The Rise of Human Machines

We create technology to do our jobs, but end up working more — and more like machines

Colin Horgan

--

Image via The Public Domain Review

This is an occasional cross-post from my Substack newsletter, Modern Hell. Please consider subscribing to Modern Hell for more updates like this one.

Recently, I was trying to find a good example of people fearing the machines they made. The dawn of the 1900s came to mind, as it has so often over the past few years.

The period between the late 1890s and 1914, before the world descended into a chaos previously unimagined, had a similar vibe as ours — that of acceleration. Things were moving very quickly, especially when it came to technology.

These decades were at the heart of the second industrial revolution/the great leap forward, a period from about 1850 to 1930. It was one of extensive technological innovation in transport, electricity, communications, and manufacturing. People traveled further, faster. They learned the news more quickly. They worked different jobs, and adopted new ideas about productivity and time — and money. Technological changes were felt at a very personal, individual level (in a different way than say, working in a coal mine 60 years earlier). These changes seemed to signal the potential for a new, better kind of society and with it a new, better kind of human.

Visions of the future from around 1900 are wonderful to see. The Public Domain Review has a great collection created by French artists at the turn of the century, more than a few of which focus on people being airborne (and needing both “aviation police” and “aerial firemen”). There’s also something called “battle cars”.

Image via The Public Domain Review

The key thing about these images is the technology and its relationship to people.

Earlier in the 1800s, during the first industrial revolution, people were very much at the centre of the technology (a Spinning Jenny still needed an operator). But 1900 or so, there was a change in the way that relationship was imagined — that of societal and cultural advancement based on alleviating the need for human labour. A future…

--

--