Routes of Power

Routes of Power: Energy and Modern America, Christopher F. Jones

            In his study of shifting power regimes in industrializing America, Christopher Jones emphasizes the importance of transportation networks in the formation of an “energy-intensive world.” Jones covers the time period from 1820, when citizens garnered their energy in an organic way (using primarily plants, falling water, and wind, all derivatives of solar energy), through to 1930, when the transition to a mineral-based energy was completed (coal, oil, and electricity covering most of Americans’ energy needs). The effects of such a transition are highlighted and include the proliferation of larger cities with concentrated industrial output, energy’s correlation with cost instead of labor, and communities’ differing degrees of inauguration into the new energy regime with various consequences. In each chapter, the author emphasizes transportation networks — canals, railroads, pipelines, and wires — and their role in creating “landscapes of intensification” that created the demand that would sustain the transformation from an organic to a mineral energy regime.

Both Christopher Jones and David Nye in America as Second Creation discussed the role of the booster in garnering support for the usage of new technologies; these men obviously played a major role in encouraging the usage and the overall proliferation of novel technological feats. I find their presence often in works dealing with medical speculation as well, such as James Harvey Young’s Toadstool Millionaires, which discusses the rise of patent medicines in nineteenth century America. I wonder if there have been any studies of these men; what motivated them, and were they a uniquely nineteenth century phenomenon? They probably maintained a relatively precarious existence, because new technologies harbored grave risks for investors (and those touting their benefits) if a society did not see their value. What about the nineteenth century made these men so visible, and how did they influence the course of American industrialization? Was their participation needed, even inevitable?

I also found it fascinating how influential seemingly unrelated historico-political factors were in the inauguration of certain technologies into common usage. Susan B. Pritchard’s Confluence analyzes how the techno-manipulation of the Rhône was discussed in a nationalistic, conquering language, and how its goals reflected France’s attempts to legitimize itself after a humiliating defeat at the hands of its rivals. Similarly, the way that canals were built in America was influenced by the way that Americans saw themselves at the time; large-scale federal governmental involvement was discouraged at a time when republicanism dominated. Investors, then, and state charters decided the course and language of construction. Technology, both authors’ books discuss, is affected by social and political factors, just as it has effects on both.

Something I found particularly interesting was the way that mass commodification and physical distance between sites of energy production and sites of energy consumption has affected people’s relationship with energy. No longer something that must be earned through hard labor, energy can be purchased; this has changed the way that people use energy. This distance between production and consumption, I think, was a product of industrialization and mass production and can be seen in many other aspects of society. Medical knowledge, for example, has been standardized and delegated to a certain class of people, and most patients do not care to look into the technicalities of their diseases. They leave their lives completely in a doctor’s hands. The distance between the producer of medical knowledge, the doctor, and the consumer, the patient, has increased as the language of disease has become more technical and the technologies of diagnostics more specialized. Before medicine had been commodified and, more importantly, standardized, people played a much more active role in their health decisions. The commodification and standardization of energy consumption has had similar effects; people delegate their energy needs to others to the extent that they know almost nothing about its production. Commodification and standardization, then, create distance between producers and consumers. I wonder what sorts of ramifications this has, and especially what sorts of exploitation has resulted from it.

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