Machines are ever more plentiful and useful, but something more important, more spiritual, is being lost
One of the greatest influences of the Industrial Revolution on society was perhaps its ability to mechanize our lives. In a materialistic world, which adores speed, it seems only natural that matter and speed come together in the omnipresent machine.
So, machines surround us. We talk to them. They talk to us. Virtually every aspect of our lives involves some kind of mechanical or electronic contraption. We even conceptualize our actions in mechanical terms: We become “dynamos” that move “into high gear” or go “full steam ahead.” And the machines reciprocate, becoming infected with “bugs” and “viruses.”
Perhaps the greatest illusion in this whole scenario is that we somehow believe we are completely in control of these machine-servants that make our lives easier.
Finding the Right Machines
Far be it for us to condemn all machines. Machines by definition make life easier. Historically, they helped build pre-industrial civilizations like the highly sophisticated Roman Empire. In fact, pre-industrial civilizations were often eras of incredible technological development. Historians of the medieval period speak of an extraordinary thirteenth century “industrial revolution” that waned only with the coming of the Black Death and the Renaissance. Medieval civilization was actually so full of machines that medieval historian Lynn White, Jr., claims that it was actually the first complex civilization in history that “rested not on the backs of sweating slaves or coolies but primarily on non-human power.”
It was, however, a different type of machine that prevailed. Pre-Industrial Revolution civilizations were tool-using cultures in which craftsmen exercised a control over their machines. Their machines were not intruders into their lives or their way of looking at life.
As Neal Postman notes in his book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, tool-using cultures developed relationships between tools and their belief systems. “They were integrated into the culture in ways that do not pose significant contradictions to its worldview. Medieval theologians developed an elaborate and systematic description of the relation of man to God, man to nature, man to man, and man to his tools.”
The machine itself is not the target of criticism but, rather, the type of machine. Marx rightly said, “The hand-loom gives you a society with the feudal lord; the steam mill, with the industrial capitalist.”
A New Metaphysical Standard
The Industrial Revolution introduced a boom of inventions that overwhelmed pre-industrial man. The new machines took on gigantic proportions that dwarfed him. They acquired awesome power beyond the control of a single craftsman. Huge factories attracted the anonymous masses that assumed the role of mere interchangeable cogs in the industrial process.
In short, the machine became and remains the metaphysical standard by which all things of consequence are done. The process of taking raw materials, putting them through the same process, and mass producing identical finished products became the supreme model for doing things well. Hour after hour, the machine carries on its tasks; it does not err.
The lure of machinery and technology was surrounded by a myth that encouraged veneration and worship. The “infallible” machine is a kind of superior being of almost angelic proportions. It does its monotonous work with apparent perfection and obedience. In an effort to imitate this newfound god, the citizen of the industrial civilization mechanized his very life.
Today there is no field of human action that has not been modified in some aspects by the desire to act like a machine.
An Inhuman World
This desire was not without its disadvantages. It thrust modern man into a merciless, inhuman world where all things are coldly analyzed, processed, and quantified. People are depersonalized “units” capable of a certain number of daily man-hours. Men are judged by their efficiency, not their virtue.
From early youth, the child is run through the process of education. The education machine no longer seeks to impart eternal truths but, rather, identical units of information divided into courses. A given number of credit hours can be traded in for a diploma.
Modern medicine tends to process people through medical procedures based on highly specialized tests. The body is increasingly seen as a machine where parts can be replaced, transplanted, or repaired.
Meals are eaten mechanically. Fast-food chains have counters or drive-up windows where customers pick up their food, silently eat it, and throw away the remains.
Examples abound everywhere. Literature is no longer written; words are merely processed. Cows are labeled “milking units” that produce “dairy products.” Government becomes a bureaucracy whose slow-moving wheels, devoid of human sentiment, churn out identical decisions.
Even leisure is mechanized. Television comedies are little more than half-hour slots of canned laughter. Sporting events, more often than not, present athletes who are carefully conditioned machines that perform automatic movements in a given time.
The Rise of the Masses
It is not surprising that mechanized action gives rise to mechanized mass thought.
The masses rose in part because of the migration of the villager to the factory. The country peasant who had roots and identity in his village suddenly became an anonymous number on the industry payroll. This new working class was integrated into the industrial system that mass-produced a mentality dominated by empty secular and materialistic values. Moral and spiritual values were relegated to a secondary plane.
Without the moral compass of the True Faith, the masses are the easy playthings of anyone who can exploit their instincts and impressions. In his 1944 Christmas message, Pius XII masterfully characterized the masses as victims of an equality that “degenerates to a mechanical leveling, a colorless uniformity; [in which] the sense of true honor, of personal activity, of respect for tradition and dignity – in a word, all that gives life its worth – gradually fades away and disappears.”
In our modern society, steeped in material comfort and progress, something spiritual is missing. The most important things in life cannot be processed, mechanized, or quantified. The valueless machine knows no morals, dignity, or honor. Until modern man restores Catholic principles as the true metaphysical standard, society will feel the lack of “all that gives life its worth.” We will never live the fullness and exuberance of a people endowed with a mission given by God.