Awe and the Machine

Christine Rosen | Posted on 06/14/10

Today we are less likely to feel awe in the presence of our machines than we are to experience what historian Jacques Barzun called "machine-made helplessness."

Visiting the Paris Exhibition in 1900, the American writer Henry Adams saw something so remarkable he compared its influence to that of the Virgin Mary. It was a hall filled with machines - early power generators known as dynamos. Watching them at work, he "began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross," he wrote in The Education of Henry Adams. "The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm's-length at some vertiginous speed, and barely murmuring." Adams wondered if he should pray to it.

Such awe and the attendant feelings of humility it inspired in Adams were not uncommon at the time, particularly in the United States, where technological enthusiasm ran high. In the 1850s, the U.S. Commissioner of Patents was so overtaken with excitement about the country's many new machines that he declared, "A steamer is a mightier epic than the Iliad." A writer in DeBow's Review opined, "The great Mississippi Valley may emphatically be said to be the creation of the steam engine, for without its magic power ... what centuries must have elapsed before the progress of arts and of enterprise could have swept away the traces of savage life." Perhaps these machines had to be viewed with awe; industrialization was such a culturally disruptive force that people had to find a way to cope with its effects. Investing supernatural powers in the machines that ushered in that revolution was one way of doing this.

By the twentieth century, some cynicism had crept into descriptions of the newest machines. Writing about the impact of radio on his rural Maine community, E. B. White observed, "One of the chief pretenders to the throne of God is radio itself, which has acquired a sort of omniscience." In the lives of the people in his town, the radio exerted a "pervading and somewhat godlike presence." But it was also something to which they turned daily for advice and instruction. As White wryly noted, "The church merely holds out the remote promise of salvation: the radio tells you if it's going to rain tomorrow."

Today, we no longer approach our many machines with awe; in fact, the more personalized and individualized our machines have become, the less humility we feel in using them. No longer the large, rare dynamos of Adams's day, our machines are often portable and are such a central part of our everyday lives that we barely notice their presence. Rather than awe-inspiring symbols of man's power, they are merely extensions of ourselves, like the cell phone that helps us communicate or the microwave that speeds the cooking of our dinner. They are servants of our whims rather than objects of reverence.

Of course there is a danger in romanticizing the machine, not least of which is becoming so credulous that we believe they can do anything. In an infamous example in the early nineteenth century, an inventor claimed he had created a chess-playing machine, an automaton that could best any human being at the game. It proved to be a hoax (a man was hidden inside the machine) and was immortalized in Edgar Allan Poe's 1836 story "Maelzel's Chess Player." Today, when the chess game on an average computer can and does regularly outsmart its human opponents, we believe ourselves free from such gullibility. But while we might be less gullible, we are far more dependent on our machines than were the awestruck audiences of the chess-playing automaton.

In the early age of machines, they inspired awe by proving capable of doing what man could never do alone (such as power an entire factory), or what we once believed only man could do (play chess). Now we expect our machines to do just about everything for us, from organizing our finances to writing our grocery lists. Our machines not only ease the mundane burdens of daily life (cooking, cleaning, working), but also serve, increasingly, as both our primary source of entertainment and the means for maintaining intimate relationships with others. Henry Adams's dynamo has been replaced by Everyman's iPod, and awe has given way to complacence and dependence. Your computer's e-mail program doesn't inspire awe; it is more like a dishwasher than a dynamo. Nineteenth-century rhapsodies to the machines that tamed nature, such as the steam engine, have given way to impatience with the machines that don't immediately indulge our whims.

The decline in humility toward our machines comes at a time when we know almost nothing about how or why they work. Although overwhelmed by its power, Henry Adams nevertheless had a basic understanding of how the dynamo operated. Most of us know very little about how our laptop computers run or how to repair our washing machines. Today we are less likely to feel awe in the presence of our machines than we are to experience what historian Jacques Barzun called "machine-made helplessness." This, too, is a form of blind faith, like the people who, devotedly following the instructions of their car's GPS device, drive right off a hill, all the while certain that this must be impossible - how could their perfectly calibrated machine be wrong?

The awe experienced by earlier generations was part of a different worldview, one that demonstrated greater humility about many things, not least of which concerned their own human limits and frailties. Today we believe our machines allow us to know a lot more, and in many ways they do. What we don't want to admit - but should - is that they also ensure that we directly experience less. Updating your Facebook page is a lot easier than venturing out into the world to confront a dynamo, as Adams did. But it is also, in the end, likely to be a lot less awe-inspiring.

 

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