Emotions, Technology, and the American Self

AHA Session 192
Saturday, January 6, 2018: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Columbia 9 (Washington Hilton, Terrace Level)
Gary Cross, Penn State University
Jim Block, DePaul University
Gary Cross, Penn State University
Susan J. Matt, Weber State University
Luke O. Fernandez, Weber State University
The Audience

Session Abstract

Bringing together the history of technology and the history of emotions, and joining the perspectives of historians and political theorists, this roundtable considers how Americans’ emotional lives have been affected by the rapid technological and economic changes of the last hundred and fifty years and the emergence of consumer culture. How have personal devices like phonographs, radios, televisions, and phones, and systems of technology like electricity, the assembly line and mass production, altered the experience of the sublime, of nostalgia, of loneliness and boredom, of motion and time, and obliged Americans to find new ways of coping with accelerated social change and pace of life? Has Americans’ sense of self changed as a result?

Gary Cross will discuss how personal products (such as phonographs and their successors), redefined time. Fast capitalism produced fast people, but also transformed emotional life as accelerated consumption intensified free time, causing stress and confusion. Among the responses was a nostalgic effort to recover the past, but as former ways of life were lost to memory and as consumer culture defined formative experience, new forms of nostalgia emerged that adapted to fast capitalism.

David Nye will discuss how the sublime has changed. The term was once reserved for landscapes such as the Grand Canyon or impressive structures, such as suspension bridges, and was rooted in an authentic encounter with something indisputably real. But new categories of the sublime began to emerge in amusement parks, movie theaters, and expositions, and these “inauthentic” experiences of non-existent things or simulations have become common in consumer culture. New categories of the sublime, in addition to those proposed by Burke and Kant, are needed to understand these mediated experiences.

Susan Matt and Luke Fernandez will explore how communications technologies altered the experience of boredom. The word boredom only appeared in the nineteenth century. Prior to that, Americans experienced dullness and drudgery, but did not find it particularly worrisome. By the twentieth century, as telephones, phonographs, and radios entered American houses, ordinary people, and the psychologists who studied them, came to believe humans were entitled to stimulation and diversion, and that boredom was a pathology. Consequently, for Americans today, the emotion, and the empty moment that prompts it, have become intolerable.

Jim Block will explore the psychosocial impact of an ever-accelerating technological dynamic. His current research on twentieth-century America highlights the shift from 1880 from creating citizens to external, quantitative forms of "progress," including economic and technological growth. Citizens were induced to turn from inner development to external measures of selfhood and success. The unintended consequences include: material and status markers of identity; an increasingly 'protean' sense of identity reflecting the chaotic pace of innovation with erosion of normative clarity; finally, with adaptation to change becoming the new 'normal,’ as Tocqueville reflected, everything changes yet remains the same, as the "spectacle" of motion and repackaging saps the will to pursue genuine innovations

Professor Arwen Palmer Mohun, who has published widely on the history of technology, will serve as Chair and Commentator.

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