LIFE and the long view: ideologies of science and technology since the Enlightenment

Part two in a series.

As I suggested in Part One, the messianic/utopian view of science and technology attributed to LIFE Magazine is consistent with an ideological bent that traces its lineage to the dawn of the Enlightenment in Europe.

Francis Bacon’s highly influential New Atlantis, first published in 1626, recounts the narrator’s fictional shipwreck on the shores of Bensalem, a lost utopia, and offers one of the earliest testaments to the potential of applied science (Outhwaite & Bottomore 1994). In an extended ceremony, Bacon is given to know the seemingly limitless bounty of Bensalem’s scientific expertise. Bensalem is well versed in all manner of advanced technology: refrigeration and preservation, mining, agriculture, astronomy, meteorology, genetics, animal husbandry, desalination, medicine, musicology, mechanics, air flight, and mathematics are literally only a few of the society’s advanced technological arts.

Together these technologies provide the citizenry with a quality of life unimaginable to the denizens of the more scientifically primitive Europe. “The end of our foundation is the knowledge of causes,” the narrator is told, “and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible” (Bacon 1626/1942, 288).

This is the utopian promise of science, seen from an idyllic Enlightenment perspective. In the last line — “the effecting of all things possible” — Bacon offers a concise statement of the Enlightenment’s ideology of scientism, as the secrets of motion and even creation are apprehended and drawn under the umbrella of humanity’s intellectual dominion.

This scientistic tendency has proven especially well adapted to the inherently utilitarian character of the United States.

A practical, applied science implied progress through invention and more sophisticated technology. Moreover, rising in the service of a free enterprise, commercial order, that science and its products were imbued with aspects of private property requiring both protection and promotion. Identified with a new style of intellectual inquiry, American science became as well a commodity and a form of industrial and political organization (Rowland 1983, 35).

In “The Mythos of the Electronic Revolution,” Carey and Quirk (1989) explain that this utilitarianism was innately utopian in character.

A vital and relevant tradition in American studies . . . has traced the recurrent theme of “the machine in the garden.” This was a unique American idea of a new dimension in social existence through which people might return to an Edenic estate through a harmonious blending of nature and manufactures . . . . America was, in short, exempt from history: from mechanics and industrialization we would derive wealth, power, and productivity. . . . (Carey and Quirk 1989, 118-119).

The Electrical Sublime

Particularly instructive in the case of LIFE Magazine is Carey’s extended analysis of the rhetoric surrounding the electronic revolution.(1) Writing with Quirk (1989), he characterizes as utopian the rhetoric of a diverse collection of contemporary thinkers and artists. McLuhan, Brzezinski, Teilhard de Chardin, Fuller, Cage, Toffler and Feigenbaum

all convey an impression that electrical technology is the great benefactor of mankind. Simultaneously, they hail electrical techniques as the motive force of desired change, the key to the re-creation of a humane community, the means for returning to a cherished naturalistic bliss. Their shared belief is that electricity will overcome historical forces and political obstacles that prevented previous utopias (115).

Simply put, Carey argues that the messianic rhetoric attending the latest technological revolution is nothing new, and as such there is no reason to expect any significant improvement in the human condition resulting from one technology or another. To illustrate his point, he backtracks several decades and analyzes the public pronouncements that accompanied the development of electrical power — the same enriching, liberating, and democratizing “Power” LIFE describes in its October 11, 1937 issue. This view of Power Carey and Quirk call “the electrical sublime,” and in it they see the reformulation and reapplication of an Edenic impulse previously associated with the Industrial Revolution.

“Electricity promised, so it seemed, the same freedom, decentralization, ecological harmony, and democratic community that had hitherto been guaranteed but left undelivered by mechanization” (123).

The only ones who really benefited, though, were the power and light companies, argues Carey, and when utopia failed to emerge, it was the corporatizing influences and not electricity, per se, that got the blame.

The Depression saw a resurgence of the electrical sublime, and the Roosevelt New Deal “seized upon the motif of a ‘New Power Age’” to justify its creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Rural Electrification Administration. In a 1936 address to the World Power Conference,(2) Roosevelt asserted that electrical energy could lead to an industrial and social revolution that “may already be under way without our perceiving it.” He once went so far as to call the TVA a “social experiment” (Carey and Quirk 1989, 130-131).

Finally, we must understand that the centuries-old project of scientism is still alive and well, informing and misinforming current debates over new technologies.

…while the symbols of technological progress have changed, — satellites, spaceships, computers, and information utilities, having replaced steam engines and dynamos — the same style of exhortation to a better future through technology dominates contemporary life. This exhortation to discount the present for the future has therefore been a particular, though not peculiar, aspect of American popular culture (Carey and Quirk 1989b, 177).

As if intent on illustrating Carey and Quirk’s point, Vice President Al Gore in 1994 presented to the International Telecommunications Union this vision of the future of a new electronic technology, the Internet:

These highways – or, more accurately, networks of distributed intelligence – will allow us to share information, to connect, and to communicate as a global community. From these connections we will derive robust and sustainable economic progress, strong democracies, better solutions to global and local environmental challenges, improved health care — and, ultimately — a greater sense of shared stewardship of our small planet.

The Global Information Infrastructure will help educate our children and allow us to exchange ideas within a community and among nations. It will be a means by which families and friends will transcend the barriers of time and distance. It will make possible a global information marketplace, where consumers can buy or sell products.

And the distributed intelligence of the G.I.I. will spread participatory democracy . . . I see a new Athenian Age of democracy forged in the fora the G.I.I. will create (2).

Side by side, the technotopian rhetoric of Bacon’s New Atlantis and Gore’s Global Information Infrastructure illustrate how startlingly little changed in the 368 years that separate them, and situated somewhere between the two LIFE’s coverage of Roosevelt’s Power-driven social revolution makes perfect intuitive sense.


LIFE and Technology series


1: In this essay, Carey and Quirk use the term “electric” very broadly, signifying by it not just electrical machinery, but also technologies more commonly referred to as electronic.

2: It is worth noting here that while F.D.R.’s remarks at the Conference were substantively consistent with LIFE’s characterization of his vision in the Grand Coulee photo-essay, his actual words were decidedly more reserved than the starry-eyed rhetoric employed by the magazine’s editorial staff.


Bacon, F. (1626/1942). Essays and new Atlantis. New York: Walter J. Black.

Carey, J., and Quirk, J. (1989). The mythos of the electronic revolution. In Carey, J. (Ed.), Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Science. (pp. 113-141.) Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Carey, J., and Quirk, J. (1989b). The history of the future. In Carey, J. (Ed.), Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Science. (pp. 173-200.) Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Gore, A. (1994). The global information infrastructure – forging a new Athenian age of democracy. Speech before the International Telecommunications Union, Buenos Aires, March 21, 1994.

Outhwaite, W., Bottomore, T., et al (Eds.) (1994). The Blackwell dictionary of twentieth-century social thought. Oxford, England & Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell Reference.

Rowland, W. (1983). The politics of TV violence: policy uses of communication research. Beverly Hills: Sage.


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