Mushroom cloud picnics : BOOKS : AMERICA

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The Independent Culture
IN the early 1950s, tourists travelled to Las Vegas to watch the nuclear tests blanch the sky with their powerful bursts of light. The local Chamber of Commerce provided road maps to the best vantage points, a couple timed their wedding to coincide with the explosion and the piano player at the Desert Inn played a boogie-woogie number called the "Atomic Blast Bounce".

Such a nave celebration of technology is now incomprehensible. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, toxic waste, the space junk now circling the globe make even the most enthusiastic techno-literate Net-surfers pause for thought before they proclaim the revolutionary power of technology.

One virtue of David Nye's book is that he puts the atom-bomb revellers into an understandable context, as part of a long lineage of people who came to gaze and worship at the altar of the "technological sublime". He sets out to prove that the popular semi-religious admiration of technology - the fusion between the real and the ideal - is not an aberration but a national characteristic deep in the American grain. Whether it's the Brooklyn Bridge, the Hoover Dam, the electric cityscape, the Eric Canal or the Empire State building, Nye argues that people - especially Americans - have turned to man-made objects for a transcendental charge, an encounter with an object that "disrupts ordinary perception and astonishes the senses, forcing the observer to grapple mentally with its immensity and power".

In Europe, the sublime had been reserved for the contemplation of landscape. Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke had formulated theories which emphasised the ability of the natural world to re-align the human sense of itself. The scale and power of Nature's storms, floods and mountains seemed to dwarf human significance. But man felt he could overcome Nature's physical prowess by means of reason.

America was also blessed with some mighty examples of the natural sublime. Nye singles out the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls as the two most significant; the roar of Niagara and the mind-numbing dimensions of the Grand Canyon predicated the popular appetite for immense displays of power. But it was the ability of 19th-century America to bridge the gulf between technology and nature, especially in the influential thinking of Ralph Waldo Emerson, that allowed the take off of the technological sublime.

Factories, suspension bridges and canals were all seen not as intrusions on the natural world but as useful additions to it; they were "moral machines". In 1851, a public figure could eulogise the network of railroads and telegraph lines that crossed America as "metallic bands" that united "all parts of the Union" in a sort of conjugal technological bliss. The problem was that the railroad did not unite the regions. Instead, it accelerated industrialisation in the North and helped turn the South into a dependent agricultural region. Technology in fact aided an unequal marriage.

Nye's book is filled with interesting asides, digressions into the history of neon lights, Fourth of July parades and the origins of the roller-coaster. The difficulty with the book lies with the word "sublime". Reading about the amazement that the rapid construction of the Empire State building inspired in New Yorkers, you start to wonder where enthusiasm ends and the sublime begins. The sublime is a lofty, abstract category and essentially an Romantic aesthetic term. Although Nye keeps trying to tether it to specific thinkers, objects and contemporary ways of understanding technology, its meaning tends to blur - just about everything seems sublime.

After the bomb, technology would never be the same; terror lurked in every missile silo and every weapons upgrade. The book is better on the 19th century than on the 20th - a time when one person's sublime could be another person's hell. As the Atom bomb picnickers ate their cakes miles away, soldiers lined the trenches close to Ground Zero. Nye quotes one marine who remembers "with my eyes tightly closed, I could see the bones of my forearm as though I were examining a red X-ray". After that, I doubt you could look upon technology in quite the same way again.