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America as Second Creation: Technology and Narratives of New Beginnings

Author: David E. Nye
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003
Review Published: March 2004

 REVIEW 1: Craig McFarlane

David Nye's America as Second Creation: Technology and Narratives of New Beginnings is a study into the co-development of technology and America as a nation. Two theses form the core of his argument. First, American foundational narratives are inherently technological and are always contested by counter-narratives. Second, the transformation of America from a British colony to a nation in its own right was characterized by four shifts in perception: spatial, economic, psychological, and ideological. These two theses combine into an ideology of second creation.

Nye, a historian of the development of large technological systems in America, argues that technological foundation narratives are populist attempts by Americans to explain their place in the world. Despite their name, technological narratives never explain technologies; rather they explain how a sense of place is discovered through the use of technologies. From this perspective, history becomes progress: both civil and technological development. Foundational narratives consist in a story about a group, possessing new technologies, who enter into an undeveloped area and then transform and improve that area. This transformation leads to permanent settlements and prosperity. Finally, some members of this community depart for a new region to repeat the process elsewhere. Other common elements of technological foundation narratives include placing agency with technologies rather than with a human hero; the story is often told in the passive voice (which grammatically erases the agency of humans); and the process of technological development is seen as inevitable.

Drawing upon archival sources, literature, poetry, and paintings, Nye identifies and describes four such foundational narratives: the axe, the mill, the canal and railroad, and irrigation. The axe narrative is the first one described by Nye and, of the four, the most convincingly argued on the part of the author:
    The story is paradigmatic: A settler enters the vast primeval woods. Using a new technology, the American axe, he transforms the forest into a meadow, allowing it to be farmed for the first time. Initial settlement draws others to the area. As the population increases, a community emerges. As the land is "improved," its value rises. The region prospers. Elimination of the forest is equated with progress, hard work being tangibly rewarded for each acre cleared. (43)
This narrative is associated with the settling of western Massachusetts, northern New Hampshire, Vermont, and the Ohio Valley during the nineteenth century. Nye details how the narrative of the axe and log cabin became naturalized to the extent that it was projected backwards in time to the original colonization of America: "Ask most Americans how the first settlers lived and they will talk about log cabins. It was not so, but later generations superimposed this vision on all of the American past" (46). Nye suggests that the log cabin did not emerge until the end of the eighteenth century thus demonstrating the power of technological foundational narratives.

The second element in Nye's argument is the four shifts in perception. The spatial shift in perception is the reorganization of America into an abstract grid from the traditional scheme of organizing space according to local geography and custom. The economic shift in perception is the transformation from a regulated market to a free market. This economic shift leads to a psychological shift from anxieties of scarcity to a feeling of natural abundance. Finally, the world itself was transformed from a mysterious and spiritual world into a scientific world of regular causes and effects.

Together, the technological foundation narratives and the transformation of perception resulted in an ideology of second creation. First creation is the religious creation of the world by God and second creation is the secular re-creation of the world by humans through technology. Through the work of the technological narrative, second creation was not seen as a violation of nature and of Godís plan, but rather as an improvement of nature and the perfection of nature through the application of technology. Second creation is complete when it becomes naturalized. According to Nye, this naturalization of second creation continues: "Even at the beginning of the twenty-first century, narratives grounded in this ideology still appeal to many Americans not as stories but as descriptions of reality" (41-2). Thus, second creation "is about how Americans narrated their place in the world and imagined their position in history in technological terms" (5). Unfortunately, Nye never addresses why second creation is inherently ideological. The closest he comes is to discuss why technological foundation narratives are no longer easy to accept because their ideological foundations no longer make sense. This claim, however, is in contradiction to the passage from pages 41-2 cited immediately above and the passage from page 288 cited below.

Technological foundational narratives are not uncontested. For every technological foundation narrative Nye discovers, he discovers a counter-narrative that seeks to subvert some dimension of the foundational narrative. Nye identifies these counter-narratives with excluded and marginalized groups such as Native Americans and proto-environmentalists. Contrary to the foundational narratives, the counter-narratives view the process of second creation as an invasion by outsiders who conquer the land through force or trickery, in part because they possess powerful technologies. These new technologies transform the landscape and destroy the traditional way of life with the eventual result that the original community is marginalized or destroyed. Although the point is not made explicit, there is a sense that the counter-narratives are, in their strong form, anti-technological and, in their weak form, highly skeptical of technology.

Although the technological foundation narrative is convincing, Nye's argument about the counter-narrative is significantly less so. Nye argues that counter-narratives are "based on the same events but seen from the viewpoint of those whom new technologies disturbed or displaced" (14) and implies that foundational narratives and counter-narratives development simultaneously. Yet, his evidence for the axe counter-narrative suggests a different story. First, Nye suggests that the counter-narrative did not develop until the twentieth century going so far as to cite a speech by President Reagan from 1981. Secondly, many of the stories mobilized as evidence for the counter-narrative do not originate in the northeast as one would expect, but rather in the south and Texas. His evidence suggests cultural differences in the use of log cabins between northerners and southerners rather than a concern by Native Americans and proto-environmentalists with the destruction wrought by the American axe. A more convincing argument is that history is always contested and that the contestation can occur both simultaneously with the event and post facto. As such, representations of events are never static. Reinterpreted in this light, Nye's book becomes significantly more convincing through its constant reminder that historical facts can never be taken for granted.

How is Nye's book relevant to cyberculture studies? At the outset, Nye suggests that the Internet cannot be understood as providing a technological foundation narrative, classifying it instead as an "utopian narrative" that deals with futurism. An utopian narrative "anticipates a sudden technological breakthrough that allows people to create a society of ease and abundance" (16). These narratives are only believed by a minority who "believe that machines can radically reconfigure society" (17). However, at the end of the book, Nye apparently contradicts himself:
    The technological creation has by no means disappeared. On television, pioneers still enter the empty space of the American West. Children play computer games, such as Sim City, that invite them to create new communities from scratch in an empty virtual landscape where a grid defines the contours of roads and the arrangement of houses, factories, and commercial districts.(288)
Nye's book is a worthy attempt to use narrative analysis to understand the relationship between technology and civil development. Nye also presents new archival sources that will interest scholars interested in the history of technology. Nye is less successful, however, in providing a conceptual framework for meditating on the relationship between space, time, and historical representation in cyberculture studies.


Craig McFarlane:
Craig McFarlane is a graduate student in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University. His interests include social and political theory, historical sociology, and war and violence. He is currently completing his Master's thesis which examines and explicates Michel Foucault's analytic of power relations. He will begin his doctoral studies at York University in the fall of 2004.  <cmcfarla@connect.carleton.ca>

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