PEOPLE who write books about technology usually fit into one of two rather simple- minded classes. The first class consists of engineers, historians of science, etc., who look with pride on the history of man's growing control over nature, and (barring a dumb misstep like nuclear war) look forward to a future of even greater control. The second class consists of humanists of various sorts, plus an occasional apostate scientist. Its members look with horror on the machine's growing control over man, and (barring a radical change in the course of civilization) foresee a future in which most of us will be the helpless victims of our own computers, robots, and androids.
Witold Rybczynski, to his credit, belongs to neither class. A Canadian, and a housing expert at McGill University, Professor Rybczynski sees that technology is not an automatic instrument of liberation. That is, he does not believe that every technical advance represents progress. He also sees that prior to high technology, life for most people was nasty, brutish, and short.
In this book, Rybczynski traces the numerous attempts that groups of workers and occasionally whole governments have made to control technology that they perceived as harmful. Workers do it by strikes and sabotage, governments by fiat. He also reaches for conclusions, notably as to what kinds of technology are harmful, and what methods of control might work.
In the historical part of the book, he mostly succeeds. He has assembled a great many instructive stories, most of them unknown to the general public. He brings together, for example, the attempts of Egypt in the 16th century, Japan in the 17th, and Madagascar in the 19th to practice selective control of technology. And the more recent attempts by Burma between 1948 and the 1970s, and Kampuchea (a.k.a. Cambodia) between 1974 and 1978. None, of course, succeeded permanently--though Japan did go 250 years.
He's even more wide-ranging in his accounts of attempted control by groups of workmen whose jobs were threatened. In one case, that of woolen mill workers in Renaissance England, the success was equal to the Japanese government's. The wool-croppers prevented the introduction of the gig mill for over 200 years.
But more usually, worker resistance is very short-lived. There will typically be a brief period of sabotage or strikes, followed by the glum realization that the new development is inevitable. Since technology is international, the banning of a gig mill or a robot welder in one country would merely mean its even more successful introduction across the nearest border. In short, technology is a world tiger, and if tamed, must be tamed everywhere at once.
What's less successful in the historical part of the book is the long section that Rybczynski can't resist devoting to housing. He has some valid points to make, such as that the home- made slums which surround most Third-World cities, however depressing they may look to the American visitor, look wonderful to their inhabitants and represent a true advance for the ex- peasants who live there. But the discussion of such specific housing as Thoreau's cabin, the Bauhaus, William Morris' country estate, and the Airstream trailer is too specialized for a work on the general impact of technology, and here the book loses momentum.
It loses even more when Rybczynski turns from history to analysis. He suffers from a sort of deliberate short-sightedness which greatly weakens most of his conclusions. For example, he concludes (as many have before him) that the assembly line is a harmful technique. The work is repetitive and uncreative; the worker has little or no control; only high wages make such a worker's life bearable. Here is one claw of the tiger's paw. How to blunt it? Easy, says Rybczynski: There is a solution arriving even now. We are moving from assembly lines, which are only semi-automated, to continuous-flow processes (as in oil refineries) which are totally automated. Here the human job "consists in periodic monitoring and occasional maintenance, done at the worker's pace." Goodbye repetitive screw-tightening, welcome dial-watching.
Rybczynski conveniently manages not to see that there will be such a job for maybe one assembly-line worker in 20, and even those who get them may be bored silly watching the dials. As a result, his "solution" is absurd. Kurt Vonnegut, writing Player Piano 30 years ago, had far deeper things to say about continuous- process automation than Rybczynski does now. So, in a subtler way, did Stanislaw Lem, writing The Cyberiad in 1967. In fact, even quite mediocre science fiction writers have seen deeper into this and similar matters. Unlike Rybczynski, few of them suppose that what human beings want most from the environment is a predictible response. (Hence the attraction of technology, which is a mode of increasing predictability.) Of course that's a human desire--almost perfectly balanced, however, by the human desire for unpredictibality.
Once I gave as the entire final exam in a science fiction course the following question: "If it were in your power to air-condition this planet, would you? Give reasons for your answer." About 11 percent of the students said they'd do it; the rest declined. They saw all the advantages in convenience and comfort; they also foresaw huge boredom.
Outside of narrow limits, Rybczynski does very little foreseeing in this book. If you want the history of attempts to control technology, it's worth looking at. If you want implications for the present and future, you'll do far better with Vonnegut and Lem.