Attitudes Toward Technology: From Awe to Ordinary?

Then and Now


I’ve been revising my Paris universal exposition essays recently, and reread this observation by Henry Adams, written about his visit to the 1900 universal exposition in Paris (he writes of himself in the third person):

To Adams the dynamo became a symbol of infinity. As he grew accustomed to the great gallery of machines, he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as early Christians felt the Cross. The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm's-length at some vertiginous speed, and barely murmuring -- scarcely humming an audible warning to stand a hair's-breath further for respect of power -- while it would not wake the baby lying close against its frame. Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force. Among the thousand symbols of ultimate energy, the dynamo was not so human as some, but it was the most expressive.

He goes on to assert that:

 “The nearest approach to the revolution of 1900 was that of 310, when Constantine set up the Cross,” and that the dynamos of the gallery of machines, like the Christian cross,  represents a “moral force.”

Looking further via google into discussions Adams’s experience, I came across this view of how attitudes toward technology have changed in the passage of a century, from his time to ours:

"Henry Adams’s dynamo has been replaced by Everyman’s iPod, and awe has given way to complacence and dependence. Your computer’s e-mail program doesn’t inspire awe; it is more like a dishwasher than a dynamo. Nineteenth-century rhapsodies to the machines that tamed nature, such as the steam engine, have given way to impatience with the machines that don’t immediately indulge our whims." -- Christine Rosen,

So I wonder:

Is Ms. Rosen correct, or are there still manifestations of technology that inspire the kind of awe that Adams felt? The best example I could come up with is the New Horizons voyage to Pluto. Some other candidates:

The access to knowledge and friends via the internet

Big Blue’s defeat of chess master Kasparov


What do you think: 

The thrill has "faded into the light of common day," or

The Saga Continues. or 

Something else?


To put alongside all points of view:

“A technology has truly arrived when the new problems it gives rise to approach in magnitude the problems it was designed to solve.” 


“I’m awed (I guess, though I don’t use that word much :-)) by the nearly instant access to answers to most factual questions I come up with. And I was thrilled by the images from the Pluto trip. I don’t share Ms Rosen’s “impatience” reaction but am rather still amazed (awed?) by the power of connected personal computing in all its emerging forms.” — David Grady

"I tend to agree that we have become more blasé about recent technological innovations (though many have scientific and technological roots in the 19th century) for two reasons.  First, because we now expect them, they're now part of our ordinary life.  And, second, because of the rapidity with which new technological advances come on the scene.  Their very density reduces the wonder with which we receive them.  In the 19th century such things as steam engines, Jacquard looms, photography, sewing machines, telegraphs, telephones, autos, recorded sound, moving pictures and air flight were life changing, economy changing and even politically changing events which took some time for society to digest.  The last of such events would seem to be nuclear weapons.   Now we have monthly, if not weekly, new toys.  Even the marvelous photos of Pluto pale in importance because of earlier missions to Mars and the dazzling images produced by the Hubble.  In the very recent past we've put vehicles on Mars, landed vehicles on a comet, seen I Watches marketed, been shown replaced hands and faces, etc., etc.  One other observations.  There now exists a huge, world-wide community of techno-nerds who quickly absorb the utility of innovations and quickly introduce them into popular consciousness." — Marvin Nathan

"The grandchild of Adams’s dynamo did indeed defeat the best human chess player alive (and, perhaps, ever). At some point, in the course of devising and executing strategies for the game, the computer had to carry out decisions based on an ever-changing array of possibilities. Isn’t that process getting close to consciousness? Our conclusion rests on the similarity of what, for both Kasparov and Big Blue, deciding means.

"To use technology to generate independent consciousness — we’re not there yet; but even the cross of Constantine would not match that achievement. It would be an epochal event approaching the magnitude of the creation of Adam and Eve." — Bayard Coll