Revisiting David Nye's American Technological Sublime
The Grand Canyon opens up abruptly, a deeply three-dimensional scene impossibly flattened onto an earthly canvas of striated red, orange, and white. Its sheer size shocks the senses, and peering down into the valley is like looking into infinity: 2 billion years of history slowly cutting and crafting its way through rock. The Grand Canyon is incomprehensible, terrifying, and sublime.
Sublimity is a philosophically profound experience that has beckoned to humanity for centuries. Emmanuel Kant characterized the sublime as something that produces feelings of awe, terror, and ultimately transcendance over nature itself. So, people from the earliest settlers to today’s tourists have continuously made pilgrimages to naturally sublime sites like Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon.
But while we have typically sought out the sublime in the form of nature, over the last few centuries, we have witnessed the rise of technological sublimity, the ethereal feeling of awe and terror that comes from technology. In American Technological Sublime, historian David Nye traces the development of sublime technologies and how they have shaped American society. However, written in 1994, American Technological Sublime fails to capture the evolution of technology over the last 30-some years. What has happened, and where are we going?
Let’s begin with Nye’s own characterizations of different sublime modalities:
The dynamic sublime emphasized movement across nature. Examples include the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the Wright brothers’ first flight, and the Apollo XI space launch.
The geometric sublime was a static conquest of natural obstacles and forces and appeared to dominate nature through elegant design and sheer bulk. Examples include the Golden Gate Bridge and the Empire State Building.
The industrial sublime used developments in energy and machines to control processes and even nature itself. Examples include the Lowell Mills and the Hoover Dam.
The electrical sublime used innovations in lighting to revisualize landscapes and man-made structures. Examples include Times Square and the New York skyline.
While these sublime modalities give rise to varying technologies, the technological sublime all share the following commonalities.
The technological sublime unified us. Open development of the technological sublime (e.g., bridges, skyscrapers) historically attracted immense crowds, and the unveiling of the technological sublime (e.g., rocket launch) brought millions of people together in moments of breathtaking awe. Sometimes, the unification happens literally, as in the case of the railroad. Back in the mid 1800s, the American people were recovering from violent Civil War that threatened to divide the nation. However, the final driving in of the “golden spike” on our transcontinental railroad in 1869 literally connected the nation coast to coast and metaphorically promoted unity through sublimity.
Sometimes, the technological sublime is explicitly imbued with patriotic undertones, uniting us under the flag of national pride. Many events that unveiled the technological sublime were held on July 4 (e.g., Erie Canal, Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, Statue of Liberty rededication) and met with patriotic fanfare. Many also involved the President in some capacity. President Roosevelt opened the St. Louis World Fair in 1905; President Hoover turned on the lights at the grand opening of the Empire State Building in 1931; President Reagan pressured the button to unveil and illuminate the renovated Statue of Liberty in 1976. It’s as if these technologies were both a unique manifestation of the American spirit and a reminder that this spirit transcended local differences.
Triumph and Progress
The technological sublime also held invigorating symbolic value as a triumph of humanity over nature and a belief in limitless progress. Indeed, the technological sublime is inherently bold, ambitious, and risky, as it requires conquering the dangers and mysteries of nature. Dams conquered the waters, bridges conquered lands, lights conquered darkness, factories conquered the individual, and rockets conquered gravity. Author Joseph Stevens, writing about the Hoover Dam, had this to say:
“Confronting this spectacle in the midst of emptiness and desolation first provokes fear, then wonderment, and finally a sense of awe and pride in man’s skill in bending the forces of nature to his purpose . . . In the shadow of Hoover dam, one feels that the future is limitless, that no obstacle is insurmountable, that we have in our grasp the power to achieve anything if we can but summon the will.”
– Joseph Stevens, Hoover Dam: An American Adventure
Another way to put it is that the technological sublime introduced new capabilities that defamiliarized the human experience, creating ethereal feelings of terror and awe. Take railroads, for instance. Prior to the railroad, sailing ships had been the fastest form of transport, rocking along the ocean at 10 miles per hour. A galloping horse, the fastest thing on land, could be ridden only a few miles before needing a rest. Now imagine the reaction of someone’s first experience on a railway car, blowing by at 25 miles per hour for miles on end, seeing the familiar scenery blend into an unfamiliar blur. According to one passenger, it was “annihilating space and time.”
However, the defamiliarization of the human experience is fleeting, and as a technology become commonplace, the sublimity of that technology melts away.Jeff Bezos captured this sentiment in his 2018 letter to shareholders:
“[We] are divinely discontent. [Our] expectations are never static – they go up. It’s human nature. We didn’t ascend from our hunter-gatherer days by being satisfied. People have a voracious appetite for a better way, and yesterday’s ‘wow’ quickly becomes today’s ‘ordinary’.”
Today, railroads have receded in their novelty. Times Square is fascinating for the first few times to outsiders, but to New Yorkers, it’s a place to be avoided. Due to the temporary sublimity of technology, society requires continual innovation for lasting sublimity.
Finally, the development of the technological sublime faces opposition. One flavor is that the technology simply won’t work. For example, with the development of the Eads Bridge, detractors thought that the use of tubular steel, an untried material wouldn’t work and was a waste of time.
Others fear that the technological sublime will destroy what we have. Poets feared that the development of the railroad would destroy peace and quiet. Politicians and workers protested factories because they worsened labor conditions and threatened to displace labor. People pushed back on the development of skyscrapers because they thought that such skyscrapers would weaken the sense of neighborhood, cut off too much sunlight, and turn streets into windy urban canyons.
Finally, people believed that efforts spent on developing the technological sublime could be better spent elsewhere. This was most prominent with the space race in the 1960s, when many decried the “waste” of government funds and argued that social welfare problems were a better use of our time and money.
These criticisms are important to consider. Nevertheless, the sublime still wields the power to wow even its most stubborn detractors. The reporter Norman Mailer, assigned to cover the Apollo XI launch in 1969, arrived to Cape Canaveral a critic, believing that the trip to the moon represented the tendrils of an evil imperialism that apparently still lingered after World War II. But as the engines lept into ignition, Mailer couldn’t help himself. He wrote that “the lift-off itself seemed to partake more of a miracle than a mechanical phenomenon, as if all of huge Saturn itself had begun to levitate, and was then pursued by flames.” The rocket took off, and when the overwhelming sound finally reached the crowd, he couldn’t help but repeatedly proclaim, “Oh my god!”
21st Century Sublime
If any of the characteristics described above feel familiar, I’d classify it as nostalgia. In the 30 years since American Technological Sublime, America has fractured along multiple fault lines. For the first time in a long time, the future generation won’t be as well off as the current one. Opposition against technology is verging on cynicism. What was once sublime is no longer.
Perhaps even Nye himself was able to forecast America’s sunsetting dynamism. In the last chapter of American Technological Sublime, he made the case for a then-emerging category of technological sublime: The consumer sublime (e.g., Las Vegas). Unlike the technological sublime that came before it, the consumer sublime invested only in play for its own sake while neglecting progress. In privileging irrationality, chance, and escapism, the consumer sublime represented a sharp divergence from our inspirational past, a caricature of what has historically been the American technological sublime.
So, in the face of our current social milieu of division and cynicism, isn’t the technological sublime more important now than ever? Over the next few decades, we’ll need to tackle existential risks that threaten to wipe out our entire species. The technological sublime can bring us together, restore a sense of limitless progress, and act as a bridge to tomorrow.
If the modern technological sublime is an extension of the 20th century sublime, here are possible ways things can play out:
The modern dynamic sublime includes technology that travels faster, goes farther, and is more available/accessible. The obvious case is aerospace. SpaceX hopes to send humanity to Mars, Rocket Lab is democratizing rocket launch, and by the end of the decade Boom Supersonic will be shuttling passengers from New York to London in 3 hours on a supersonic jet. Autonomous vehicles and urban air mobility companies will also play a role here.
The modern industrial sublime involves innovation in robotics and automation. With previous forms of the industrial sublime, onlookers were drawn to the complexity of new technologies (e.g., steam engines) reduced to orderly processes. Factories moved from water mills to steam to electricity, but the next form of the factory will move to computation compacted into robots. Some robotics, like those developed by Boston Dynamics, may be full-scale humanoid in nature while others, like those employed in vertical farms, may be robotic components tailored to a specific task.
The modern electrical sublime will likely be captured by AR/VR and the metaverse. Previously the electrical sublime involved projecting lights onto billboards, screens, and buildings to transform the natural landscape. Augmented reality will bring the light closer to our retinas, and virtual reality will teleport us to a new landscape entirely.
The modern geometrical sublime might come from the government actually building new, impressive architectural structures. The story of the 21st century so far has been a government sclerosis and inability to build new, cutting-edge infrastructure. It’s true that old forms (e.g., skyscrapers) have been repeated ad nauseum through the 20th century, but forget about old vs. new forms for a sec—generations from the Millennials onwards literally haven’t seen the American government build anything new and iconic… My guess is that building a new Golden Gate Bridge-like thing, even if old in form, would re-ignite a feeling of sublimity. Another idea (admittedly less inspirational) is maybe that modern geometrical sublime will come from new ways of manifesting old architectural forms? Perhaps the sublimity of our future geometric structures will come not only from their grandeur, but also from how they are built (e.g., using robots, 3D printers, or green materials).
Finally, I think a new form of the sublime is cropping up, one that Nye didn’t discuss in his book: a microscopic sublime. Some may argue that “microscopic” and “sublime” are contradictory because the sublime necessarily implies something observable to the ordinary senses while microscopic things are unseen. However, scientists and entrepreneurs are increasingly conquering microscopic forces of nature for application in the macroscopic world. Earlier this year, Colossal Biosciences announced plans to use CRISPR to bring back the woolly mammoth, and some have been quick to jump to the possibility of a real-life Jurassic Park. Nuclear fusion companies are smashing hydrogen atoms together in large reactors to produce clean energy that powers the world. And quantum companies are harnessing the bizarre properties of quantum particles to change the way we compute and communicate.
If these are the sublime modalities of the 21st century, then they’re things that we should pursue, invest in, and look forward to. The remaining question is whether the promise of this new-generation technological sublime can overpower the culture of cynicism and opposition we swim in today. Can the promise and awe of new technologies unite people once again in the pursuit of a fearless future, or are we already prepared to write it all off as a fantasy?