Monday, December 5, 2011

Machine Culture of the Gilded Age

"Just because something doesn't do what you planned it to do doesn't mean it's useless."
-Thomas Edison

The industrial innovations during the Gilded Age created a paradoxical tension between Man and Machine. While man is the sum of his “feelings, passions, perceptions” and a machine is an “artificial inanimate mechanism,” the ideas of how each affected each other came into question and blurred some of the distinctions between the two. Both highlighted contradictory truths about their possibilities. The power of machines expanded the powers of man but also adopt the flaws of their creators and consumers. A contradiction emerges when we can no longer determine where the consequences of machines begin to work against human nature, given that they are a artificial creation of a humans that are undoubtedly part of nature themselves.
Thomas Edison's moving picture camera allowed the body to become the subject of study. Through the mechanistic camera we learned much more about how mechanistic the body itself is. The camera also expanded man's ability to perceive things, bringing images from around the world to a screen. Technology is exciting because it is an extension of many of man's natural abilities. Though man is different from machine because he has “free will, consciousness, and rationality,” it is also recognized that he is much like a machine because he is “mechanistic and predetermined by instincts and habits.” In many ways our observation enabled us to hone the potential of the body. Body image becomes a more prevalent element of American society as audiences begin to see body builders and boxers in Edison's videos. We learn to embrace the idea of controlling our bodies like a fleshy machine that must be conditioned properly in order to function to the fullest capacity.
"If I find 10,000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed.
I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward."
-Thomas Edison
The excerpt from Dagobert D. Runes' The Diary and Sundry Observations of Thomas Alva Edison has Edison explaining his Sunday on July 12, 1885, as a day of leisure where he spends his day pursuing a variety of intellectual tasks having been freed from the duty of physical labor. In many ways machines have “liberated the body from harsh labor for existence” and “enhanced, augmented, and expanded” the body's power. He notes that we have even “electricity employed to cheat a poor hen out of the pleasures of maternity. Machine-born chickens! What is home without a mother?”
"I am proud of the fact that I never invented weapons to kill."
-Thomas Edison
Even though Edison recognized how technology removed human beings and other animals from nature in a way that protected them from the “pain, discomfort, and inconveniences” of the “forces of nature,” he also seemed to recognize that it somehow “separates and alienates us from nature.” In the Gilded Age many people feared how technology would dehumanize individuals and society. 

One word: Terrifying.
Ignatius Donnelly's dystopian novel Caesar's Column exhibits the anxiety of the era towards technology's degenerative tendencies on humans. Technology changes the power that men have and how dramatic the effects of their actions change as a result of this disconnect.
Jack London's “The Apostate” (1906) is an account of a factory that demonstrated how brutalizing the effects of a machine could have on degrading the human body. Routinized systems suppressed the conscious being in man and treated him as no more than a machine. The machines that should liberate the worker, Johnny, instead enslave him to an occupation controlled by the machine. Monotony mutes the pain of others as Johnny ignores a boy next to him who is whimpering while “it seemed to him as useless to oppose the overseer as to defy the will of a machine.”
Jacob Riis' photographs of industrial life exhibited how work weighed on the psychological and physical health of workers, even child laborers, at the time. An individual's purpose becomes dangerously linked the function they perform in labor. Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times exhibits the absurdity of using man as part of machine. His madness from overwork shows the disconnect from humanity created by man's own invention. Ultimately, the workings of the factory stem from the human choices of the omnipotent President of the Electro Steel Company, who gives directions via screen to the workers but is completely removed from his actions by the functions of the machine. Consequently, he ignores the effects the assembly has on his human work force, using them as means to an end rather than as ends in themselves.

Captain Alfred T. Mahan's The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783, published in 1893, exemplifies how technology transforms the ability of a nation towards growth of industry even in overseas trade. However, a problematic human problem arises when technology increases the ability to wage war as well as trade. Imperialism and colonization represent the use of technological advantage to create a separate between citizens and the consequences of their actions. He argues how seapower can control the colonies “in peace, the influence of the government should be felt in promoting by all means a warmth of attachment and a unity of interest which will make the welfare of one the welfare of all.” However, “in war, or rather for war, by inducing such measures of organization and defence as shall be felt by all to be a fair distribution of a burden of which each reaps the benefit.”

Henry Charles Merwin's “On Being Civilized Too Much” in 1897 worried that industrialization would detach man from his instincts. He argues that the dullness the machine brings to man through industrialization could end in “the possibility of an impending disaster stemming from a loss of visceral reactions to the world.” F.W. Taylor's “Principles of Scientific Management” demonstrates how the machine caused management of production to become a such scientific process that the worker became dependent upon the “help of those who are over him” to understand his work. These feared that technology will make us either dull or dumb, losing either our empathy or intelligence through a subservience to these supposedly civilized devices. Almost every advance in technology was met by critics that deplored the effect that each invention would have on the country's moral character, deploring things as tame as the bicycle to be a public menace and a “tool of Satan.”

Theodore Roosevelt's “Conservation Message” in his address to the 60th Congress' first session in 1907, exhibits this recognition that economic prosperity and industrial innovation not only threatened to detach man from his fellow human beings and his own human nature but from coexisting peaceful with nature and its natural resources as well. His speech bridges the tension between the goals of development and preservation. He asserts that the federal government has an obligation to “conservationism.” Conservation embraces the “application of science and engineering to the responsible development of natural resources” while preservation, preferred by the likes of the Sierra Club's founder John Muir, laid more importance on the “aesthetic and spiritual virtues of the unspoiled wilderness.” Thomas Cole's “The Course of Empire” paintings exhibit the fragility of nature's relationship to human advances in technology and its destructive problems. The paintings may seem a bit like an exaggerated doomsday warning but it best represents Roosevelt's argument about conservation and consumerism that “Optimism is a good characteristic, but if carried to an excess it becomes foolishness.” He argues that consumption cannot consider resources inexhaustible and that technology must play a role in enabling conservation.
Anna R. Weeks' The Divorce of Man from Nature displays the kind of realistic optimism that Roosevelt's policies required. She recognized a need to address “burgeoning urbanization with civic responsibility.” While she recognized that there was a moral importance to a “spiritual relationship between man and land,” she also hoped for an “ideal socialist, globalized, technology based future.” She outlines a tension between the difference of living in relationship with the advantages of technology in the city versus the spiritual connection fostered with the land with farmers. She argues that technological advances and the culture that connects men in the cities can be spiritually beneficial just as much as the relationship that a farmer has to the land he works. She says “Cumulative modern invention and cumulative psychic light are intensely unifying the race.” She asserts that technology can change the function of our society for the better, affirming that “Electricity, aluminum, and the thought force promise to serve us far more in the future than as yet.” She equates the future's technological infrastructure as being comparable to a “new Eden” with “roads, the bicycle, the telegraph, the telephone, the ocean cable, pneumatic tires, air ships, electric cars, and telepathy” which will “keep us near one another and near our needs.”