So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


Leonardo to the Internet: Technology and Culture from the Renaissance to the Present. Thomas J. Misa

Leonardo to the Internet takes a broad historic look at the defining technologies of eight different eras between the 15th century and today. The author, Thomas Misa, is a professor in the Department of Humanities at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. He looks at the relationship between technology and the various cultures of these periods and shows that "technology is not only a force for but also a product of social and cultural change."

In the first chapter, "Technologies of the Court," he looks at the court engineers, including Leonardo da Vinci, the invention of perspective in painting, and the Gutenberg printing press to show how these technologies were used, not for economic gain, but to support the royal courts and city-states of the Renaissance era.

The second chapter is entitled "Techniques of Commerce" and looks at the period from 1588 to 1740 when Dutch merchants amassed fortunes using technologies like herring fishing boat factories, windmills, and fine textiles manufacture and developed an international trade second to none. They used their wealth to support fine artists and to speculate in tulip bulbs.

"Geographies of Industry" is the third chapter and it covers the period from 1740 to 1851, the time of the Industrial Revolution in England. Rather than looking at the cities normally considered the homes of industry in this period, Misa takes a close look at industry in London, using beer brewing as his focus. He then compares London to Manchester's textiles industry and Sheffield steel manufacture. He does this to create a much more complex image of the Industrial Revolution, and to show that there were many paths to industrialization in the period.

1840 to 1914 is the subject of "Instruments of Empire," the fourth chapter. Here Misa looks at how British Imperialism and the technologies of railroads, steamships, and telegraphy interacted to create a world-spanning empire.

Chapter five, "Science and Systems," covers a second industrial revolution that took place between 1870 and 1930. Here the German science-based chemical industry developed a synthetic-chemical empire based originally on fabric dyes. Also science and technological research became an integral part of industry, driving out the independent inventors of earlier times. The author also looks to America's electric lighting struggle between direct and alternating current systems. Out of these developments came modern German companies like IG Farben, BASF, Bayer, and AGFA, as well as the American firms of Westinghouse and General Electric. Misa also looks at the beginning of university industrial partnerships with the development of the MIT labs.

The first half of the 20th century is the focus of chapter six, "Materials of Modernism." Here the Italian Futurists, the German Bauhaus, and the Dutch Modernists take the modern materials of steel and glass to redefine architecture and aesthetic theories.

"The Means of Destruction," chapter seven, looks at the relationship between the military and technological innovation in the 20th century. Misa calls World War II a "war of innovation" and looks closely at the atomic programs on both sides of the war as an example of how this relationship developed. The author shows that after the war this military-technology relationship still held sway. He uses the examples of the development of solid-state electronics and digital computers to illustrate this.

In chapter 8, "Toward a Global Culture," the author shows how Globalization was the major trend in last 30 years of the 20th century. He uses the development of the international standards that made the fax machine an everyday commodity as a case study of how this happened. Then he turns his attention to the world-wide food chain McDonald's to show how culture and technology give and take together in globalization. He then ends up with a discussion of the global Internet culture, but with a nod back to the previous chapter as he shows the military influences that developed the Internet.

He ends up with a summary chapter called "The Question of Technology" where he discusses the dynamics between Science, Economics, Culture, and Change. It is here that Misa points out that the relationship between Technology and Society is a constant give and take. There is a sad note to this summation as he states that he feels the attacks of September 11, 2001 signalled an end to this era. He states that the reactions to these attacks do not fit a pattern of globalization, and goes on to say that the "vision of a peaceful world, economically integrated and culturally harmonious, knitted together by information technology, is dead." He looks forward to a new era where reformers, social movements and groups of citizens embrace technological solutions to shape a new future.

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