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Technological Optimism

October 9, 2001

A public radio commentary

While browsing at a used bookstore a title caught my eye: THE BOY ENGINEER. It's a 1950s book to entice boys to become engineers.

The book wears its era boldly: From the sexism of its title to its attitude toward engineers. A technological optimism fills every page: The book suggests a boy become an engineer to "solve problems of water shortages, traffic congestion, and to find cheaper power."

We certainly don't think like this today as we face some of the down sides to technology: bombs, high tech genocide, and perhaps environmental damage. This book, A BOY ENGINEER, published in 1959, marks the end of an era begun in the 1920s, when every new engineering marvel fascinated us. To see this listen to Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter's hit "You're the Top." She compares her lover to every great thing in the world of 1934: "You're the top, you're Mahatma Ma Gandhi. You're the top, you're Napoleon Brandy, you're the purple light of a summer night in Spain, you're the National Gallery, you're Crosby's salary, you're cellophane ...."

Cellophane? Sure Gandhi, he'd reached his worldwide fame only a few years before, and Bing Crosby was a major star, but Cellophane? Yes.

Jaded today by technology we find it hard to imagine mundane cellophane taking America by storm in the 1920s and 30s. In those decades, practically anything wrapped in cellophane sold better. The sales of cellophane-wrapped hankerchiefs rose nearly one hundred percent, marshmallows one thousand percent, and donuts sales jumped two thousand percent. Occasionally even people wrapped themselves in it: A magazine editor held a press conference shrouded in cellophane, and a Hollywood star paid ten thousand dollars for a black Cellophane hat trimmed with diamonds. So pervasive was cellophane that in a New Yorker cartoon a nurse shows a new baby to its father who gasps "My word! No cellophane?"

I don't think we've felt such uncritical fascination with technology in years; we've gone through a time when to many the products of engineers are the chief source of any discontent. I think both attitudes are wrong-headed.

They miss that our sense of the positives and negatives of technology reflect ourselves. My reaction, as an engineer, is to marvel at the details of any technology that changes my life, but also to feel sadness in the loss of old ways. This reflects my own nature: I usually esteem what is familiar, and avoid large doses of the totally new. That's why I usually prefer used bookstores to new ones.

Copyright 2001 William S. Hammack Enterprises