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Technology and the Culture of Modernity in Britain and Germany, 1890-1945.

Technology and the Culture of Modernity in Britain and Germany, 1890-1945. By Bernhard Rieger (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 2005. x + 319 pp.).

Turn the pages of any illustrated weekly newspaper published in a European city in the 1920s or 1930s, and you will find them splashed with images of airplanes, pilots, ocean liners, and film stars. These were the items that indexed the idea of changing times, which was the way the contemporary moment was experienced. As Bernhard Rieger shows, European designers were well aware that the "ultra modern" one day would be the very datable sign of obsolescence the next and that product lines existed to be improved. Technological improvements burst on the scene as modern-day "wonders," Rieger argues, but the ebullience of progress was edged with a sense of uncertainty about what actually had been accomplished. Yet the sheer prevalence of the images of technological achievement indicates a more basic confidence in the promise of technology to improve social existence; the very mechanical and material nature of machinery seemed to affirm the plasticity and malleability of the universe. Even a perception of risk and the acknowledgement of jeopardy indicated the transformative powers of technology. Indeed, the two most radical regimes in the years between the two world wars, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, were also among the most enthralled with the imagery of technological prowess. In this broadly conceived book, Bernhard Rieger touches on all these themes, but never quite finds his way.

Rieger repeatedly refers to the ambivalence toward technology and the purported progress it marked out. The very fact that technology arrived in the form of "wonders" betrayed a sense of the world beyond the control and comprehension of ordinary people. Unfortunately, Rieger does not explore this enforced passivity and the everyday regime of accepting technological changes and schedules. He does not explore the language that conveyed technology or the incidentals of daily life that would get at this sense of ambivalence. Ocean liners, airships and airplanes, and film, which are the three main examples Rieger puts forward, are awkward vehicles for his argument. Thus the "ambivalence" and "fear" to which Rieger refers is left undefined, stated but not substantiated. Rieger usefully introduces the Ulrich Beck's notion of a "risk society," but does not develop it, because neither transocean travel nor aviation really embodied danger or risk in a socially poignant way in the 1920s and Rieger has trouble finding the appropriate accidents and catastrophes in the interwar period to generate the newspaper commentary which constitutes his primary archive. Risk is a great topic, but Rieger would need to examine automobiles and railroads and the insurance industry. And where machinery like airplanes did produce fear, in the case of premonitions of a coming air war, Rieger has next to nothing to say. But the fact is that fears occasioned by the long-range bomber were as grim and deep-grained in the 1920s as the anxiety about nuclear war was in the 1950s and 1960s. Thus where Rieger has the right theme to make a contribution to our understanding of how Europeans thought about technology, he moves on. In the end, it is not clear why he has chosen his particular examples, particularly since both ocean liners and airplanes functioned more as symbols of national prestige, as Rieger himself indicates, and thus could not register as effectively more generic longings and anxieties. And why Rieger devotes a chapter to amateur film-making is also unclear.

Given the nature of his examples, Rieger is not prepared to enter the popular and philosophical debate on technology, which could be illuminated by much more mundane things like time schedules and bureaucratic organizations. He finds more celebration than anxiety which sustained confidence in technological innovation, but does not talk about the culture of innovation which he foregrounds in his introduction-in research institutes, in universities, or in government or the popular culture of enthusiasm, children at play, for example. The broad strokes of his comparison between Britain and Germany between 1890 and 1945 promise a great deal, but World War I and World War II end up falling out altogether, aerial bombing is basically unmentioned, and the risk and opportunity that Nazi Germany invested in the concept of race is ignored. Unsurprising similarities between the two countries before 1933 make way for more encompassing differences once the all-consuming ambitions of the Nazis are introduced, underscoring the strong political nature of atttitudes toward technology. The culture of modernity, and ideas of progress, obsolescence, and risk, and both the desire and need to make a home in the world are not examined in what is an informative, but conventional analysis of technological wonders in the first half of the twentieth century.

Peter Fritzsche

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
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Author:Fritzsche, Peter
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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