Sean F. Johnston. Techno-Fixers: Origins and Implications of Technological Faith. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2020. Illustrations, tables. 336 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-228-00132-4.
Reviewed by Aaron Bateman (The George Washington University)
Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (July, 2022)
Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)
Today, there is no shortage of technocratic optimists who pledge that the deluge of social, political, economic, health, and environmental crises can be solved by technology. Despite the fact that previous large-scale technological endeavors have not delivered on their promises to alleviate societal problems, faith in technological solutions has prevailed. Today, technological optimism appears to be on the rise. Elon Musk, the controversial founder of Tesla and SpaceX, is inspiring a whole new generation of technocrats. He has presented his electric cars as a means of mitigating some of the effects of climate change and painted SpaceX projects as a mechanism for saving human beings from extinction. Although Musk’s wealth, power, and influence are perhaps unique, his tech-utopianism and methods for promoting himself and his ideas are not.
In Techno-Fixers: Origins and Implications of Technological Faith, Sean F. Johnston follows the evolution of the “technological fix” as a concept, a cultural belief, and a practice (p. 9). Methodologically, he engages with concepts and ideas familiar to historians and philosophers of science and technology, cultural and social historians, and members of the science and technology studies (STS) community. A unifying theme among his many case studies is that promoters of technological fixes have tended to focus on outcomes while ignoring underlying social problems. He not only presents the history of the technological fix but also argues that present-day societal problems “cannot be reduced to mere engineering solutions” (p. 21).
Johnston elucidates the significance of individuals in promoting technological fixes in the American context. Howard Scott, an American engineer, was a leading figure in the technocracy movement established in the early 1930s. Scott promoted the idea that engineering methods would eventually be recognized as the most effective means of governance and of maintaining order. American and British experiences during the Second World War underscored the importance of scientific and technical expertise. Alvin Weinberg, who led Oak Ridge National Laboratory, positioned the concept of technological fixes within the context of “Big Science.” He argued that the resources of national laboratories, for example, could be marshalled to solve societal problems. Both Scott and Weinberg employed similar rhetorical strategies; they presented technological fixes in the form of “generic parables” divorced from critical contextual details (p. 89).
In exploring how technological optimism became deeply embedded in the American consciousness, Johnston points toward the significance of popular culture. A long literary tradition of science fiction has presented both dystopian and utopian visions of technology and the future of humanity. Films, comics, magazines, world’s fairs, and theme parks all played a role in proliferating the message that technological innovation could be a force for social good. The Century 21 World’s Fair (1962) in Seattle included an exposition titled “The World of Tomorrow” that transported visitors into a high-technology future. Profit-generating enterprises, like Walt Disney World, quickly learned that technological enthusiasm was growing in popularity. Johnston points out that in this period we find the “union of technophile and corporate interests” (p. 123). Fundamentally, people learned that technological optimism, and corresponding technological fixes, are easily sold.
Johnston also looks at the unintended consequences of technological fixes and how negative outcomes strongly contrast with narratives of technological progress. His observations will certainly resonate with historians, social scientists, and policymakers interested in the social, political, and environmental aspects of infrastructure. He reveals how seldom technological fixers fully considered the broader social and environmental implications of their technological solutions. Johnston’s examples include the environmental effects of nuclear power and highway bypasses routed through low-income and high-density areas; these case studies remain relevant for current debates on such topics as energy independence and infrastructure modernization. A cautionary lesson from these examples is that the temporary benefits of technological solutions are oftentimes overtaken by their belated negative side effects.
A core element of Johnston’s narrative is that technological optimism relegates substantial authority to a technocratic community. Selected engineers and planners are given the power to “solve” far-reaching, systemic issues, which naturally has significant political implications (p. 202). This practice has led to unintended, and at times disastrous, outcomes, so we must ask why technological optimism prevails. Johnston elucidates several of the forces at play in this phenomenon. A culture of consumerism and a fixation on novelty tend to conflate product innovation with social progress. There is also the seductiveness of the immediacy of technological solutions; they deflect attention away from system-wide issues that are not easily solved. Another underlying explanation for the persistence of technological optimism is the skillful use of rhetoric by its promoters. Today, just as in the twentieth century, advocates of technological fixes often employ simple, straightforward messages buttressed by evocative images. Belief in technological solutions takes on an almost religious zeal. Today, rather than being met with skepticism, tech-utopianists like Elon Musk appear to be attracting a growing group of followers. In this regard, Johnston does not provide much reassurance that we should expect changes anytime soon.
My main critique of this book concerns what it does not address. The US military is an organization that is technology focused. Yet military examples are few and far between in the book. Johnston does point toward technological fixes from the Vietnam War, writing that “opponents of the Vietnam War ... cited the impotence of sophisticated military systems against the guerilla methods of a resourceful enemy” (p. 17). It is important to note that the Vietnam War involved not just insurgents but also the North Vietnamese Army, one of the largest conventional militaries in Asia at that time. Johnston also frames Ronald Reagan’s controversial missile defense program—the Strategic Defense Initiative, more popularly known as “Star Wars”—as a technological fix to the nuclear dilemma during the Cold War. In any case, it would have been worthwhile to dig at least a little bit deeper into the dangers of technological optimism in a military context. In fairness to the author, he could not possibly have explored all relevant areas in which we find fixations on technological solutions.
Techno-Fixers is a compelling study of the origins and consequences of perennial faith in the idea that society can find technological solutions to social and political problems. This book takes on even greater relevance in light of the tech-evangelists of the present who frame technology as a solution to many of humanity’s most pressing challenges. This excellent work will be of great interest to historians, social scientists, the general public, and policymakers.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-sci-med-tech.
Aaron Bateman. Review of Johnston, Sean F., Techno-Fixers: Origins and Implications of Technological Faith.
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