Cultivating the necessary habits of the heart and resisting the allure of the ideology of technology
Why are Americans addicted to technology? The question has a distinctly contemporary ring, and we might be tempted to think it could only have been articulated within the last decade or two. Could we, after all, have known anything about technology addiction before the advent of the Blackberry? Well, as it turns out, Americans have a longstanding fascination and facility with technology, and the question of technology addiction was one of the many Alexis de Tocqueville thought to answer in his classic study of antebellum American society, Democracy in America.
To be precise, Tocqueville titled the tenth chapter of volume two, “Why The Americans Are More Addicted To Practical Than To Theoretical Science.” In Tocqueville’s day, the word technology did not yet carry the expansive and inclusive sense it does today. Instead, quaint sounding phrases like “the mechanical arts,” “the useful arts,” or sometimes merely “invention” did together the semantic work that we assign to the single word technology.1 “Practical science” was one more such phrase available to writers, and, as in Tocqueville’s case, “practical science” was often opposed to “theoretical science.” The two phrases captured the distinction we have in mind when we speak separately of science and technology.
To answer his question on technology addiction, Tocqueville looked at the political and economic characteristics of American society and what he took to be the attitude toward technology they encouraged. As we’ll see, much of what Tocqueville had to say over 150 years ago resonates still, and it is the compelling nature of his diagnosis that invites us to reverse the direction of the inquiry—to ask what effect the enduring American fascination with technology might have on American political and economic culture. But first, why were Americans, as early as the 1830s, addicted to technology?