What is the history of western civilization

A great success! This fundamental story of Western civilization stirs the mind. It has already been discussed very critically [1] or in a mixed-friendly manner [2]. Her approach and style are given positive and sometimes emphatic appreciation. Karl Metz has great aspirations, comparable to Siegfried Gideon or Lewis Mumford, who, like him, raised their voices from the outside and were therefore able to appear independent and innovative. For him, mechanization and machines are just one stage on the path to new worlds. Like Gideon and Mumford, Metz is at the same time explanatory of principles on an epoch-making, anthropological or cultural - in short, very general - level, wonderfully detail-oriented and explanatory of technical principles. It is inevitable and secondary that he will make a number of misjudgments, such as overestimating the speed at which technologies will be introduced (such as diesel locomotives in the USA; 459).

Like Max Weber at the beginning or Thomas Hughes at the end of the 20th century, Metz wants to explain the causes of the European-American-Western dominance in modern technological development. However, this is one of the book's weaknesses, he employs little force on the comparative study of the Sino-Confucian, Indian-Hindu or various Islamic technological traditions, which in his conclusions he distinguishes from Western civilization. His judgments about these cultures are sweeping and distorting ("To this day, there has never been a creative reception of Western technology in the Islamic world, as in Japan, but also in China and India", 564), even if individual theses, for example on the Brahmanic-Indian predisposition for great achievements in non-material mathematics and software development. Max Weber described the rationalization and bureaucratization of the Western world in detail and ultimately interpreted it pessimistically as an irreversible process which, although it led to the dominance of the West, threatened "humanity" at its core. In comparison, Metz is more optimistic about the design of technology by humans, even if he shudders at the "technologies of life".

Despite all the detail orientation, the book is not a compendium of the history of technology; it hides too many areas for that. It is a thesis-rich interpretation of western civilization, weighing up, innovatively comparing, interpreting theses-richly, classifying and evaluating in an original way with regard to its central questions of the inner power and dynamics of mechanization, the different cultural framework conditions for technology, economy and work and the acceleration of changes . The book by Metz is convincing not only on a large scale, but above all on a small scale, in individual interpretations and successful sentences.

Metz has decided to work without quotations and receipts, which means that the already very legible style gains in conciseness and density. As a compensation, at the end it offers a structured but too short, incomplete and generally outdated annotated bibliography for the individual main chapters. Metz obviously makes extensive use of the Propylaea history of technology, the 12-volume series "Technology and Culture" and other general presentations, but has not always adequately evaluated the more recent literature on the history of technology. [3] Some of his theses breathe the research status of past decades, for example when Metz introduces the dignity of work as a medieval, European invention.

The book begins with a brilliant surcharge, an unusual and impressive structure that introduces or suggests many of the book's theses. The first main chapter ("The Tool Principle") summarizes the development up to the beginning of modernism (understood in French as the end of the Ancien Régime) and is therefore an eighty-page attempt at the three other main chapters on the 19th and 20th centuries, those under the Headings "The System Industry" (about mechanization, work as a discipline and pathos and the technological dynamics of the industrial system), "The war stuff" as "negation of the tool" (about the mechanization and industrialization of war) and finally about "The technocentric age" (about the multiple crisis and new perspectives of modern technology) around 460 pages are dedicated. At the end of the book, Metz rewards himself and the reader with 20-page cultural studies comparisons and conclusions that summarize his theses on the importance of technology as a symbol and expression of the hard-working, innovative and dynamically accelerating society in a cultural comparison that is presented here more broadly.

Some of his headings make you curious, but don't quite fit the text. Why is the technocentric age in the heading the "transition to posthuman society"? Has the end of mankind come? The "hypertechnologies" described in the chapter, energy industry, space travel, information and communication technology, sustainability as a technological principle and the change in normal working hours do not allow this conclusion. At most the (too) short chapter on the technologies of life can be interpreted in this direction.

Despite great originality, Metz repeatedly falls behind in interpretations of the history of technology in Western civilization, some of which are outdated and some of which are being questioned elsewhere. At these points Metz does not live up to its claim to provide a reinterpretation of the history of Western technology. This includes the description of Mediterranean antiquity as a society in which work was fundamentally rated low and imposed on the least. (What about the pioneering spirit of the Greek colonialists, the pride and daring of the seafaring traders, the work orientation of the Roman peasants and the willingness to jointly serve the hoplite phalanx or the Roman legions?) This also includes the thesis of the continuous acceleration of change in the world . (In contrast, David Edgerton, for example, already 15 years ago advocated the thesis of a relatively high level of stability in living conditions in the West since 1945 compared to earlier times.) Finally, this includes the idea of ​​the liquefaction and monetization of time through clocks and the emergence of urban time - and money islands in the Middle Ages. But based on these well-known standard figures of argumentation on the development and interaction between technology and society, Metz repeatedly succeeds in surprising interpretations and comparisons, of which a few examples are given:

In Haber's high-pressure ammonia synthesis, he recognizes the end of nature's monopoly of raw materials and the birth of many new materials for the "now"; ephemeral, like modern society (303). Together with Nietzsche, he feels that the typewriter has gained acceptance through the higher typing speed as a "liberation of thought", which, however, is now realized in the clatter of machines (318). The rigorous training in precision work (for example through the filing of straight surfaces, which is still practiced in metal apprenticeships today), which the English machine tool builder Henry Maudslay introduced in his company, puts Metz on the same level as Arkwright's training in factory discipline in its revolutionary importance for the work ethic (159). The parallel drawn by Metz between technical and political history is reflected in his observation, "that the automation of all technical processes in the spaceship, which made any interference by the cosmonaut superfluous, was particularly fascinating in the Soviet Union, where the experiment of communism in a bureaucratic manner Despotism was frozen "(477). Brutally revealing then comes the hint that the designer of this automation, the Russian space pioneer Sergej Koroljow, was himself in the Gulag at times. For the future of the war, Metz predicts a "partisan penetration of technology" (440). According to Metz, eugenics, which is technically easier thanks to modern biotechnology, leads to a new ethic beyond Christianity, which in terms of civilization still reflects the structure of an agricultural society (500). These are just a few examples of formulations and insights.

Amazingly, Metz has largely hidden certain areas of technological development. For him it is less about an overall presentation than an overall interpretation. But why Metz so neglects pre-industrial transport technologies, such as the interaction between the development of ships from the cog to the caravel with economy, politics and intellectual history and does not mention the great explorers at the beginning of modern times, remains unclear - their analysis would have some theses in the book after all strengthened and underlined.

If Metz focuses on acceleration and innovation, the counter-movements are also analyzed. For Metz, this includes the development of safety strategies or social legislation. He devotes less attention to the deceleration of life through the increase in leisure time, private retreats, suburbia, as well as the new booms of religiosity and piety and the related technologies, such as the wellness industry, "slow food" and the growth industry of tourism.

In spite of all the detailed criticism, the book is a very big hit overall. In addition, reading is fun because of the language that is rich in topics and encourages individual interpretations. The book is stimulating and fundamental and, as the publisher writes on the back, "has what it takes to be a standard work".


[1] Ulrich Wengenroth, History of Technology 1/2007.

[2] Wolfgang König, Archive for Cultural History, 2007 (forthcoming)

[3] Armin Herrmann / Wilhelm Dettmering (eds.): Technology and culture. 10 Bde, Düsseldorf: VDI Verlag 1989-1994; Wolfgang König (ed.): Propylaea history of technology. Berlin: Propylaeen Verlag, 1990-1992.

Hans-Liudger Dienel