Technology and Consciousness in the Brumidi Corridor of the United States Capitol

By John Dyer

Democracy, Progress and Technology: An Introduction

In Authoritarian and Democratic Technics and Technics and the Nature of Man, Lewis Mumford argues that desire and gratification lie at the root of technology. Technology, writes Mumford, is the projection of man's inner need for well-being onto the outside world. Hence, it is more a psychological, rather than a purely mechanical, phenomenon; it represents a personal motivation as well as a manipulation of the greater environment. After all, he asks, are not the hoe and firearm extensions of the same processes by which man controls his back and finger?

As the above question implies, technology is therefore more than simply the effective use of tools. It is about self-mastery and self-definition, sustenance and security. Because of these highly subjective concerns, man can compare and contrast for himself his different successes in achieving satisfaction in these areas, and thus, the gradations of these achievements may compose what we now call progress.

The linkage of desire and progress to the individual's role in his environment in many ways culminates in intensity in a democracy, where the individual bears the most responsibility in society. Such responsibility requires that people be able to reach their full potential, which means one should be able to realize and act on one's pressing desires, at least practically speaking. Therefore, technology should be available to all in a democracy, for as it is an extension of the desires a democracy is trying to respect, it is the tool best suited to carrying those desires to their maximum potential.

As Leo Marx has written in The Machine in the Garden, the machine in America originally served as a means towards fashioning society into a place where such a goal could be realized: the 'middle-state' promoted by such thinkers as Thomas Jefferson. Considered a sort of end to progress, the 'middle-state' was idyllic and pastoral, the environment early 19th century thinkers saw as most suited to developing a healthy civilization. In the 'middle-state,' self-sufficient agriculture provided man with his own sustenance. Thus, free from want, and independent, he lacked the avarice that typified urban settings, where people lived according to the vagaries of the market and led stultified lives.

The freedom possible from being a farmer in the 'middle-state,' independent, satisfied, and close to nature, was supposed to provide the leisure and inculcate in one the common sense necessary for contemplation. Thinkers like Jefferson held that the personal goal of the 'middle-state' was for every individual to understand the ways of nature, and thus God, and life, through the exercise of reason. Thus, the scientific method of inquiry was an important basis for the American concept of democracy.

Technology was a tool in this exercise of reason. Besides being a tool which could explain phenomena like lightening or the tides, it was a means of cultivating land, reaching normally inaccessible points through waterways, and building sturdier dwellings. Technology could be incorporated into the nominally agrarian 'middle-state' because one of the hallmarks of the traditional pastoral landscape was an affinity between mankind and the environment. This was realizable through man's husbandry of nature, and technology could help in this domestication.

When introduced into this scenario, however, the machine did not necessarily conform to the expectations of the Enlightenment proponents of the 'middle-state.' The conditions which make invention possible, for example, also tend to call the established order of society into question. The machine somehow often recreates nature. This caused three major changes in human consciousness.

First, as machines became part of the environment they manipulated, nature lost its immutability, leaving man in a peculiar position. Under the pretext of saving labor and husbandry, the farmer of the 'middle-state' used technology to alter his environment. However, the notion of saved labor and husbandry now must change over time, for the character of the environment now continually grows more complex as man alters it again and again with each development of technology. What was easy work yesterday becomes hard work today with the invention of a new labor-saving machine. As a result, we give machines the attributes of life, such as work, and the individual becomes in effect an attendant to the machine. And in attending the machine, the individual watches over levers and buttons as if he was a brain orchestrating the functions of the nervous system.

Second, the idea of progress held by the first thinkers of the republic, which was based on the conception of America as a garden, changed when the machine replaced the ends of the 'middle-state' to the means of technology. There is always a more progressive way of doing things--a more efficient way, or a way which covers more territory or space. Therefore, an absolute optimum state of existence has been discredited, for in making every man a king whose desires are realizable through technology, democracy destroys any vertical, hierarchical conceptions of reality and instead levels life into a horizontal quest towards the better or the new.

Third, when technology and invention's use of relativity, its theorizing, empiricism and conjecture, sublated the absolutism of the 'middle-state,' the character of nature changed. With each new more complex iteration of technology, man's immediate surroundings became more like reflections of his own actions rather than instances of pristine nature. Furthermore, as the environment became more a creation of man than of nature, man realized that a great degree of cooperation among his fellows was necessary if he expected to create these complex forms of technology. This required a collectivization of society's energies, which entails that the individual surrender part of his independence for the greater technological endeavor. Likewise, that individual also had to accept the dependence he now had on the product of the collective effort in which he takes part.

The time-period providing the backdrop for this change in American society was the 19th century, particularly in its early and later periods, when the nation expanded industrially, once during and after the Revolution and then again after the Civil War. To study these changes in society, and the attitudes towards technology which accompanied them, we now look at the United States Capitol, which itself went through major renovations during these two periods . Particularly, we examine the Patent Corridors of the Senate Wing of the Capitol, often called the Brumidi Corridors, where the place of technology in the national consciousness is explicitly treated in a number of lunettes decorating the corridor's walls.