasizing its adjacence to art, architecture, literature, and environmental history. . . . What Hughes has done is distill much of our discipline into a small compass. Human-Build World can serve as the framework for an undergraduate course.”--David Nye,
Technology and Culture

David E. Nye | Technology and Culture

"I have difficulty finding weak spots in this book. . . . It is a well composed study that Iwill gladly recommend both as course literature and to colleagues and friends."

Nina Wormbs | Nuncius

"For almost four decades, Thomas Parke Hughes has been shaping scholarly discourse in the hiostory of technology. He has explored technology in the small and in the large . . . and most important, he has been a central figure in efforts to build a bridge between technical and humanistic cultures. . . . Now, after years of scholarly study, Hughes has stepped back to reflect on the larger meaning of what he has learned."

Arthur Molella | Minerva

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1. Introduction: Complex Technology
2. Technology and the Second Creation
3. Technology as Machine
4. Technology as Systems, Controls, and Information
5. Technology and Culture
6. Creating an Ecotechnological Environment
Bibliographic Essay

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