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Human-Built World: How to Think about Technology and Culture (science.culture) Paperback – May 13, 2005

7 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0226359342 ISBN-10: 0226359344

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Editorial Reviews


"Thomas P. Hughes presents a wide-ranging yet deeply insightful view of technology and how its relationship to society and culture has changed over time. Readers of this book will benefit greatly from Hughes's informed and understanding perspective on what technology is and how it is perceived." - Henry Petroski, author of Small Things Considered; "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.... 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; "Do we 'think' about technology? Probably not. It is the stuff that surrounds us. Yet even if we no longer wonder at the internet or mobile telephones, we worry about chemical weapons and human cloning. Indeed, 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 late 20th century." - Mark Archer, Financial Times"

From the Inside Flap

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.

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Product Details

  • Series: science.culture
  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (May 13, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226359344
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226359342
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #637,125 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By James Hoogerwerf on May 17, 2007
Format: Paperback
Thomas Parker Hughes, scholar, professor, and author, has dedicated himself "to better [understanding] the complexity of technology and its multiple uses."(1) Hughes believes Americans construe technology too broadly. In "Human-Built World" Hughes defines technology "as a mode of creation"(177) and he expands on the theme that "humans have been engaged in creating a living and working place."(179)

Technology is the main thread in his history, but technology does not determine history's course. For better or worse that is left to society. Particularly in relation to the environment, Hughes concedes the century of technological enthusiasm is in the beginning stage of deterioration. The human-built world is now in trouble, but society may respond appropriately and respond with an "ecotechnological" answer. According to Hughes "using technology to recover the Edonic state is a message entirely appropriate for our ecologically concerned times."(43) Society has to take on the responsibility, but whether technology's ecological legacy can be redressed, remains an open question.

In Human-Built World Hughes observes that enthusiasm toward a technologically based world diminished between World War I and II. Hughes theorizes that the human-built world did not become a paradise is due more to "negative political and social values and structures, than to a failure in rational cooperation."(37) At a time when "artists and the concerned public have begun to doubt the completely human-built world can respond to human needs and aspirations," managing the systems-age is a "major societal challenge."(12) This tension Hughes hopes may be resolved in the "ecotechnological world.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Mark S on December 31, 2009
Format: Paperback
The Human-Built world is a wonderfully concise rendering, in both theme and prose, of the history and role of technology in the West, particularly the U.S., whilst losing very little explanatory power.

Hughes starts with the philosophic impetus for technology in ancient literature (Cicero) and Christian theology. The first saw in man's nature an urge to develop a "second creation"; the latter sought the recovery of Eden. In Goethe's Faust, a second creation is a manifestation of man's creativity and egotism, a challenge to God. In founding America, the Puritans saw themselves as a moral beacon for the rest of the world, "a Citty upon a Hill".

In Chapters Two to Four, Hughes traces the development of technology from the machine revolution of the 19th century to the systems and control revolution of the 20th century to the current information revolution: each not only created something new but also re-conceptualized things and men.

In the final two chapters, technology's impact, culturally and environmentally, is discussed. The message here is the need to reign in technology; its pervasiveness and power can have a detrimental influence on culture and the environment.

Hughes also indulges in a few quick and incisive comments along the way. The Europeans did not uniquely transform North America, the Indians also controlled their environment (p. 7); on the arms race: "Unfortunately, many Americans today find spectacular energy laden weaponry sublime" (p. 39). Also helpful is the bibliographic essay, which I've used to find further reading.

This little book is a dynamo of information and insight. It's highly recommended.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Binnur Al-Kazily on October 19, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Thomas P. Hughes looks at technology "as a creative process involving human ingenuity" and "as a means to shape the landscape" by "craftsmen, mechanics, inventors, engineers, designers and scientists using tools, machines and knowledge to create and control a human-built world" (p.3.) Emphasizing creativity and control, Hughes examines this symbiotic relationship between humans and technology as our creation, and technology's affect on the society and culture.

Acknowledging the complexity of technology, Hughes interweaves the history of technology over the past two centuries with the progression of society, culture, art, and architecture. In telling the story, he shares how technology has become an essential part of life, influencing all aspects of human activities. He concludes: "Today the endangered state of the natural environment, the deteriorating human-built world, and the threat of technology out of control reflect people's values and their resigning themselves to determinism. A change in values and an activist stance toward technological change will be an effective response to these pressing problems. Such a value change and activism will not come about, however, unless technology is better understood. This book is intended to provide such an understanding" (p.173.)

Human-Built World clearly illustrates the impact of technology on society, good and bad. However, in Hughes view, there is an imbalance of influence, where society's impact on technology is at best subtle, possibly driven by an imbalance of values (ex. need for mass production driven by mass consumption.) As a technologist, I found the book intriguing and illuminating, leaving me thirsty for more insights and positive examples in culture and technology.
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