To Americans, gee-whiz gizmos define century
In the cusp of a new century, Americans give themselves a somewhat surprising report card on the one just ending.
In evaluating their greatest accomplishments of the 1900s, people think the civil rights movement and the advent of Social Security were nice. So too was winning World War II.
But Americans are proudest of the century's advances in technology, according to an ambitious survey just out from the Pew Research Center in Washington.
While reverence for technology fits neatly into the United States' culture and history, the age of the computer has deepened that faith to a surprising degree, say some social historians.
Lauding everything from the moonwalk to e-mail, Americans put technological achievements emphatically above the medical, social, or economic gains of the modern era.
And the faith in technology is all the more striking when juxtaposed with deep misgivings about the nation's moral fabric, evidenced in this and many other recent polls.
"The distinction that the public makes between the material achievements and societal shortcomings is apparent," according to the Pew researchers.
The role of technology, or machines, is deeply embedded in the United States, says historian Benjamin Olshin, who teaches technology and American culture at the University of California, Berkeley.
"This society was really forced to be innovative technologically" so that the early settlers could master a sparsely populated landscape, he says.
Perpetually short of manpower, the young nation relied on mechanical advances as the tools for greater prosperity. "That set the tone for our culture from the beginning," says Professor Olshin.
Hail, Henry Ford
Reverence for technology has ebbed and flowed over time. In the early 1900s, industrialization and mass production were seen as making more goods available to more people. In the 1950s, better machines helped increase productivity and lower costs for the rapidly expanding consumer market.
However, no modern period of technological advances matches the speed and breadth of what is occurring in the 1990s as a result of the computer revolution. And within that environment, the public support of technology appears to have reached extraordinary levels.
The current mood worries some.
"We've become consumed with questions of efficiency rather than questions about what's worthwhile," says Stephen Talbot, author of "The Future Does Not Compute" and of a regular newsletter that probes the impact of technology on social and individual values.
He cites, as a prime example, the rush in recent years to wire classrooms for computers and the Internet, only to discover that educational gains are not at all automatic.
"No one asked exactly what is the education problem we're trying to solve and is this the best way to do it?" Mr. Talbot says.
Indeed, even as Americans applaud technology, they also have deep misgivings about broader social trends. The civil rights movement and women in the workplace are seen as clear-cut advances.
Changes for the worse
But most other social changes this century, from the growth of the suburbs to legalized abortion to divorce and rock music, draw mixed responses from people and are not perceived as clearly making life better.
And even as strong majorities say life for their families has improved since the 1950s, most at the same time are convinced that life for teenagers in this country is worse than it was 50 years ago.
While the prevailing mood of contentment, with some misgivings, was consis- tent with other recent polls, the Pew survey, conducted in April and May of this year, was unusual in attempting to assess Americans' view of the last century.
The results seemed to surprise even its authors.
"We spent $13 trillion winning the cold war and no one seems to have noticed," says Andrew Kohut, Pew Research Center director.
Technology is tops
Indeed, when listing the top achievements of the 20th century, technology gains trampled everything else.
Medical advances, civil rights, and economic gains, for instance, were seen as top achievements by less than 10 percent, compared to 40 percent for technology and science, including space exploration, computers, and the Internet.
No one mentioned the end of the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union.
Support for the science and technology gains of this century is not unqualified.
While cellular phones and cable TV are endorsed, most Americans remain unconvinced that certain biotechnology practices like cloning, as well as a range of modern drugs to increase fertility and combat depression, are changes for the better.
Olshin says the reverence for technology has something to do with the immediate benefits of new machines, from those that increase productivity and save time, to those that simply make life more fun.
And today, with the explosion of the Internet, there is a sense, Olshin adds, that technology "is bringing us all together."