Unlimited Power: The Social Cataclysm of Technology and Science

Governments, religions, and other relatively static institutes that hold power over large numbers of people should fear air pumps and electrical machines because of the massive, society-transforming power that technological innovation holds. “They [inventors] were creating immense wealth and technological supremacy without a single Parliamentary seat.” (Johnson, pg. 150) Building a better air pump might greatly improve production at some factory, thus producing more profit for the owners, thus increasing their wealth, thus increasing their political power. At a sort of fundamental level, technological innovation causes change, sometimes large change. The invention of the thermometer allowed Franklin to discover the gulf stream (Johnson, p. 149), allowing for faster trips when one traveled along the stream. That small-sounding invention, the ability to measure temperature accurately, led to a sort of miniature revolution in transit and commerce.   

I would not go as far to say that Johnson has shined any new light on current scientific of technological happenings, but it does give us a unique lens to view such current events by. Most notably, he reinforces the view of how science and technology help drive “progress”, away from the old towards the new. “…it is the radical’s [Priestly’s] belief that progress inevitably undermines the institutions and belief systems of the past.” (Johnson, pg. 213). Johnson goes on to caution us that progress is not always what it seems; that progress can lead us not only to progress but also towards destruction (Johnson, p.g 214). A relatively recent example of this would be our exploitation of the atom, for both nuclear power and nuclear warfare, which is devastating to a degree never seen before.  

2 thoughts on “Unlimited Power: The Social Cataclysm of Technology and Science”

  1. Hello Morgan,
    Johnson makes it very clear through his writing that technological innovation always leads to socio-political consequences reaching far beyond what may have originally been analyzed in the setting of a lab. You make a great example of a factory, and how the air pump provides a level of power through its ability to provide a service; in this way, scientific advance always gives the bearer of the knowledge authority in the economic field of what they have uncovered. Similarly, inventions mentioned in the book played a major role in changing the economy, as you discussed through the example of Benjamin Franklin. I was similarly drawn to Johnson’s point about radicals; whatever we perceive in our society to be the “normal” of now may drastically change over the next century, whether this be for better or worse, though, is unknown. Great post!

  2. Hi Morgan!
    I like that the main theme you got out of Johnson’s book in the context of why governments and religions should fear air pumps and electrical machines was power. Similarly, I chose to talk about control and I think these two concepts go hand in hand and we sort of came to the same types of conclusions about why scientific advancement is so threatening. I really enjoyed reading your first paragraph because although we both went in a similar direction with this, the evidence and examples you chose to use were much different than mine, so I found myself learning even more about how I interpreted Johnson’s book just from reading your post. In your second paragraph, you came to the conclusion that Priestly’s work does not shed light upon modern scientific advancement which was interesting because although I disagree, your argument is quite compelling and I definitely see the point you are trying to make here. The idea of Johnson’s book as being a “new lens” through which we can view science is rather fascinating, and I think you did a great job developing your ideas overall!

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