Alaska Railway

Alaska Railway480
Image Permalink Gallery of Rachel's Works

Image URL:

One Essay Response

  1. Josephine Barnett | 2010 Second Prize Winner says:

    The power of this photograph rests in the irony it conveys. How ironic that it is the man-made technological advancement, the railroad, which leads the eye to one of nature’s finest masterpieces, the mountains. Since antiquity, people have been concerned with the impact of technology on both the social and natural world. Thus, by photographing the trail of the train tracks into the mountains it begs the audience to ask themselves, “Where does technology lead our society—closer to nature or further away?”; ” What impact will technology have on nature, our relationship with the natural environment, and human interaction?"

    It is these types of questions that led to the birth of the Social Sciences, which is rooted in an interest of the relationship between technological advancements and human relations. The most notable social scientists of the 18th and 19th century, Karl Marx, Emile Durkhiem, and Max Weber, were writing as witnesses of the shift from agricultural industry to industrialized factory based industry. They noted this shift in the mode of production was instrumental to the rise in capitalism, which these three theorists feared would negatively impact the organization and behavior of society. Such broad concerns are highlighted in this photograph, but more so this image draws attention to a specific 19th century technological advancement, the railroad and its impact on society.

    The railroad is regarded as one of the most significant instrument to the progress of our society. It helped pave the way for the social and economic possibilities and opportunities that exist in our modern society. Given this, the railroad is a symbol of both progress and democracy.

    Rail roads made it possible for fast and efficient transportation across great distances, conjoining distant towns to modern cities. This provided the chance for those who were at a geographic disadvantage the possibilities to advance both their economic and cultural capital. Many people, regardless of their socioeconomic status, could afford the price of a train ticket. Because of this, the railroad was seen as a technology that would further advance democracy.[1] Looking critically at the history of the railroad, one can see this technology was riddled with false promises of progress and democracy. The railroads became a site for extreme exploitation among workers, thus only benefiting the few wealthy initial investors of this innovation. Furthermore, this technology has left a permanent carbon footprint on our environment, which is a problem we continue to face when finding solutions to the current global climate crisis.

    Even though the railroad may not have kept it’s original promises, one can not deny the fact that the railroads truly altered the way in which society functioned politically, economically, culturally and socially. The railroad had the ability to transform the understanding of time and space from limitations to possibilities. Thus, allowing people to travel to new lands and utilize resources. As Marx, Weber and Durkhiem feared, this technology provided early capitalists the opportunity for further exploitation of natural resources and human labor. In addition, the railroad offered society a technologically-mediated experience with nature that continues to shape how individuals experience both the social and natural world.

    In conclusion, the railroad was one of the first baby steps towards a technology-based, globalized society. The railroad radically shifted society’s ideological framework by reconstructing prior limitations of time and space, which allowed for various social groups to circulate ideas, commerce, language, and culture despite geographic location. Society continues to manage the implications of this ideology as well as the real consequences of technology, both positive and negative, this has on all individuals and the land they inhabit. The invention of the railroad highlights how technological advancements exploit human labor and the ways in which these advancements impact the global climate.


    [1] Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. The Railway Journey: the Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California, 1987.