Indigenous handicraft

Technology historian George Basalla tells us that at the end of the 16th century in Japan, where there was a wide availability of rifles, the Japanese preferred traditional weapons: the sword, the spear, the bow and the arrow. The reason is that the elitist warrior class, the samurai, preferred the sword for its symbolic, aesthetic and cultural values (1988, 188).

Immediate utility (rifles in the previous example) is then not the only kind of utility that the human being considers.

During a recent summer vacation stay with my family in Katrine (Northern Ontario, Canada), we visited a special event that took place in Algonquin Park called “Research Day”. Together with the undoubted interest of the information provided on the natural life of the area, a stand in particular caught my attention.

There the visitor could find some examples of Indigenous artifacts along with additional information, and it took me a while, after listening to the explanations offered and doing some readings, to realize that the objects were not just samples of the achievements of a group of people.

I must say, in order to contextualize the previous perception, that the responsible for the stand was Christine Luckasavitch, an Algonquin Anishinaabekwe of the Crane Clan, and a lifelong resident of Withney, Ontario. And that she is the author among other contributions of a short paper untitled “A Necessary Movement: The Creation of Culturally Appropriate Summer Camp Traditions”, where controversial issues related to cultural appropriation practices are discussed.

Simplifying the ideas defended in the paper (the complete version with more evidences is available in Pathways. The Ontario Journal of Outdoor Education, 2018), the author intends to reflect her concerns about the ways certain elements of Indigenous culture are represented by non-Indigenous people, or more specifically how these elements are recreated in educational programs, in this case the ones promoted at some Canadian summer camps. In her own words:

To those camps, organizers, administrators and educators who are looking to reformat camp traditions so they do not appropriate Indigenous culture, I encourage you to seek guidance from a group of Indigenous knowledge holders living in communities closest to your camp. Better yet: hire Indigenous knowledge holders as staff members, or invite them (with pay) to visit camp share their knowledge on a regular basis…

For example, the author mentions the “stunning artwork that can be found” as a result of the activities carried out in the camps, but at the same time she regrets that they were not made by Indigenous people.

Given this premises, and going back to our stand, an adequate understanding of the exposed material demands a holistic perspective, the one that contemplates artifacts not just as examples of the skill of artisans, but as objects integrated in forms of cultural life. Decontextualizing these works, then, is the condition to give them other meanings and to turn them into stereotypes outside their original purposes.


Two small baskets on display at the “Research day” stand devoted to Indigenous culture. Algonquin Park (Ontario), 2019


Basket weaving provides an invaluable example of how a practice is integrated in a community. In this case particular features of the artifacts (the selection of materials, standardized sizes, designs depending on purposes, decoration…) as well as the socioeconomic structure that sustains the production (transmission system of know-how to apprentices, political and social status of women…) must be contemplated in the context of a land and environment-based culture. This includes an active resistance to changes that may alter the sustainable order already established, particularly the one that comes from a dominant culture.

Pickering (2010, 75) explains the evolution of basket design as a result of cultural changes:

Classic Period basketry among the Algonquin and Wasco/Wishram was traditional [land-based], indigenous basketry made in early post-contact time prior to acculturation with no non-native material or design influence […]. The few Algonquin and Wasco/Wishram Classic Period specimens available reveal that the materials and technique native women from these two groups used required a stable, long-term relationship within the environment from which they procured their materials and performed their basket construction. The stability of this environmental relationship centered, in large part, on the subsistence food gathering and agricultural practices native women developed over a long period prior to the introduction of European explorers and traders into their territory. European explorers and traders neglected to fully describe the intensive environmental and economic relationship native women from these two groups maintained. The sizable amounts of com, roots, and salmon explorers encountered among these native communities was stored and traded by native women in baskets constructed into standard units of measurement which suggests that the trade networks and food value systems developed prior to contact were well established and well supported by an egalitarian society which valued equally the contributions of each member of the community.

Colonial pressures altered native women’s ability to continue the same level of subsistence activity and intense land-based relationship with their traditional territory and environment. Colonial interference and cultural disruption among the Algonquin began around the mid-seventeenth century, earlier than for many other native communities. During this time, the traditional twined hemp and birch bark basket technology of the Algonquin quickly entered a Hiatus Period in which the adoption of European trade goods replaced many utilitarian basket functions and traditional basket making ceases.

As a contribution to the cohesion of the group, basketry can be identified in the sense contemplated in this entry as an Indigenous cultural symbol. But which basket model could be considered the most representative? Probably the one that comes from egalitarian interactions. Nevertheless, this is more a moral assessment than a description of what has happened in history.

References and further readings

BASALLA, George (1988), The Evolution of Technology. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

LUCKASAVITCH, Christine (2018), “A Necessary Movement: The Creation of Culturally Appropriate Summer Camp Traditions”, Pathways. The Ontario Journal of Outdoor Education, 30 (3), pp.13-15.

ORMSBY, Mike (2018), “Cultural Appropriation is Never Appropriate… Even at Summer Camp”, Pathways. The Ontario Journal of Outdoor Education, 30 (3), p. 16.

PICKERING, Heidi J. (2010), “From Fishing Weirs to Fancy Baskets: How Changes in Native American Basketry Forms Reflect Changes in the Economic Independence of Native American Women during Colonization”. Master of Arts in Liberal Studies (MALS) Student Scholarship. 70. [available on line at]

TURNBAUGH, Sarah Peabody and TURNBAUGH, William A. (2004), Indian Baskets, West Chester (Pennsylvania), Schiffer Publishing Ltd.

WILKES, Taylor (ed.), KENNEDY, Jay and SHORE, Amanda (2018), “Transitioning Traditions Take Two: The Evolution of an Ontario Camp’s “Indian” Council Ring—Eight Years in the Making”, Pathways. The Ontario Journal of Outdoor Education, 30 (3), pp. 4-12 [available on line at].





“Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy. Any man who can take a TV wall apart and put it back together again, and most men can nowadays, is happier than any man who tries to slide-rule, measure, and equate the universe…”, says Captain Beattty, chief of the firemen station in charge of burning books in Ray Bradbury’s most popular novel Fahrenheit 451.

The book published in 1953 deals with one of the author’s concerns, the danger of an illiterate society that is absorbed by mass media. The dystopian vision presented in the novel illustrates one version of the divergence between technology and intellectualism.

What do technology and anti-intellectualism have in common?

Sartre on the street

French existentialist philosopher, writer and political activist Jean-Paul Sartre and left-wing protesters demonstrate against racism. Photo: Corbis. Photo Credits

Two contributions published in Spanish leading newspapers are particularly revealing on the way people perceive technology. The first one stresses the difficulties created by annoying intellectuals to an increasingly utilitarian society and to common people who disapprove being told what to do. The second is an interview with Paul Forman, a historian of science who among other issues expresses his opinions about the relations between science and technology. According to his idea, there has been a modification in the modernist perspective that assumed that technology was subordinated to science both in the epistemological order and in the value system. The postmodernist view has nevertheless altered this hierarchy order. In Forman’s terms the relation “has been reversed because cultural means neglect the abstract, the general, the principles of logic, and focus much more on the practical, utilitarian, instrumental, intuitive, subjective, and this has led to the prejudice of favoring technology over science” (for further reading on this topic, see Carlos Elías, La razón estrangulada. La crisis de la ciencia en la sociedad contemporánea. Debate, 2008).

The combination of both assumptions leads to the idea that technology is an autonomous force that provides people a tool to access solutions, information, publicity and entertainments without the need to count on the approval or disapproval of mediators. In this way technology contributes decisively to consumer’s self-sufficiency.

Consumers find in the market (the second agent that makes mediators redundant) many products available to fulfil or empower their expectations. In this sense, companies are very interested in maintaining the image of a neutral and harmless technology, entirely at the service of buyers purposes. These procedures are complemented with the persistent use of the concept of innovation in advertising messages, in particular in information, communication, transport and domestic technologies, a strategy that invites to a constant renovation of the acquisitions (a sort of psychological obsolescence induced by the marketers; see Latouche, 2012). The intellectual unable to intervene in these scenarios contemplates this reality with incredulity.

Are intellectualism and technology then irreconcilable enemies?

This tension formed a central part of the subject matter explored in the well- known Rede Lecture “The two cultures” given by C. P. Snow in 1959. There the author examined this issue from the perspective that there had been a gap in the intellectual world since the Victorian era. On the one side there were the representatives of traditional culture values and humanities; the other corresponded to scientists and engineers (agents of the material achievements derived from the progressive and industrialist innovations). “Intellectuals” in the sense presented in this entry match the first group.

Snow condemned the British educational system for neglecting science and technology in the curriculum. By contrast, he praised the attention paid in Germany and United States to these matters. Putting aside the interpretations of Snow’s ideas and the controversies sparked by his views (see bibliography for further reading), in general, the aforementioned division has been a controversial issue with a strong influence in the orientation of the teaching curricula. Spain for example was not an exception. The values shared by politicians and teachers committed to changing the Spanish educational standards in the second half of 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century frequently reflected in their rhetoric the opposition between verbal, abstract and theoretical instruction on the one hand, and practical, visual, manipulative and pragmatic lessons on the other (see on this blog The New School movement). In this context, the use of apparatus, demonstrative tools and technologies represented a way to have access to natural phenomena without the intervention of the educator (or reducing it to a minimum). These options can be contemplated as a part of anti-intellectual positions.

In Spain, during the period already mentioned, the renovation of the teaching methods, traditionally influenced by humanistic orientations, involved the acquisition of observation habits in opposition to the memory procedures embedded in the pedagogical culture of the time. This meant improving visual contact with nature, using projection lanterns in class (provided with ample collections of plates and photographic transparencies), and observing the manipulation of demonstration devices (see on this blog Educational technology). Professionals of education were trained in this techniques, as the following quote from a visit made by high school teachers to the Ecole Normal de Saint Cloud in Paris (1924-25) manifests:

Spanish scholars who visited this centre repeatedly considered the anti-intellectualism and the practical sense of the teachings that were taught in Saint Cloud: The cabinets of Physics, Chemistry and Natural Sciences, in which each student had his table/bench, their collection of bottles with the main reagents and their instruments for experiences (test tubes, flasks, scissors, burners…), in addition to the most modern material in every scientific branch, aroused the most enthusiastic praises… (Marín, 1988, 97-98).

In this context, “intellectual” was equivalent to verbal, abstract and non-productive, whereas anti-intellectual meant practical, straight to facts and effective.

The anti-intellectualism associated to the promotion of practical skills had another dimension. Since Antiquity Intellectualism had underestimated manual work; high rational faculties were seen as superior to lower faculties and mechanical operations based on mere observation and experience. Aristotle stated in Metaphysics (981b) that:

The difference between art and science and the other kindred mental activities has been stated in the Ethics; the reason for our present discussion is that it is generally assumed that what is called Wisdom is concerned with the primary causes and principles, so that, as has been already stated, the man of experience is held to be wiser than the mere possessors of any power of sensation, the artist than the man of experience, the master craftsman than the artisan; and the speculative sciences to be more learned than the productive.

This vision provoked an anti-elitist reaction. From the mid-19th century on some educational movements committed themselves to the purpose of promoting the dignity of the mechanical arts. As an example, these democratic demands were shared among others by the Spanish inspector of education, Lorenzo Miralles, who contemplated as a priority the improvement of workers’ education. After his visit to some European schools in 1909-1910, Ovide Decroly, Jean Demoor, Alexis Sluys, and the scientific utilitarianism of Herbert Spencer were pointed out as the main pedagogical models for these purposes.

Besides, hygienist movements, anthropometric studies, social Darwinism and applied psychology, all of whose practices were associated with measuring techniques, provided more examples of anti-intellectual mentality.

A Royal Decree of the Ministry of Public Instruction (published in Gaceta de Madrid, 19th of March 1894), intended to declare as compulsory the teaching of physical education, stated that “without healthy and robust men, the human species weakens, progress suffers and people degenerate”; and, a few lines later, that:

This Department understands that it is urgent to combat the dangers derived from intellectualism; dangers that pedagogy and history try together to avoid, encouraging the zeal of the Governments to, in the name of the general interests of the country, dictate a law that declares obligatory the physical education […]

As far as the experimental psychology –and more specifically the applied psychology– is concerned, the purpose of the psychometric studies promoted in the first decades of the 20th century was to examine the small differences between individuals. These occupations responded to the idea of exploring students’ capacities to address new working conditions (in industrial and technological contexts) and improving their learning skills. In general, this approach meant somehow ignoring the intellectualism implicit in the speculations and debates regarding the nature and unity of the soul.

Ortega y Gasset described a form of anti-intellectualism related to technology. The Spanish thinker did not oppose technology itself, since these occupations were an expression of the creativity of human beings, but rather how they assumed the use of artifacts. According to his approach, the constitution of the “mass-man” (studied in The Revolt of the Masses, 1930) is rooted in people’s inability to recognize the excellence of the things that form the basis of life. They live as if everything came from nothing. As Ortega put it,

the type of man dominant today is a primitive one, a Naturmensch rising up in the midst of a civilised world. The world is a civilised one, its inhabitant is not: he does not see the civilisation of the world around him, but he uses it as if it were a natural force. The new man wants his motor-car, and enjoys it, but he believes that it is the spontaneous fruit of an Edenic tree. In the depths of his soul he is unaware of the artificial, almost incredible, character of civilisation, and does not extend his enthusiasm for the instruments to the principles which make them possible. (Chap. 9 “The Primitive and the Technical”, Ortega 1932, 82)

These statements were in accordance with what Husserl pointed out in the 1930’s decade (shortly after Ortega’s reflections mentioned before) in his unfinished work The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. There the author argued that sciences are not legitimized to guide human life as long as they have lost their cultural roots (see Esquirol, 2011, 17).

Bertrand Russell, in 1935 article added further reflections on the consequences of ignoring rational cultural patterns.

Graph Antiintelectualism

Carlo M. Cipolla said many years ago in Literacy and Development in the West (1969, 109) that:

Techniques and values are not unrelated. A society may develop –or fail to develop- certain techniques because of the cultural values prevailing in it. Conversely the state of technology has obvious effects on a society’s set of values. At any rate, the set of values prevailing in a given society ultimately determines to what use existing techniques will be put.

For an anti-intellectualist position, which aims at eliminating the barriers that prevent fulfilling desires, technology represents nothing more than the power of the human being over the facts that prevent us from feeling good. In this sense, technology and values are fully separated. The multiple artifacts available at a click or at the market are only instruments to achieve pleasurable emotions. And as a consequence, people must ignore the warnings of the educated class concerning the effects of technological self-absorption, precisely those intended to introduce values in technology, as Cipolla recommends in the following quote:

When in the past, teachers taught the skill of reading and writing they worried about the possible uses to which skill would be put. Their preoccupations took unfortunate overtones of bigotry but this does not mean that the problem which bothered them was either false or irrelevant. Whenever we teach techniques we ought to teach also the ethical implications of their possible alternative uses and misuses (Cipolla 1969, 109-110).

 References and further readings

ARISTOTLE, Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vols.17, 18, translated by Hugh Tredennick, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1933, 1989 [available on line at].

BRADBURY, Ray (1976), Fahrenheit 451, London, Grafton.

CALVO ROY, Antonio (2003), “Hoy la ciencia se valora simplemente como un componente de la tecnología”, an interview with Paul Forman, El País, 12 de noviembre de 2003.

CIPOLLA, Carlo M. (1969), Literacy and Development in the West, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books.

ELÍAS, Carlos (2008), La razón estrangulada. La crisis de la ciencia en la sociedad contemporánea, Barcelona, Debate.

ESQUIROL Josep M. (2011), Los filósofos contemporáneos y la técnica. De Ortega a Sloterdijk, Barcelona, Gedisa.

GUIJARRO MORA, Víctor (2015), “La maquinaria social y las ciencias humanas. Pensionados de la Junta para la ampliación de estudios en la Europa de la razón tecnocrática”, Asclepio: Revista de historia de la medicina y de la ciencia, Vol. 67, Fasc. 1.

GUIJARRO MORA, Víctor (2018), Artefactos y acción educativa. La cultura del objeto científico en la enseñanza secundaria en España (1845-1930), Madrid, Dykinson.

LATOUCHE, Serge (2012), Bon pour la casse: Les déraisons de l’obsolescence programmée, Paris, Les Liens qui Libèrent. (Spanish version Hecho para tirar. La irracionalidad de la obsolescencia programada, Barcelona, Octaedro, 2014),

MARÍN ECED, Teresa (1988), “Influencias europeas en la formación profesional de docentes españoles durante la II República Española”, Revista de Educación, 285, pp. 93-110.

ORTEGA y GASSET, J. (1932), The Revolt of the Masses, Nueva York.

PRIETO, Darío (2019), “Los intelectuales como sospechosos”, El Mundo, 20 de enero de 2019.

RUSSELL, Bertrand (1935), “The Revolt Against Reason”, Political Quarterly, 6, pp. 1-19.

SNOW, C. P. (1998) (with an introduction by Stefan Collini), The two cultures, Cambridge, CUP. (Spanish version Las dos culturas, Buenos Aires, Ediciones Nueva Visión.)

VEBLEN, Thorstein (1904), The Theory of Business Enterprise, New Jersey, Transaction Books.

The New School movement

We can find several archetypes depending on the role played by technology in education. According to Pannabecker (1996), these archetypes –associated in one way or another with the different pedagogical renewal movements in the late 19th century and early 20th century– fall broadly into two categories: one, inspired by the ideas of Diderot, conceives technique as a means to achieve technical, political and economic progress; the other, inspired by the ideas of Rousseau, conceives technique as a means to achieve the progress of the individual and moral goals aimed at the improvement of society.

Wood workshop in a Célestin Freinet school. Germany 1927. Odenwaldschule archives.

As summarized in the table, the first category mentioned before considers technology as a means to achieve progress (see Progress on this blog), assigning it a political and economic function. The second one encompasses several trends, each of them aimed at improving a particular aspect of the situation of the individual, but having the common aim of achieving a better society.

One of these trends, in the purest Roussonian tradition, attributes to technical training the role of increasing both the individual’s personal development and its moral status, keeping him away from an idle life. A second one, also inspired by the ideas of Rousseau, values the tacit knowledge (see Experience, action & artefacts on this blog) transmitted through the observation or manipulation of technology according not only to its usefulness, but also to its contribution to a comprehensive training of the individual.

This last trend is comprised of a series of diverse educational movements aimed at introducing changes in traditional pedagogy, and encompassed in a broad and heterogeneous current called the New Education movement.

There was no conscious “school” united under one banner, and the views of individual reformers often differed widely. One group, the “practical educationist”, advocated manual training as a means of promoting educational values. Another, the “social reformers”, placed more emphasis on ways of improving the physical well-being of children. The “naturalists” expounded the theories of Froebel and Pestalozzi, whilst other looked to Herbart’s teachings. There were also the “scientific educationists” who based their work largely on psychological research, as well as those who looked to moral education as a replacement for religious instruction. The ideas of the New Educationists helped to provide a basis for the later progressive education movement (Gordon and Lawton, 2003, 170-171).

This New Education movement, emerged around the French journal L’Éducation nouvelle, was especially reinforced after the First World War with the creation in 1921 of the Ligue internationale pour l’Éducation nouvelle (LIEN), an institution that was driven by the idea of ​​ensuring the peace of nations through the education of young people in solidarity, brotherhood and respect for humanity (Gutierrez, 2010).

In many of these movements, a prominent educational role was indirectly assigned to technology, since it was considered of great interest to familiarize students with technical knowledge through manual work or through visits to factories.

This was the case of the New School movement, a term that often leads to confusion, not only because sometimes it’s used generically, in the sense of “novel”, but also because his meaning varies from country to country according to the differences in cultural contexts and social needs. In Spain it was called “Escuela Nueva”, in France “École Nouvelle”, and in England “New School (or schools) movement”. In the latter case, we prefer this term to that of “Progressive education”, used by some authors, because it does not mean the same in all English-speaking countries.

The precursor of this movement and founder of the first truly “new” school (Abbagnano and Visalberghi, 1992, 655) was Leon Tolstoi, who in 1859 opened an educational center for the peasant children based on the principle of non-intervention and on the promotion of student’s interest as opposed to the imposition of a specific kind of knowledge or of moral habits.

In Abottsholme, in the county of Derby (England), an attempt was made to carry out this principle of the promotion of interest: it was the school institute founded in 1889 by Cecil Reddie, New School –the first to bear this name–. In this institution, explicitly inspired by the Herbartian theories on the interest and continuation of the tradition of the English Public Schools –in the adoption of activities to strengthen the body, the sense of responsibility and social skills–, science was studied from observations, and technology was implicitly present through handicrafts and visits to farms and workshops. Reddie’s school was frequently visited by other teachers and was followed as a model for the creation of other similar centers in different parts of the European geography.

A major contribution to the definition and unification of the movement occurred in Switzerland in 1899 when Adolphe Ferrière founded the International Bureau des Écoles Nouvelles (International Bureau of New Schools). This institution sought to articulate the various trends and tried to establish the conditions under which an institution could use the name of “New school” to help “à un père de famille de diagnostiquer si l’école à laquelle il voudrait confier son enfant est, ou non, une Ecole nouvelle” (Ferrière, 1925-1934, 622). Thus, in order to distinguish the authentic from those who fraudulently used this title, and on the basis of actual experiences observed in schools considered “New”, he established thirty principles of which it was essential to meet at least fifteen.

Three of them, included in the sections “physical life” (numbers 6 and 7) and “intellectual life” (number 13), are especially interesting because of its relationships to technology. They reflect the educational importance that this and other trends of the time grant to technological activity (although this term is never used), due to its relationship with real life and with the initiative and active participation of the student:


L’École nouvelle organise des travaux manuels.

a) Ces travaux sont obligatoires pour tous les élèves et ont lieu généralement de 2 à 4 heures; b) Ces travaux poursuivent non pas un but professionnel, mais éducatif; c) Ces travaux présentent une utilité réelle pour l’individu ou la collectivité.


L’Ecole nouvelle attribue une importance spéciale à :

1º) La menuiserie qui développe : a) l’habileté et la fermeté manuelles; b) le sens de l’observation exacte; c) la sincérité et la possession de soi.

2º La culture du sol : a) contact avec la nature; b) connaissance des lois de la nature; c) santé et force physiques; d) utilité de premier ordre.

3º L’élevage, sinon du gros bétail, du moins de petits animaux :

a) protéger et observer des êtres plus petits que soi; b) habitudes de persévérance;   c) observations scientifiques possibles; d) utilité.



L’Ecole nouvelle base son enseignements [sic] sur les faits et les expériences.

a) Observations personnelles de la nature; b) Observations des industries humaines et des organisations sociales; c) Essais scientifiques de cultures et d’élevages et travaux de laboratoires — travaux qualitatifs chez l’enfant, quantitatifs chez l’adolescent. (Ferrière, 1925-1934, 622-623).

The repercussion of the movement remained almost completely in the theoretical plane because it was mainly applied in private and elitist schools not having much influence on the traditional education. Nevertheless, some of its elements transcended, and some of those mentioned here, especially the ones related to the formative value associated with technology (related to the growing expansion of industrial systems with which the future citizen should become familiar), can be found not only in various pedagogical trends considered “new”, but also in some current education systems, like the Spanish one.

References and further readings

ABBAGNANO, N. y VISALBERGHI, A. (1992), Historia de la pedagogía, México D. F., Fondo de cultura económica (1st. Italian edition, 1967).

FERRIÈRE, A. (1925-1934) “École”, in Sébastien Faure, Encyclopédie anarchiste, La Librairie internationale, tome 2 (link).

GUTIERREZ, Laurent (2010), « La Ligue internationale pour l’Éducation nouvelle », Spirale. Revue de recherches en éducation, n.° 45 (Pédagogies alternatives. Quelles définitions, quels enjeux, quelles réalités ? sous la direction de Rémi Casanova et Cécile Carra), pp. 29-42 (link).

GORDON, Peter and LAWTON, Denis (2005, 1ª ed. 2003), Dictionary of British Education, Londres, Woburn Press.

PANNABECKER, John R. (1996), “Diderot, Rousseau, and the Mechanical Arts: Disciplines, Systems, and Social Context”, Journal of Industrial Teacher Education, vol. 33 n. 4 pp. 6-22.

PANNABECKER, John R. (1995), “Rousseau in the Heritage of Technology Education”, Journal of Technology Education, vol. 6, n. 2, pp. 46-58.

Movies and enemies of progress

“Why can’t you scientists leave things alone? What about my bit of washing when there’s no washing to do?” Mrs. Watson asks Sidney Stratton in the film The man in the white suit.

Man in the white suit2

The British film released in 1951 is about an eccentric research chemist (Sidney Stratton, played by Alec Guinness) who after being fired from various companies, because of his obsession with the invention of an everlasting fibre, is eventually hired as a labourer at a textile mill. There he keeps doing trials and manages to make the desired discovery: fabric that is indestructible and never gets stained. The initially celebrated achievement turns into a nightmare when both industrialists and workers realise that the innovation will alter dramatically manufacturing patterns. After massive purchases, people in the medium term will not need to replace their clothing. So factory owners fear that production will fall, as domestic consumption changes its priorities, and employees fear that the new situation will cause considerable job cuts. All the anger is then directed to the inventor, who runs through the streets persecuted by businessmen and labourers.

The film represents a post-war trend that reflected social disconformity/concern with scientific secret practices (Jones 1998, 2001). In our opinion, the idea depicted in The man in the white suit is valid to fuel the discussions already exposed on this blog regarding innovation and diffusion of innovations. The opposition and resistance of social actors –industrialists and employees- is in this case an example of how people intervene in the process of appropriation of technology. Capitalism, in particular, according to this filmic view is not always open to a permanent change of its productive bases, as Marx together with Engels pointed out in The Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848):

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

In fact, the film was seen too as an attempt to show the impossibility of reconciling capitalism and progress, “the inability of a sclerotic industrial structure to deal with discovery, change and innovation” (Richards & Aldgate 2002, 158-159). Even innovations respond to different company’s strategies and market chances (Basalla 1999).

We find diverse interpretations of how the public understanding of science takes place. In a first approach, scientists are contemplated as people who exercise their mental faculties, scrutinise properties of nature, make discoveries thanks to their skills and provide through technology useful products to human beings. This vision identifies scientific contributions with progress in society. Only external forces and spurious interests can distort these high valued commitments. But there are other approaches, where scientists are perceived by society as dangerous people because they are involved in hazardous projects, or even as heroes who uncover inconvenient truths.

Here we give just a few examples of popular movies where these positions are implicit. In Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) authorities allow bathers to use beaches despite the warnings from an ichthyologist, supported by the Police Chief, that a giant and extremely dangerous shark is in the area. The idea resembles, as it was pointed out, the plot behind the Henrik Ibsen classic play An Enemy of the People (1882) (Spielberg borrows a page or two from Ibsen, Fischer 2000, 552). In this case, Dr. Stockmann, the medical officer at the prosperous town’s baths, makes a discovery which reveals that the water is contaminated. This fact sparks alarm among authorities who fear the consequences for tourism and income sources. The doctor since then is considered by economic and political forces as a threaten for the community.

Far from giving a naïve and naturalistic image of science, the movies we are mentioning offer pessimistic visions of an activity that depraves human relationships or contribute to abusive practices carried out by groups with economic or political interests. In the comedy Sleeper (Woody Allen, 1973), Miles Monroe (Woody Allen) is reanimated after 200 years in a cryogenic state. He wakes up in a police state with robots and genetically modified food. After being persecuted because of collaboration with rebels who conspire against the government, at the end of the movie he confesses to Luna Schlosser (Diane Keaton, with whom he falls in love): “I don’t believe in science. I’m – you know, science is an intellectual dead end, you know? It’s a lot of little guys in tweed suits cutting up frogs on foundation grants”.

Some movies reflect discomfort with different forms of progress (The Emerald Forest; John Boorman, 1985, about the construction of a hydro-electric dam in Brazilian Rainforest) or with pharmaceutical frauds (La fille de Brest; Emmanuel Bercot, 2016). According to the sociologist Alain Touraine (Touraine 1995, 45),

It would be misleading to speak of an anti-scientific mood in public today. Most people support advanced technology or scientific medicine, but is true that criticism of economic modernization or hospital life is growing. Science is not widely criticized, but the idea of a scientific society is often rejected by science-educated people. We still believe in science, but no longer in progress.

But are we able to establish a clear difference between these two realms? For example, chemical analysis in genetically modified food pertaining to science or to the uses of science? It is not easy to distinguish between the cognitive dimension and the set of things that we identify with progress.

Having said that, surveys reveal that people have contradictory feelings about scientific innovations. We approve the existence of a variety of material and healthcare resources, but we reject the loss of personal and cultural identity, privacy, control of our lives, sustainability, etc. It seems that we have to learn how to deal with these ambivalences without using them as an excuse to justify irrational remedies only grounded on the mediatic or political influence of their supporters.

References and further readings

BASALLA, George (1999), The evolution of technology, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

FISHER, Dennis (2000), Science Fiction Film Directors, 1895-1998, Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland, vol. 1.

JONES, Robert (2001), “Why can’t you scientists leave things alone?” Science questioned in British films of the post-war period (1945-1970)”, Public Understanding of Science, vol. 10, n.º 4, pp. 365-382.

JONES, Robert (1998), “The scientist as artist: a study of The Man in the White Suit and some related British film comedies of the postwar period (1945-1970)”, Public Understanding of Science, vol. 7, n.º 2, pp. 135-147.

MARX, Karl and ENGELS, Friedrich (2009), Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), New York, Cosimo Classics.

TOURAINE, Alain (1995), “The crises of ‘progress’”, in Martin Bauer (ed.), Resistance to New Technology. Nuclear Power, Information Technology and Biotechnology, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

RICHARDS, Jeffrey and ALDGATE, Anthony (2002), The Best of British: Cinema and Society from 1930 to the Present, London, I.B. Tauris.


Experience, action & artefacts

It is frequent to find in the literature distinctions between a learning process dominated by actions and a learning process driven by theoretical rules. Here we will explore some factors concerning what is learnt consciously and unconsciously through experience when a person is dealing with practical matters.

Guillemin estudio gráfico sonido

Acoustic demonstration, Amédée Guillemin, Le Monde physique, Paris, 1881-1885 (5 vol.).

In the first place, the acquisition of knowledge is an indirect consequence of the involvement of a person in a practical situation, that in some cases implies manipulating a device or exercising the control over an organized entity in order to obtain a satisfactory effect. The epistemological approaches to this type of operations assume that basically they take place by following trial and error procedures, reinforcing particular responses and getting rid of useless choices. Consequently, this type of knowledge has a significant personal component, depends on the context, and is created dynamically. But it is hard to transfer, takes time and is not easy to predict. That is why it is not considered valuable.

In the second place, the learning process and the solution of problems are the result of the application of principles, laws, algorithms, instructions… In this case learning consists in retaining rules and explicit codified information that we share and find in documents.

We can even identify more external factors that in principle do not belong to the epistemological realm, but that, in fact, lead practitioners’ actions as well. Professions for example are regulated by government or other bodies and institutional norms, standards, and restrictions. Whether these rules should be considered epistemological too, as some authors would defend, is a matter of discussion.

Summing up, the different features of the two dimensions mentioned above, with the addition of other elements, can be represented as follows:Tabla implicit and explicit knowledge

Among the many examples that may illustrate the actions taking place in the situations mentioned above, here we will focus on the practices regarding the human-machine interactions, in particular in educational contexts. In this case, the reception in learning institutions of standardized collections of apparatus with teaching purposes initiates a new phase in the life of these type of objects (see on this blog Educational technology and Culture of technology in secondary education). Then is when the “appropriation/transformation” process begin, which consists in a series of actions taken by a person who is only equipped with a handful of guidelines. A part of this information comes from catalogues and textbooks, and another part comes from a probable (not sure) general visual instruction with demonstrative apparatus and measuring instruments received in the past at the high school or/and at the university.

When the educator receives the device it starts a hands on inspection together with a careful observation of an object –sometimes really expensive- supplied with many accessories. Some operations of this phase, which demand extreme caution, consist of setting the artefact in an ample space, checking its parts and adjustments, and in certain cases doing sensitive calibration. Later on, if the artefact is properly associated with a particular physics experience, the teacher starts a sequence of trials in order to master the various responses of the mechanism. After a time devoted to know the reactions of the artefact, he/she chooses which ones correspond to the desired outcome according to the classroom lessons and intentions. So the decision about whether the machine or the equipment has done its job effectively depends entirely on the experimenter.

But the practices that lead to the proper result are not a regular sequence of actions, a kind of a fixed routine. As Wittgenstein put it, “rules of action do not contain the rules for their application” (Collins 2010, 2). When somebody receives an instruction like don’t walk so close to people in the street, the segment “so close” could be interpreted, without betraying its meaning, in different ways depending on the circumstances. Therefore, the information present in manuals used by educators pertained to the part of “rules of action” while the uncertain reality represented by the “rules of application” –the practical details of how actually the mechanism works- has to be revealed in a process where body, brain and emotions are compromised.

Obviously, documents offering accounts of these hidden and not formalized processes are scarce. In order to access to the tacit knowledge, researchers use indirect procedures, like the replication of historical experiments method or the examination of personal notes and sketches jotted down by professionals. We can also rely on descriptions about how artisans and musicians interact with their respective tools, such as the narratives provided by Richard Sennett in his book The Craftsman. The author refers to these practices as follows:

In music, the ear works in concert with the fingertip to probe. Put rather dryly, the musician touches the string in different ways, hears a variety of effects, then searches for the means to repeat and reproduce the tone he or she wants. In reality, this can be a difficult and agonizing struggle to answer the questions “What exactly did I do? How can I do it again?” Instead of the fingertip acting as a mere servant, this kind of touching moves back ward from sensation to procedure. This principle here is reasoning backward from consequence to cause (Sennett 2008, 157).

The use of the scalpel in anatomical dissection is another example of the intrinsic complexity associated with the acquisition of practical skills and knowledge. According to Sennett,

What was hard to show to others, at first, was how to handle the scalpel to replicate the motion. In 1543, knowledge of muscular action was too primitive for the master to explain that the muscles controlling the fourth and fifth fingers have to be contracted in order to steady the thumb and first finger in lifting the vein with the flat side of the scalpel; as in all craftwork, understanding of what one was doing appeared only slowly, after the fact of doing it. Three generations elapsed before this procedure bedded in, to become common knowledge by the late 1600s (Sennett 2008, 199).

Focusing on teaching artefacts, educators’ notes devoted to the preparation of lessons reveal various personal indications of what they consider relevant about the specific use and applications of mechanisms and equipment. Some of these clues are not present in textbooks and instructions for the execution of structured demonstrations. A part of this missing information is concerned with slight disagreements between the expectations and the results. These inconsistencies are important because they might be occasions for the experimenter to examine more closely the facts, and to propose small changes as well as contributions and improvements. The history of the Atwood’s machine, invented by the English mathematician George Atwood in 1784 to verify the Newtonian laws of accelerated motion, illustrates the way an artefact undergoes some minor modifications in order to overcome particular material problems, in particular when it was used as a demonstration tool in physics cabinets and classrooms along the 19th and 20th centuries (see Schaffer in Bud & Warner 1998, 38).

The learning process originated in the personal interaction with the material examined; the difficulties faced in these situations; the interpretation of faults and mistakes as sources of a new perspective or strategy; and the solutions provided by reflection in action procedures (a version of a trial and error practices) are basic matters of the theoretical contributions made by John Dewey in his exploration of the scope of experience. Particularly interesting in this sense is his book How We Think (1910). In the presentation of “The Analysis of a Complete Act of Thought” the author states that:

In this chapter we shall make an analysis of the process of thinking into its steps or elementary constituents, basing the analysis upon descriptions of a number of extremely simple, but genuine, cases of reflective experience (Part Two: Logical Considerations. Chapter Six. The Analysis of a Complete Act of Thought, p. 68).

Below we reproduce a part of one of these cases, which are taken from the class papers of the students.

In washing tumblers in hot soapsuds and placing them mouth downward on a plate, bubbles appeared on the outside of the mouth of the tumblers and then went inside. Why? The presence of bubbles suggests air, which I note must come from inside the tumbler. I see that the soapy water on the plate prevents escape of the air save as it may be caught in bubbles. But why should air leave the tumbler? There was no substance entering to force it out. It must have expanded. It expands by increase of heat or by decrease of pressure, or by both. Could the air have become heated after the tumbler was taken from the hot suds? Clearly not the air that was already entangled in the water. If heated air was the cause, cold air must have entered in transferring the tumblers from the suds to the plate. I test to see if this supposition is true by taking several more tumblers out. Some I shake so as to make sure of entrapping cold air in them. Some I take out holding mouth downward in order to prevent cold air from entering. Bubbles  appear on the outside of every one of the former and on none of the latter. I must be right in my inference. Air from the outside must have been expanded by the heat of the tumbler, which explains the appearance of the bubbles on the outside. […] (70-71).

In the conclusion of the chapter, Dewey says:

The disciplined, or logically trained, mind -the aim of the educative process- is the mind able to judge how far each of these steps needs to be carried in any particular situation. No cast-iron rules can be laid down. Each case has to be dealt with as it arises, on the basis of its importance and of the context in which it occurs. To take too much pains in one case is as foolish as illogical as to take too little in another. At one extreme, almost any conclusion that insures prompt and unified action may be better than any long delayed conclusion; while at the other, decision may have to be postponed for a long period perhaps for a life time. The trained mind is the one that best grasps the degree of observation, forming of ideas, reasoning, and experimental testing required in any special case, and that profits the most, in future thinking, by mistakes made in the past. What is important is that the mind should be sensitive to problems and skilled in methods of attack and solution (p.78).

The approach represents an effort to uncover the logic under the process of thinking when a person deals with a particular situation. But we have to remember, as it was already pointed out, that in our decisions a significant part is reserved to tacit knowledge that we are not able to make explicit and put down in a formal sequence.

What has been said regarding practical knowledge and the interpretation of the “rules of action” can be complemented with the readings of different books: Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge, 1958; Ravetz’ Scientific Knowledge and its Social Problems, 1979, and Sennett’s The Craftsman, 2008, among many others, and the ideas exposed on this blog concerning the term “Visual thinking” (see the entry on this blog).

References and further readings

BUD, Robert & WARNER, Deborah Jean (eds.) (1998), Instruments of Science. An Historical Encyclopedia, New York & London, The Science Museum.

COLLINS, Harry (2010), Tacit and Explicit Knowledge, Chicago, University of Chicago Press (for further reading).

DEWEY, John (1910), How We Think, Boston.

DREYFUS, Stuart E. (2004), “The Five-Stage Model of Adult Skill Acquisition”, Bulletin of Science Technology & Society, 2004 24: 177, available here (added following the suggestion of a kind reader).

ESCRICHE, Tomás (1934), Elementos de física, Barcelona.

FELIÚ, Bartolomé (1883), Curso de física experimental y aplicada, Barcelona.

HEERING, Peter & Wittje, Roland (eds.) (2011), Learning by Doing, Stuttgart, Franz Steiner Verlag.

HUGHES, Thomas P. (1977), “Edison’s method”, in Pickett W. B. (ed.), Technology at the Turning Point, San Francisco, San Francisco Press Inc., 5-22 (for further reading).

KLEIBER, J and ESTALELLA, J. (1928, 4th ed.), Compendio de Física y Química.

PINCH, Trevor. “Cooking up science: Tacit Knowledge, Science Experiments and Food Recipies, in

RAVETZ, Jerome (1979), Scientific Knowledge and its Social Problems, New Brunswick, Transaction Publishers.

RICO y SINOBAS, Manuel and Santisteban, Mariano (1865), Manual de Física y Química, Madrid.

SENNETT, Richard (2008), The Craftsman, New Haven, Yale University Press.

SHAPIRO, Harvey (2010), “John Dewey’s Reception in “Schönian” Reflective Practice”, Philosophy of Education, 311-319 (available at


Personal and social appropriation of technology

This concept explores how we learn to live with technology. According to Canepa, “appropriation” is concerned with the integration of a technology in a pre-existing working situation, which comprises ends, mental representations, and competencies (Canepa, 2005). That means that the receiver of the new elements takes decisions and re-elaborates the resources in order to accommodate them to a new set of practical, personal and moral values. Appropriation is then a process that affects not only objects but persons as well. The philosopher of technology Langdon Winner says in The whale and the reactor that “What is needed is an interpretation of the ways, both obvious and subtle, in which everyday life is transformed by the mediating role of technical devices” (Winner, 1986, 9). In this interpretation we assume that technology is not only driven by providers, as it were, a sort of external force to which people respond just translating mechanically tool instructions. There are instead commitments we take when we accept the use of a certain device or when we definitively overcome the initial resistance we had to a new electronic equipment. Then we say: “ok, yes, I will use the computer but only in this specific area, only for administrative purposes, or/and managing social networks, or/and watching TV series, or/and reading newspapers, or/and doing academic research, or/and storing pictures…” In any case these reactions represent an intervention in the elements we use, and in general a recreation of the technology too. So consumers are actively paving the way for the modifications the devices will experiment in the near future.

Feria electrónica 2013

Consumer Electronic Show, Las Vegas, 2013 []

Two examples will illustrate the point. The history of mechanical clocks shows how for centuries the priority of artisan manufacture was not precise timekeeping, but meeting the increasing demand for decorative, ornamental and status symbol clocks. First models were, as Landes states, crude instruments, imprecise, and unreliable. And they remained in this situation for at least four hundred years (Landes, 2007, 99). Meanwhile, early production focused on domestic clocks and in big models, the latter installed in city halls and cathedrals. Thanks to astronomical clocks, the community had access to theological information and to the positions of the sun, planets and the moon, as well as to calendar data; they were objects of admiration associated with town achievements. In this sense, the clock became a popular attraction not only for residents but for potential visitors too, and as such it was considered an investment by the local authorities. These interests sparked the increase of clockwork professionals, and this fact had in turn an influence in the improvement of the quality of timepieces. Besides, in those years, clockmakers together with engravers, goldsmiths and enamellers adapted their work to personal requirements and to kings, nobles and wealthy people tastes. The engraving reproduced below shows an interesting picture that, according to our personal interpretation, depicts a gentleman dealing with a clock maker in order to possibly obtain a praiseworthy model of a clock. All these elements determined the fall in prices, and in consequence the improvement of sales.

Clockmaker, 1694 by Marcel Douwe Dekker

Educational technology (see on this blog) provides other examples. Teachers at high schools reinterpreted and extended the original apparatus purposes and instructions revealed in textbooks and in instruments makers’ catalogues. They did so in many different ways: creating new models in collaboration with local makers, designing cabinet halls and museums for teaching purposes, participating in state programs devoted to collecting meteorological and anthropometric data, repairing objects and ordering new ones, using them for transmitting scientific knowledge in social events and fairs, showing them to students in class as visual proofs of perpetual scientific truths or as aids for explanations, and last but not least, suggesting practises in labs and other school premises (e.g. the botanical garden).

The intervention of the educational community in the modification of standardized instructional instruments was particularly noticeable from 1880 on. By those years a part of theorists and teachers pointed out that the main goal of science education was not the admiration of complex artefacts in class sessions, but teaching methodology, inductive processes, and the active participation of pupils in experimental designs. Therefore, objects were not seen as mere illustrations of a firmly established truth or just as a theory in motion, but as part of a research or a constructive procedure. This represented an attempt to transmit and reproduce in classrooms early stages of an investigation, when a person is in a state of mental naivety and is trying to find solutions to practical problems without a predetermined knowledge.

International and local instrument makers then started to modify the principles that had led the construction of the scientific and technical models used so far. From then on the tendency was to make them simple, manipulative, accessible, cheaper, resistant, multifunctional…. World War I marked the end of the “brass and glass” era. The historian of scientific instruments P. Brenni describes properly the changes that took place in the 1920s and 1930s in the following fragment:

Everywhere in Europe, several die-hard physics treatises were abandoned or largely modernised. In the new textbooks, the realistic wood engravings illustrating the instruments in every detail were often substituted by simpler technical schemes […] Instruments as well as their material were changing. An increasing number of modular apparatuses were introduced on the market. They allowed a series of demonstrations and experiments to be performed with a limited number of elements, and in a period of crisis and lack of funding, they were more affordable than the older instruments. High voltage transformers slowly took the place of electrostatic machines and induction coils […] (Brenni, 2011, 310).

New orientations were then a result of the contributions of the “consumers” of educational industries as well as of a reinterpretation of the machine instructions, and in some occasions also with the collaboration of students and their reactions.


Lissajous’ apparatus, Amédée Guillemin, Le monde physique, Paris, 1881-1885. Teacher’s observations in working context.

In general, resistance movements to innovations are not a radical opposition to every kind of technology, but a response to a change in a person or community life. Some cultural approaches to technology mean a selection of what is significant and what is not in the promotion of particular or social values. Sometimes rejection of technology leads to “constructive kinds of appropriation”; in the 19th Century for instance, as M. Hard and A. Jamison put it, it promoted “the British Arts and Crafts movement, with its industrial mobilization of traditional images and techniques, [and] the literary genre of science fiction, with its visionary prognostications reflecting on the human implications of science and technology progress” (1998, 6). In sum, editors of Intellectual Appropriation of Technology recommend not focusing the attention on uncovering dichotomies but on showing “how these dichotomies worked themselves out differently in different national and organizational settings” (Hard and Jamison, 1998, 3). A perspective that in turn means an abandonment of technological deterministic ideas (see the entry “Determinism” on this blog).

References and further readings

BRENNI, P. (2011), “The Evolution of Teaching Instruments and their Use Between 1800 and 1930”, in Peter Heering & Roland Wittje (eds.), Learning by Doing, Stuttgart.

DÍAZ-CANEPA, Carlos (2005), “Transferring Technologies to Developing Countries: A Cognitive and Cultural Approach”, en Stenberg, Robert J. y Preiss, David D. (eds.) Intelligence and Technology. The Impact of Tools on the Nature and Development of Human Activities, Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 159-179.

FARRÉ OLIVÉ, Eduard (2002), ”La decoración del reloj portátil”, Arte y Hora, n. 150H32, Set-Oct, pp. 6-14.

HARD, Mikael and JAMISON, Andrew (eds.) (1998), Intellectual Appropriation of Technology. Discourses on Modernity, 1900-1939. Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press.Franz Steiner Verlag.

LANDES, David S. (1983), Revolution in time. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, (Spanish version: Revolución en el tiempo, Barcelona, Crítica, 2007).

MORUS, Iwan Rhys (1996), “Manufacturing Nature: Science, Technology and Victorian Consumer Culture”, The British Journal for the History of Science. Vol. 29, No. 4, pp. 403-43.

WINNER, Langdon (1986), The Whale and the Reactor, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press.
Continue reading

Scientific and technical instruments at home


Waterbury Cloks advertisement from Ladies Home Journal, 1942

The first known references to mechanical timekeepers in Spain and other European countries date back to the 14th century, corresponding to expensive and uncommon objects purchased for cathedrals –paid by the church or by the city hall– and aimed at regulating religious ceremonies and services. In the late 14th century to the 17th century, public clocks were set up in monasteries, castles and palaces, and after that (in Spain mostly in the 16th, but sooner in other countries), they were also present in churches and city halls (Montañés, 1954, 61-80).

Their purpose was regulating the life of important villages and towns; and such it was for centuries, as it is shown in the following reference, a letter sent in 1836 to a clockmaker by the major of Escoussans, a commune in southern France (Tarn department):

Il y a environ quatre mois que vous avez chez vous l’horloge d’Escoussens. Vous aviez promis de la réparer de suite et de nous la renvoyer. Je suis fort étonné, Monsieur, que vous vous permettiez de retenir si longtemps un objet aussi utile et aussi nécessaire à la population d’Escoussens et dont la privation excite tous les jours son mécontentement. Vous devez concevoir que cette privation est d’autant plus sensible que, depuis un temps immémorial, les habitants de cette commune étaient habitués à avoir dans cette horloge une règle et un guide dans leur manière d’agir. Aussi ont-ils manifesté publiquement leur mécontentement. J’en ai été touché sensiblement et c’est ce qui m’a déterminé à vous écrire officiellement pour vous prévenir que si, d’ici à huit jours, l’horloge n’est pas réintégrée à sa place ou, si vous ne me faites connaître, par une prompte réponse, les motifs qui vous empêchent de nous en faire le renvoi immédiatement, je vais prendre des mesures pour vous actionner en justice. (Escande, 2010)

The first domestic clocks were also made in the 14th century, but these early devices, made mainly for kings and princes, had a different purpose. They were unusual objects which throughout the 15th and early 16th centuries were only accessible for the very wealthy. The first watches were made around 1500, but they were also extremely expensive and extraordinarily rare throughout the century. They were more valued as curiosities and for their decoration than for its usefulness as timekeepers (Ward, 1958).

In the case of domestic items then, its purpose was more symbolic than practical, and its economic value more important than its accuracy. Time-keepers, made using luxurious materials, represented its owner’s wealth, status and taste. In fact, up until the middle of the seventeenth century –with the exception of some German examples–, most of these pieces only had the hour hand, and an error of a quarter of an hour a day was not unusual. In fact it was customary to employ a sundial to check a watch when opportunity offered.

As F. A. B. Ward points out:

Throughout the sixteenth century watches must have been great rarities, and were possessed only by the very wealthy. Their timekeeping was very poor and they were valued as curiosities and for their decoration rather than as timekeepers (Ward, 1958, 25).

Mens’ models were kept in the “fob” pocket, attached to a chain hanging outside it, while the womens’, similar in size or ornament, were designed to be hanged as necklaces on her waist. They were showy fashion accessories indicating their owner’s wealth.

The addition of the pendulum to the clock and of the balance-spring to the watch at themid 17th century transformed these devices into instruments of real utility (Ward, 1958, v y 17). These played an important role in the case of both astronomy and navigation –especially around the end of the 16th century, when long sea voyages started to be common– and astronomy. Around the 1730’s, the first timekeepers accurate enough for navigation were constructed, and in about 1800, observatory clocks were accurate to a few tenths of a second per day.


Advertisement, Waterbury watches (1880s-1890s)

In the case of domestic items, great accuracy was not needed, but it became another symbolic value added to the richness and social position that both clocks and watches represented.

Throughout the nineteenth century, sooner or later depending on the countries –for example in the early decades in the case of England, and in the final ones in the case of Spain–, products resulting from the technological and industrial development started to be present in European homes. This growing presence was not only due to the new production and fabrication methods, but also to the faster means of transport of the materials, and to the new communication media which contributed to increase sales thanks to advertisements (Garvan, 1981, 620).

Apart from the new devices purposed for making existence more comfortable and simplifying housework, previously expensive objects, requiring many craftsmen’ working hours, were now produced in large numbers at a lower cost. Yet still expensive, some of these items were at least accessible for a sector of the middle class whose houses started to become enriched and filled with material goods (Garvan, 1981, 610).

In the specific case of watches and clocks, in the 1800s these previously inaccessible timepieces started to become cheaper and available to a growing middle class who purchased them in large numbers, seeking new symbols of status. This was thanks mainly to the use of machine tools in their manufacture, mass production techniques, and the substitution of expensive brass movements for wood ones.

But these devices would not be equally accessible in all the European countries. For example, during the early decades of the nineteenth century, the only clocks that could be seen advertised in Spanish newspapers were those sold at second hand objects auctions:


VENTA PÚBLICA. Calle de la Concepción Jerónima número 9. = Mañana jueves 24 del corriente desde las once se subastan los efectos siguientes:

Un anteojo de larga vista. =  Uno idem Ingles de idem. = Una silla ungara para montar. = Unos pendientes de diamantes y perlas. = Una berlina. = Un caballo castaño. = Una mesa de juego de caoba. = Un tremol con su luna. = Un reloj de comedor. – Un piano de caoba, […]

Apart from timekeepers, other technological objects entered bourgeois and rich households. It was not only those related to leisure time that entered, like magic lanterns, stereoscopes or optical devices, but also some scientific instruments, such as the barometer or the thermometer, whose presence had been frequent in palaces and aristocratic houses in the previous century. There were several reasons for the introduction of such scientific devices. First of all, barometers and thermometers makers usually had been trained as opticians and watchmakers’, so these items were usually found amongst the objects sold in their workshops.

Secondly, these devices represented progress, modernity and prosperity. Possessing them was a sign of power, prestige and distinction, values that were transmitted to society through different ways, like international exhibitions, public lectures, or leisure clubhouses (Zozaya, 2008, 769-770). In the 19th century, technology represented man mastering nature (Guijarro y González, 2015, 126-129), and these types of measurement instruments allowed man to quantify it. They offered the possibility of looking at nature through science; they mediated nature, and represented the power of man over it. Therefore, a man with a barometer was like a magician able to predict nature’s behaviour.

1931 Taylor Stormguide Barometer original vintage advertisement. A rare gift for men

1931 advertisement of the Taylor Stormoguide Barometer

Finally, in the late 19th century these items would acquire an added significance in the context of a growing interest in health, wellness and the introduction of hygienic doctrine. Obviously, publicity had a lot of say in this situation, and instrument makers knew how to take advantage of it, as reflected the following text by from the catalogye published by the instrument makers Negretti and Zambra:

To the invalid, the importance of predicting with tolerable accuracy the changes that are likely to occur in the weather, cannot be over-rated. Many colds would be prevented, if we could know that the morning so balmy and bright, would subside into a cold and cheerless afternoon. Even to the robust, much inconvenience may be prevented by a due respect to the indications of the hygrometer and the barometer, and the delicate in health will do well to regard its warnings. (Negretti & Zambra, 1864, 23-24)

In sum, the presence of all these devices in the past was aimed at covering nothing but “superfluous” needs of human beings, which indeed constitute the most important needs. In the words of José Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish philosopher:

“La técnica es la producción de lo superfluo: hoy y en la época paleolítica” (Ortega, 2014, 72); because “el bienestar y no el estar es la necesidad fundamental para el hombre, la necesidad de las necesidades” (Ortega, 2014, 70). According to him, “Actos técnicos –decíamos- no son aquéllos en que el hombre procura satisfacer directamente las necesidades que la circunstancia o naturaleza le hace sentir, sino precisamente aquellos que llevan a reformar esa circunstancia eliminando en lo posible de ella esas necesidades, suprimiendo o menguando el azar y el esfuerzo que exige satisfacerlas. […] La técnica es lo contrario de la adaptación del sujeto al medio, puesto que es la adaptación del medio al sujeto” (Ortega, 2014, 67).

Technology is not simple meant to satisfy biological needs, the necessary conditions for life – “técnica no se reduce a facilitar la satisfacción de necesidades de ese género” –, but to  “proporcionar al hombre cosas y situaciones innecesarias en ese sentido” (Ortega, 2014, 68).


References and further readings

ANDREWES, J. H. (2006), « A chronicle of timekeeping », Scientific American, february, vol. 16, n.º 1s, pp. 46-55.

ESCANDE, Jean N. D. (2010), Escoussens sous la royauté; suivi de Les bourgeois du château, Escoussans, Château d’Escoussens Editions.

GARVAN, Anthony N. B. (1981), “Efectos de la tecnología en la vida doméstica, 1830-1880”, en Melvin Kranzberg y Carroll W. Pursell, Jr. (eds.), Historia de la Tecnología. La técnica en Occidente, de la Prehistoria a 1900, vol. II, Barcelona, Gustavo Gili.

GUIJARRO, Víctor, and GONZÁLEZ, Leonor (2015), La comprensión cultural de la Tecnología, Madrid, Universitas.

El indicador de las novedades, de los espectáculos y de las artes, 23 octubre 1822, p. 4.

MONTAÑÉS Fontenla, Luis (1954), Biblioteca literaria del relojero. II. Capítulos de la relojería en España, Madrid, Roberto Carbonell Blasco.

MORRISON, Allison (2007), Making Scientific Instruments in the Industrial Revolution, Aldershot: Ashgate.

NEGRETTI & ZAMBRA, (1864), A treatise on Meteorological Instruments, London (reprinted in 1996 by Baros Books, Wiltshire, England)

ORTEGA y GASSET, José, (2014, 1ª ed. 1939), Ensimismamiento y alteración. Meditación de la técnica y otros ensayos, Madrid, Alianza editorial

WARD, F. A. B. (1958), Handbook of the Collection illustrating Time Measurement, Part I: Historical review, Londres, Science Museum, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

ZOZAYA MONTES, María (2008), El Casino de Madrid: ocio, sociabilidad, identidad y representación social (PhD Thesis), and the published version: ZOZAYA MONTES, María (2016), Identidades en juego: Formas de representación social del poder de la élite en un espacio de sociabilidad masculino, 1836-1936, Madrid, Siglo XXI.

Recreational technology in 19th century

peppersposterroyalpolyinstAdvertisement from a representation of the illusion called “Pepper’s Ghost” at the Royal Polytechnic Institution, London.

At the very beginning of the 18th century, lecture demonstrations in “experimental philosophy” (what today we would call practical physics) started to develop in England, soon extending to other European countries. This event was inspired by the interest for experiments and demonstrations which had emerged in some 17th century institutions such as the Royal Society of London, Cimento’s Academy in Florence, or Leiden University.

A large amount of these activities would take place in both public and private places to amuse the public and to promote the dissemination of scientific and technical knowledge among all kinds of people. In cities like London they used to take place in the coffee houses or in the shops of instrument makers; in the provinces, they were given by itinerant lecturers; in private houses, lectures were initially associated with men of wealth and position, owners of large cabinets of antiquities and curiosities which were aimed, beyond delighting illustrious and literate visitors, at bearing witness to the wealth, prestige and reputation of its holder.

Soon the collecting vogue spread well down the social scale, giving place to an expansion of interest in scientific knowledge to all sorts of people (Turner, 1987, 380).

As Robert John Thornton wrote in 1813:

[…] the age in which we live, seems to me, of all the periods in history, the most distinguished for the sudden and extensive impulse which the human mind has received, and which has extended its active influence to every object of human pursuit. The diffusion of a general knowledge, and of a taste for science, over all classes of men, in every nation of Europe, or of European origin, seems to be the characteristic feature of the present age. The study of the sciences principally has expanded the mind, and laid it open for the reception of every kind of truth. […] in no former age, was ever the light of knowledge so extended, and so generally diffused. Knowledge is not now confined to public schools, or to particular classes of men (Thornton, 1813, 53).

Lecturers thus popularized science, to the point that, for example, in Britain the movement became institutionalized by the founding of the Royal Institution in 1799 or by the lecture-demonstration in Mechanics’ Institutes (Turner, 1987, 381, 383).

These events continued taking place well into the 19th century, also in other countries. An Spanish example is provided by this advertisement:

Nueva Pitonisa. Dentro de pocos dias llegará á esta corte, acompañado de su hija la jóven sibila Elena, el célebre doctor Nicolay, físico de las cortes de Europa y del Brasil. La prensa de Francia, Rusia y América, háse ocupado con justos elogios en distintas ocasiones de aquel notable doctor y de su bella hija, que han causado la admiración por sus extraordinarios experimentos de física y de magnetismo. Como suponemos que el público de Madrid tendrá en breve ocasión de aplaudir á las dos personas que hemos mencionado, no apuntamos ninguno de los ejercicios y juegos de prestidigitacion y de magnetismo que han obtenido el aplauso general, causando extrañeza hasta á los mismos maestros del arte.

La iberia, 7/9/1877

At that time, audiences were prone to visit different types of exhibits which sometimes combined illusions, magic or spiritism with science, automatons or other mechanisms. Scientific shows became part of the public culture: they usually came into play in or near other places socially and culturally interesting, so that audiences could relate them to the activities already existent in those spaces (Morus, 2006, 10 5-107). Natural philosophy thus became part of consumer culture through its visual product. Scientific lectures and shows provided a chance to teach consumers how to see science, how to look at the scientific and technical artefacts and displays in an appropriate way. The lectures helped configure a specific idea about science and technology, and contributed to the rise of a visual scientific culture.

These sorts of encounters were primarily visual, and this, therefore, was how such audiences understood natural philosophy. Natural philosophy was a way of producing spectacular effects that demonstrated both the workings of nature and the power of the showman to control that nature (Morus, 2006, 1 10).

For some Art historians (Jonathan Crary (1999), Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press), optical illusions provide interesting information about how industrial society and modernity brought about new ways of seeing as an active and cultural process.


Illustration of a recreational scientific lecture showing how the “Pepper’s Ghost” illusion was carried out. Image from “The Richard Balzer Collection. (

Indeed, vision was the main sense in the process of learning science in the 18th and 19th centuries, so the scientific shows performing projections and optical illusions developed an important role. For Brewster the eye was “the sentinel which guards the pass between the worlds of matter and spirit, and through which all their communications are interchanged”, it helped to establish “the relationship between the inner mind and outer reality” (Morus, 2006, 102). Optical illusions were the result of the interpretation made by our minds of the external world, but projection apparatus highlighted the fallibility of human judgement; in this case, the greater the knowledge, the bigger the illusion’s effect.

Some of the exhibits employed dazzling experiments and effects aimed at producing in the public feelings of both surprise and admiration. Trying to find a balance between, on the one hand, what was shown to produce admiration and meet audience’s expectations and, on the other hand, what was hidden to keep alive the mystery, many lecturers were deeply interested in offering to the audiences truthful information. Not only they wanted to transmit scientific knowledge in an amusing way, they also sought to educate the eyes and the minds of the audiences and to inform the public, so that they could prevent them from being deceived by charlatans (Morus, 2006, 105). A good example of this is provided by the following text from a 1803 leaflet of a Philipstahal show:

This SPECTROLOGY, which professes to expose the Practices of artful Impostors and pretended Exorcists, and to open the Eyes of those who still foster an absurd Belief in GHOSTS or DISEMBODIED SPIRITS, will, it is presumed, afford also to the Spectator an interesting and pleasing Entertainment; and in order to render these Apparations more interesting, they will be introduced during the Progress of a tremendous Thunder Storm, accompanied with vivid Lightning, Hail, Wind, &c.


Leaflet from a 1807 Philipsthal representation at the Theater-Royal, in Norwich

Over the years, a large part of the knowledge and objects associated to these types of spectacles were introduced in the houses and, as we will see later, in the schools. As Gerard L’E pointed out,

The scientific lecture-demonstrations to literate audiences from about 1700 set a pattern for the demonstration of the fundamentals of science that is still with us. Some of the set pieces used by the early lecturers passed into recreational use during the Victorian period, and became toys in the twentieth century (Turner, 1987, 377).

As a matter of fact, many of the instruments used in the lectures were sold (and are still sold today) as entertainment devices, some of them intended for adults, and some others, known as “scientific toys”, for kids to play at home (Turner, 397).


The “Bowl-About”, a toy “founded on the principle of placing the centre of gravity very near the lower part of the figure”, in this case with the appearance of a Chinese fat man. From the trade catalogue of John J. Griffin and Sons (Scientific handicraft, a descriptive, illustrated and priced catalogue of apparatus suitable for the performance of elementary experiments in physics, Londres, 1873, p.15) 

Also an endless number of books on the subject with a ludic appearance were published in the 19th and 20th century (for recreational science for kids in the 20th century in America see Rebecca Onion, Innocent experiments: childhood and the Culture of Popular Science in the United States, The University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

Tom Tit Fr

Several covers form french editions of books on recreational science written by Tom Tit (Arthur Good’s pen name), 1891-1893

But, whilst some of the experiments remained the same (most of them belonged to the 18th century), the cultural and social meaning of these events suffered slight changes as time went by. For example, the presence of these scientific devices outside the research and educational environment, especially at the end of the 19th century, was closely related to the idea of a “profitable” or “fruitful” leisure (purposeful use of the time). Behind this idea there were Institutions and individuals interested in promoting hygiene and worker welfare. They considered education as more important than recreation and thus proposed to the people cultural activities to make the best of their leisure time (Poser, 3). These scientific devices had special characteristics which made them attractive to the public:

Technology that is suitable as a model for toys needs to have an “excitement factor” – or at least a certain level of familiarity – and be accessible and intuitive at the same time. It should engage the user on an emotional level, for a sense of wonder about technology inspires interest in playing with its replica. Furthermore, simulated technology used for play probably facilitates the technology’s acceptance, as the playful interaction directs the user’s attention back to the original. Such simulations can further promote important technological skills and know-how. Technology plays an important role regarding such toys as steam engines and model trains, which came on the market towards the end of 19th century (Poser, 2011, 7).

The effect of scientific shows in the transmission of a scientific culture and the deep impression and emotions which provoked in the audience was well reflected in the testimony of several scientists. Some remember in its biographies the impact which these events made on them as children. Such is the case of Charles Babbage (born in 1791), who recalls in his biography, Passages from the life of a Philosopher:

During my boyhood, my mother took me to several exhibitions of machinery. I well remember one of them in Hanover Square, by a man who called himself Merlin. I was so greatly interested in it, that the Exhibitor remarked the circumstance, and after explaining some of the objects to which the public had access, proposed to my mother to take me up to his workshop, where I should see still more wonderful automata. We accordingly ascended to the attic. There were two uncovered female figures of silver, about twelve inches high (Babbage, 1864, 17).

The attraction provoked by scientific shows, together with the central role occupied by visual thinking in the transmission of knowledge and the old Horacio’s idea of teaching with delight, had an influence on the fact that some of the patterns associated to lectures were generally adopted in the 19th century in European educational institutions. Therefore we find certain elements common to both contexts: the type of scientific instrument; the prestige associated to the possession of large collections of scientific instruments (González, 2015), which on occasion prompted some educational institutions to the acquisition of some pieces whose pedagogical role could be considered secondary; the use of scientific and technological instruments in the diffusion of knowledge as supposedly compelling evidences of the science truthfulness (see the entry “Educational Technology” on this blog); the idea of teaching with delight, specially through visual thinking (see the entries “Visual thinking” and “Images of technology as mediators of reality” on this blog); or the use of the term “scientific” to refer to both science and technology, which was thus subordinated to science.

Nevertheless, not all lecture’s patterns were easy to reproduce in a formal educational context. Apart from the fact that attending a school or a high school was not considered a leisure time activity by the students, the reproduction of experiments was frequently, if not always, a hard task. To carry out a scientific show required a difficult training, preparation, rehearsal and knowledge (Morus, 2006, 108), that the teacher could not always easily accomplish. Leaving aside the fact that reproducing experiments or using scientific or technological instruments in the educational process was not a compulsory activity (the system was based on rote learning) and that most of the teachers preferred the master class, reproducing the lecture or science show pattern in the classroom required preparing not one experiment, but one for each lesson. Most of the scientific and technical instruments were on display in showcases, but, were they put into operation?

References and further readings

BABBAGE, Charles (1864), Passages from the life of a Philosopher; COPPOLA, Al (2016), The Theater of Experiment: Staging Natural Philosophy in Eighteenth Century Britain, Oxford University Press; GONZÁLEZ, Leonor, “El lenguaje tácito de la tecnología” in Leonor González and Vicente Fernández (editors), El Instituto de San Isidro, saber y patrimonio. Apuntes para una historia, CSIC, 2013; MORUS, Iwan Rhys (2006), “Seeing and believing science”, Isis, Vol. 97, No. 1: 101-110; ONION, Rebecca, Innocent experiments: childhood and the Culture of Popular Science in the United States, The University of North Carolina Press, 2016; POSER, Stefan (2011), “Leisure time and Technology”, en European History Online (EGO), published by the Institute of European History (IEG), Mainz 2011-09-26. ; SCHAFFER, Simon (1983), “Natural Philosophy and Public Spectacle in the Eighteenth Century”, History of Science, 21: 1-43; THORNTON, Robert John (1813, 5ª ed.), “The progress of Chemistry”, in The Philosophy of Medicine: being medical extracts on the nature and preservation of health, on the nature and removal of disease, 2 vol., vol. I, London, in ; TURNER, Gerard L’E (1987), “Scientific Toys”, in British Journal of the History of Science, 20: 377-398.

Social nudism

Clothing was presented in western cultures as an achievement of civilized beings in their process of differentiation from beasts and animals. In Plato´s version of the Prometheus myth, the author describes how humans were transformed by the intervention of one of the Titans. Prometheus stole fire from the workshop of Athena and Hephaistos, and gave it to mankind,

and in this way man was supplied with the means of life […]  He was not long in inventing articulate speech and names; and he also constructed houses and clothes and shoes and beds, and drew sustenance from the earth. (Protagoras, 322 a-b).

Nevertheless, Cynic philosophers (from the 6th to the 3rd Century B.C.) rejected conventional social values and the polis lifestyle; they were in favour of simple habits and living in agreement with nature. Clothing was a symbol of these ideals, so everyone can recognize followers of this school of thought by their apparel: an old cloak and a staff. Their hero was Heracles, not Prometheus.

In the 18th Century, opposition between nature and civilization was a regular topic for discussion in philosophical circles. For enligthened reformers, civilization and progress were intertwined with science and technology innovations. Two texts stand out as representative examples of one of the perspectives adopted in these matters. One is Lettres persanes, by Montesquieu, written in 1721, particularly the part devoted to the Troglodyte fable, a description of a society which lives according to natural impulses but that ends replacing former habits by the impositions of a government and education. The other is Supplément au voyage de Bougainville, by Diderot, published in 1772, where an elder Tahitian reveals the true order of nature, which has nothing to do with Western rules. Obviously, Tahitian moral, following pure instincts of nature, is superior to Western social behaviour in every aspect (later the myth of Tahiti grew, expressed in P. Gauguin’s paintings and other manifestations).

From the Renaissance on, some depictions of humans resting and having fun in a garden (the representation of nature domesticated) transmit the image of an eternal state of innocence. A remarkable example is Lucas Cranach, the elder, “The Golden Age” (c. 1530), an idealistic period of time when people lived in eternal peace, as nature provided all what is needed. Technology in this age was superfluous. The figures in Cranach`s painting –nude- were arranged in animated poses. Note that men and women are differentiated by their flesh tone (women are paler).


Lucas Cranach, the elder, “The Golden Age”, c. 1530. Wikipedia.

Idyllic retirement to nature, in response to industrial society demands and effects on living conditions, was common among writers, artists and philosophers. A well-known case is H. David Thoreau, but there are many others. In Walden (1854), he wrote inspiring words for the pro-naturalist doctrines (according to the version provided by

Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself. I have been as sincere a worshipper of Aurora as the Greeks. I got up early and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise, and one of the best things which I did.

For similar reasons, at the end of the 19th century naturism movements emerged, advocating from a political and cultural perspective social nudity. In Paris there was an anarchist colony formed by approximately hundred individuals around the figure of Emile Gravelle. As a contribution to the expression of the ideals of the movement they published the journal L’Etat Naturel, from 1894 to 1898. According to this and other publications we know their positions on scientific and technological matters. These can be summarized saying that science is an invention to repair what was devastated by human actions and by a technological way of thinking. Other assertions of the Gravelle’s circle were that material progress is the result of slavery; epidemic diseases are a consequence of civilization, and science is nothing but presumptuous knowledge (Roselló, 2008, 25). These ideas crossed the borders and reached other countries, among them Spain, whose history is fully reported in the book edited by the sociologist José María Roselló  ¡Viva la naturaleza! (Virus Editorial, 2008). In the early 1900´s a group of people from Germany established an anarcho-naturalist colony next to Ascona (Switzerland), where strict vegetarianism and nudism was practised, and conventions on dress codes and marriage were also rejected. The initial promoters came from a Munich neighbourhood called Schwabing, and it was known as Monte Veritá. The venue attracted many artists, writers, and intellectuals such as Sigmund Freud, Hermann Hesse, Carl Gustav Jung, D. H. Lawrence, Franz Kafka, Franz Werfel, and Max Weber. The history of this cultural movement is the subject matter of Freie Liebe und Anarchie (Allitera, 2009), written by Ulrike Voswinckel, whose Spanish version (Contra la vida establecida, El Paseo Editorial) will come out in the next few days (see

In the 1960s anarcho-naturist movements kept the commitments in a context formed by new elements: the influences of oriental spiritual religions, anti-war protests, counter-culture expressions, the scale of military technology spending, the cold war, psychedelia… Many communes were created across the United States (a phenomena studied in the book by Timothy Millers The 60s communes: Hippies and Beyond, Syracuse UP, 1999). Micah L. Issitt says in Hippies: A Guide to an American Subulture (Greenwood Press, 2009) that

Another major facet of hip [Hippie] sexuality was the acceptance of nudity, a crucial step toward addressing the issues of `body image’ in American culture. Hippies reveled in the simple pleasure of being nude in public and in private, which contrasted sharply with mainstream attitudes about nudity. Though nudist communities existed before hippies, hip nudist challenged societal norms by flaunting their nudity in public, despite objections and laws prohibiting ‘indicency’(Issitt, 2009, 21-22).

We must remember that counterculture movements were also responsible for ideas and practices that led to the information technology society, which was considered a liberating tool, not an “authoritarian technology” in the terms used by Lewis Mumford. Nevertheless, present uses of the web do not follow these early expectations.

At present, every year the World Naked Bike Ride (WNBR) takes place, where participants use human-powered transport and ride in public nudity to contribute to a cleaner and body-positive world image.


WNBR passing Holborn underground station 11 June 2016. Wikipedia

References and further readings

Micah L. Issitt (2009), Hippies: A Guide to an American Subulture, Greenwood Press; Timothy Millers (1999), The 60s communes: Hippies and Beyond, Syracuse UP; José María Roselló (2008), ¡Viva la naturaleza!, Virus Editorial; Ulrike Voswinckel (2009), Freie Liebe und Anarchie, ed Allitera, (Spanish version (2017), Contra la vida establecida, El Paseo Editorial).

Images of technology as mediators of reality

If we think about the first objects exposed to the public in science museums, very likely what comes to mind is either a huge clock (as in the Museo de las Ciencias de Castilla La Mancha, Cuenca, Spain), a huge steam engine in motion beating your ears with the repetitive piston sound (for example the one in the Science Museum, London, Great Britain) or a real plane hanging from the ceiling (for instance the one in the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry). Designers and curators are aware of the power those images and sounds have to transmit values, feelings or information (see the entry Transmission of knowledge on this blog).


Corliss Steam Engine in motion at the London Science Museum (Great Britain)

Technology is a human creation, it’s the result of transforming the reality surrounding us. But once a technological device has been brought up and has been introduced in society  (see the entries Innovation and Diffusion of innovations on this blog), it transforms our vision of that reality. Then, technology and the images representing it and resulting from it become mediators of our world view. As a result, those images convey values, give rise to archetypes and feelings that substitute rationality, or become symbols and metaphors of reality.

Technology manages to convey specific values such as progress, effectiveness or precision (see the entry Progress on this blog). Technology and technological methods represent efficacy, so they lead us to think that their use of will result in better outcomes. This idea has driven us, for example, to introduce factory methods or technological devices in activities like teaching (see the entries Culture of technology in secondary education and Educational technology on this blog) -something very well reflected in overoptimistic images foreseing a wonderful future thanks to technology, like the future School with a “Robot Teacher” we reproduce here, by Shigeru Komatsuzak. Or to the use of scientific and technological methods to measure individual characteristics in order to improve both professional orientation and performance (Guijarro y González, 2015, 249).


A vision of the future, entitled “The Rise of the Computerized School”, illustrated by Shigeru Komatsuzaki for an 1969 article of the japanese magazine Shōnen Sunday (週刊少年サンデー, Shūkan Shōnen Sandē).

But the attitude towards technology is not universal. Whereas some people reject or mistrust an excessive technology presence (technophobia and techno-scepticism) (the Amish represent an extreme example), for others technological objects are no longer mere objects with a specific utility, but models and basic elements in their way of life (technophilia).

When the images resulting from the action of technology on a reality provide a model to understand that reality -without becoming a real explanation of it but merely an interpretation- they drive to the emergence of an archetype. Such is the case of the internet, which has become an archetype of communication (Stefik, 1996) or the human archetypes emerged from XIX century studies on physical anthropology, which led to the concept of human races and to a human archetypes hierarchy where the use of technology played an important role: it was associated to civilization and progress and hence to (moral, intellectual and material) superiority (Guijarro and González, 2015, 99-105). The latter is an example of how archetypes can introduce prejudices beyond reason that prevent us from seeing reality the way it is.

Sometimes technology, in the form of large buildings and constructions representing the triumph of engineering skill (of men over nature), provokes feelings of attraction and admiration that substitute rationality. This phenomenon, studied by David Nye in his book American Technological Sublime, takes place when “an object strikes people dumb with amazement” (Nye, 1994, 16) and it’s reflected in public’s affection for spectacular technologies.

The sublime underlies this enthusiasm for technology. One of the most powerful human emotions, when experienced by large groups the sublime can weld society together. In moments of sublimity, human beings temporarily disregard divisions among elements of the community. The sublime taps into fundamental hopes and fears. It is not a social residue, created by economic and political forces, though both can inflect its meaning. Rather, it is essentially religious feeling, aroused by the confrontation with impressive objects, such as Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, the New York skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge, or the earth-shaking launch of a space shuttle. (Nye, 1994, xiii).


People gathered to watch the starting of the massive Corliss engine, which powered a myriad of other machines at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition (The International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine), in 1876. The event celebrated the 100th anniversary of American independence announcing the ascendancy of the United States of America as a leading industrial power.

Yet the mediation of technology can change the way we look at the reality it has either acted upon or been associated to in such a way that it completely reshapes our vision of that reality. Then, technological images become metaphors (this entry complements the entry Metaphors on this blog). This is the case, for example, of the human mind, seen itself as a computer after both the invention of computers and the use of these devices to imitate some mind processes. Other examples would be thinking of humans as robots or of schools as factories.


Evocation of steam and smoke, symbols of progress, in a train station. Claude Monet, The Gare Saint-Lazare: Arrival of a Train, 1877 (Fogg Museum, Harvard Art Museums).

In other situations, technology displaces in our minds a reality it’s associated to so that the technological object get to represent that reality. It has happened, for example: with the Eiffel tower, which has become a symbol of Paris; with the steam and the smoke, symbols of progress mainly in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and present in many paintings of the time (such is the case in the series of works by Claude Monet representing Saint-Lazare train station in Paris, paradigm of modern Paris and a subject favoured by many impressionist painters); or with the garden, which represents a domesticated nature.

“The progress of the century”. Lithograph featuring new technologies associated with America’s emerging industrial greatness: the telegraph, the railroad, the locomotive steamboat, and the steam-engine powered printing press, by Currier and Ives, 1876.

Like most symbols, technological symbols are cultural and can vary from one period to another. The garden provides a good example of it:

Los jardines formales del siglo XVII son expresión del poder humano y de la disconformidad que se sentía ante la irregularidad original que presentaba la naturaleza. Durante este periodo el diseño geométrico aplicado a estos espacios obedecía a un intento por rememorar los planes divinos en un mundo que había degenerado y caído en el caos. En el siglo XVIII se relajó levemente el apremio por el orden y la artificiosidad y se acogieron formas más naturales. En la siguiente centuria se pretendió en los encargos realizados a los naturalistas por las sociedades de agricultura, destinados al diseño de jardines de aclimatación, ensayo de plantas y cultivos, aunar lo bello y lo útil. Por tanto, la idea de jardín es un concepto ambiguo, que evoca, por un lado, una parte de la naturaleza y, por el otro, la intervención humana. Es una representación de la naturaleza, una naturaleza, en definitiva, producida y controlada.

Más tarde, el ideal del ensamblaje de la naturaleza y la civilización se intentó promover en los proyectos urbanísticos de la ciudad-jardín. En estos propósitos, concebidos por Ebenezer Howard (1850-1927) a finales del siglo XIX, se trataba de equilibrar lo mejor de la vida urbana y la rural; se trataba de disponer cinturones verdes en la ciudad y fusionar las necesidades de la industria y de la ecología.

El alto valor simbólico del jardín en nuestra cultura explica que esté presente en creaciones que cuestionan los logros de la civilización occidental. En este caso se trata de dos obras cinematográficas, Metrópolis, de Fritz Lang (1927) y Mi tío, de Jacques Tati (1958). En ambos casos se pretende crear un particular desasosiego en el espectador mostrando jardines donde la intervención humana ha creado realidades artificiales que aparentemente han anulado los vestigios de naturaleza y, por tanto, reducido la calidad de las relaciones humanas (Guijarro y González, 2015, 97)

Artists have a special ability to identify those images of reality mediated by technology that prevail in society and make them explicit in their works, frequently through parody or dystopia. Their vision is mainly techno-sceptical, that is, they accept some aspects of technology while rejecting others, specially those affecting environment, privacy, freedom or health. Apart from the movies mentioned in the quote, Metropolis and Mon oncle, and the too well known example of Modern times (Charles Chaplin, 1935) there are also other remarkable examples of film directors criticizing technology like Woody Allen (Sleeper, 1973), François Truffaut (Fahrenheit 451, 1966 -film based on the book of the same name by Ray Bradbury, 1953), or Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, 1982, based upon the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep)


The automatized and dehumanized Garden of Villa Arpel, Jaques Tati, Mon oncle (1958)

Tati’s film, Mon oncle (1958), proposes a way to dehumanize gardens through a vision of the modern and automatized Villa Arpel:

La casa y el jardín son «máquinas para vivir» mucho más que lugares de vida. Todo en ellos es frío y mecánico. La fuente de aluminio en forma de pez que hay en medio del jardín aparece como la encarnación de los falsos valores de una burguesía que se adorna superfluamente de modernidad. […] su reflexión está relacionada con las contradicciones y las promesas incumplidas de la modernidad” (Jakob, 2010, 48-49).

Sleeper is a movie which takes place in the year 2173, when Miles (Woody Allen) wakes up after a long sleep induced in 1973. It pays tribute to the work of H.G. Wells When the Sleeper Awakes (1910), and represents a satirical look to a future where technology intervenes in every aspect of human relationships (including sex) and communications.

Blade Runner presents an apocalyptic image of the city of Los Angeles in 2019, where cyborgs genetically engineered -the replicants, with greater strength and intelligence than humans- have been created to serve humans. In the movie technology is presented as inefficient but omnipresent and oppressive.

Fahrenheit 451 presents a technocratic society where books are forbidden and where order is maintained through oppression. Individual free will has been completely overridden through a technology that rules every day life, specially through an omnipresent TV set which broadcast commercials used for the mental control of the people.

Similar examples can be found in visual arts, where we can find opposing positions. While certain trends such as futurist or constructivist praised for technology -the former glorified the machine age, the latter expressed the technological society-, other movements were more critical. After the enthusiasm of futurism, Dadaism had an ambiguous position towards the progressive mechanisation of life, showing mixed feelings (of attraction and refusal), always ironic: they humanised machines, as in the works by Picabia, Duchamp or Man Ray, and mechanised humans, as in the works by Grosz, Hausmann or Switchers (María Santos García Felguera, 2000, “Las vanguardias históricas (II)”, Historia del Arte, vol. 34, Historia 16, p. 66).


George Grosz, Daum marries her pedantic automaton George in May 1920, John Heartfield is very glad of it, 1920, Berlinische Galerie

References and further readings

María Santos García Felguera (2000), “Las vanguardias históricas (II)”, Historia del Arte, vol. 34, Historia 16; Víctor Guijarro and Leonor González (2015), La comprensión cultural de la tecnología, Madrid, Universitas; Michael Jacob (2010), El jardín y su representación, Madrid, Siruela; David Nye (1994), American Technological Sublime, Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press; Mark Stefik (1996), Internet Dreams: Archetypes, Myths and Metaphors, The MIT Press; Sarah M. Watson, “Toward a Constructive Technology Criticism” (for a general and complete review on technology criticism).