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Pacey, who teaches at Britain’s Open University, has long been one of the most learned and humane scholars of technology. He made his reputation with a series of wideranging works, including The Maze of Ingenuity (1976), The Culture of Technology (1983), and Technology in World Civilization (1991). In popular usage, the word technology has become synonymous with computerized devices and software; for Pacey, technology and its related sciences are human endeavors spanning centuries and continents.

In the remarkable Meaning in Technology, he argues that technology expresses the aesthetic drives of its creators and users. Machines, for example, have characteristic tempos and sounds, and many automobiles and motorcycles are tuned acoustically for a pleasing effect. And, just as musicians develop tactile relationships with their instruments, scientists, engineers, and artisans often can understand and diagnose conditions by touch. Some aircraft radio repair technicians during World War II developed a kind of empathy toward the electronics equipment the worked on that enabled them to find problems without full testing. Technology, Pacey argues, unites ears, eyes, and hands.

Machines and structures also unite people. Things bear meanings for society. The design of bicycles and aircraft incorporates ideas about who is going to operate them, and how. Will the devices be unforgiving but powerful, rewarding strength and precision but treating weakness and misjudgment harshly? Will they require authoritarian, top-down control for safe operation, or will they promote cooperation among smaller communities? Do they draw on our innate playfulness? Are they available equally to girls and boys, women and men?

If music is Pacey’s central metaphor for scientific and technological creation, the garden exemplifies human works in the natural world. The human transformation of the landscape, he shows, goes beyond anything required by the body’s simple need for nourishment and shelter. This change is not always harmful to nature, either. Preserves and other artificial microhabitats (he could also have mentioned England’s remaining hedgerows) support higher densities of species, including some rare ones, than their "natural" surroundings. To many engineers, bridges and roads can enhance the beauty of landscapes.

The strength of this book, its catholic approach to technology, is also a limitation. Too little space is devoted to the central scientific and engineering trend of the new century, the rise of electronic networks—and to the fortunes being made from them. Many great inventors of a hundred years ago, notably Thomas Edison, lived for innovation rather than for profits. Even the engineers and scientists of the old military-industrial complex, which Pacey sees as a source of Faustian temptation, were generally interested less in wealth or military power than in opportunities to pursue elegant work with ample resources. Salaries, in those days before stock options, were merely comfortable.

Do today’s technological entrepreneurs pursue new meaning in the products they create? Or does the prospect of rapid wealth make values—not to mention basic business ethics—a luxury? More broadly, does the present Internet embody the "people-centered" technology that Pacey advocates and many of its pioneers had in mind, or does the driving competition of electronic commerce substitute staring eyeballs and clicking fingers for engaged minds? Pacey does not ask these questions directly, but he gives us the right tools for answering them.

—Edward Tenner


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