Paths of Fire: An Anthropologist’s Inquiry into Western Technology. Robert M. Adams. Princeton University Press.

Paths of Fire: An Anthropologist's Inquiry into Western Technology Book Cover Paths of Fire: An Anthropologist's Inquiry into Western Technology
Robert M. Adams
Princeton University Press
September 30, 1996

Technology, perhaps the most salient feature of our time, affects everything from jobs to international law, yet ranks among the most unpredictable facets of human life. Here Robert McC. Adams, renowned anthropologist and Secretary Emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution, builds a new approach to understanding the circumstances that drive technological change, stressing its episodic, irregular nature. The result is nothing less than a sweeping history of technological transformation from ancient times until now. Rare in antiquity, the bursts of innovation that mark the path of technology have gradually accelerated and have become an almost continuous feature of our culture. Repeatedly shifting in direction, this path has been shaped by a host of interacting social, cultural, and scientific forces rather than any deterministic logic. Thus future technological developments, Adams maintains, are predictable only over the very short term.

Adams’s account highlights Britain and the United States from early modern times onward. Locating the roots of the Industrial Revolution in British economic and social institutions, he goes on to consider the new forms of enterprise in which it was embodied and its loss of momentum in the later nineteenth century. He then turns to the early United States, whose path toward industrialization initially involved considerable “technology transfer” from Britain. Propelled by the advent of mass production, world industrial leadership passed to the United States around the end of the nineteenth century. Government-supported research and development, guided partly by military interests, helped secure this leadership.

Today, as Adams shows, we find ourselves in a profoundly changed era. The United States has led the way to a strikingly new multinational pattern of opportunity and risk, where technological primacy can no longer be credited to any single nation. This recent trend places even more responsibility on the state to establish policies that will keep markets open for its companies and make its industries more competitive. Adams concludes with an argument for active government support of science and technology research that should be read by anyone interested in America’s ability to compete globally.

Robert McC. Adams is a former Provost of the University of Chicago and Secretary Emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution. Now an Adjunct Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, San Diego, he is currently a Fellow (1995-96) at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin. His many books and articles, mostly taking a very long-term perspective similar to the study, have previously concentrated on urban and agricultural development over the past six millennia in the near East.