It's an interesting premise, the suggestion that technological innovation is driven largely by war, pornography and fast food. Anyone surveying North American life in the decades since the end of the Second World War has to acknowledge the effect of things like television, fast food, camcorders, VCRs, computers and refrigeration. Peter Nowak's witty and well-researched book traces the development of these and other advances to some of humanity's most basic instincts. Many of the things now taken for granted as staples of middle-class life, he argues, can trace their roots to one or more of that sordid trio.
The roots of those innovations, and the relationships among those three basic drives, haven't changed. Busier lives mean less time for preparing and eating meals; advances in food preparation and preservation, Nowak argues, can be traced to the need to supply armies in the field. Paris Hilton's sex video, he suggests, was noteworthy not for the quality of the performances, but because it was mostly different hues of green, owing to the fact that it was recorded using the camera's night-vision mode - a capability originally developed for military purposes. Advances in online security and encryption, he argues, can be traced to porn sites' efforts to safeguard their customers' identities and maintain proprietary control over their content. (Amusingly, he notes that while appearing in pornographic videos may not burnish your résumé if you're an aspiring actor, building your experience as a porn-site webmaster makes you very attractive to IT managers.)
Sex, Bombs and Burgers is full of similar insights and revelations. The origins of Teflon, Saran Wrap, the Slinky, the Barbie doll, the Roomba vacuum cleaner and more are all described in entertaining detail, along with the entrepreneurial and sometimes eccentric personalities behind them. It's an engaging read, leaving one with several "I did not know that" moments. But for a fuller understanding of these technological innovations, it can't be read in isolation. The events and developments Nowak describes need to be properly situated in their historical context.
However, it's not really fair to criticize Nowak for that. Sex, Bombs and Burgers isn't intended as an exhaustive exposition of technology's role in the history of Western civilization. Indeed, it probably wouldn't be as much fun to read if that were its intent. What it offers is an entertaining overview, shot through here and there with moments of social and political insight. It can be a good starting point for any one of a number of weighty and worthwhile conversations that badly need to happen - and as such it is a valuable contribution to those conversations.
Fundamentally, the book turns on the eternal question of whether technology is really value-neutral. Nowak addresses this question in a basic sense, but by the end of the book one is left wanting a more in-depth discussion.
In a number of places, for example, Nowak describes the benefits to companies of outsourcing labour costs and/or employing labour-saving technology. He does not, however, address the wider social implications, which can be observed in the hollowing-out of the North American manufacturing sector as jobs go to lower-cost jurisdictions, and the attendant collapse of what used to be the backbone of the economic base - and the middle class it nurtured. Using robots in fast-food preparation, in place of poorly paid and disaffected teenagers may be, as he suggests, "a small price to pay to keep boogers off our pizzas," but if they and similar unskilled labourers will have to find a new line of work, Nowak is a bit short on suggestions regarding what kind.
Similarly, a chapter on genetically modified organisms and their role in food production touches on environmental and trade issues, but skirts the connection between innovation and return on investment. Making food distribution and innovation dependent on profit - with all the attendant patent and regulatory issues - pretty much guarantees inequitable distribution and selective malnutrition, despite all the scientific advances. A discussion of robots and their military applications has some fascinating descriptions but never really deals with the evolution of the military-industrial complex and its effect on U.S. governance.
Ultimately, Nowak's argument is weakened by his assertion that technology is value-neutral, and that it is how we use it that matters.
This argument ignores the fact that like any other human endeavour - politics, literature, economics, religion, art - it reflects and embodies the values of the society from which it springs. Surveillance can be tied to the impulse to control; the flip side of efficiency can be read as exploitation. All these are reflections of a centralized, hierarchical and stratified approach. Who's to say a more egalitarian society wouldn't exhibit very different forms of technology?
Sol Chrom is a copy editor with the Globe and Mail.