Blanched Sun, Blinded Man

Divining the Machine, part one

I’m reluctant to admit it, given my reputation as an aficionado of the scythe, but recently I had to buy a lawnmower. I have a lot of grass, it grows too fast at this time of year, and not all of is amenable to being cut by hand. I live in farming country, so a trip to buy a mower is also a tour through the latest machinery being touted to landowners as labour-saving, forward-looking and impossible to do without if you want to compete with China. Tractors the size of barns, fancy new silage balers, sheer grabs, spreaders, slurry tanks, frontloaders, chainsaws, industrial brushcutters: it’s all here, if you can afford the loans.

The current star of the show in the outdoor hardware shops, though, is the robot mower. It’s not a lot of use to a farmer, but to householders with lawns it’s the must-have gimmick of the pandemic season. One of them was sitting on a pedestal in the middle of the shop I visited, festooned with ads and promises that this fantastic device - which will automatically mow your lawn without the need for you to even go outside - would save time, effort and energy. 

The notion that new machinery equates to ‘progress’ is probably as old as civilisation (I wrote about this notion in more depth in this essay.) In my lifetime, all the labour- and time-saving technologies which have been pushed at us, from the microwave oven to the Internet, have given us things we didn’t previously have, and taken plenty more away, but one thing none of them has done is to save either time or labour. I’m old enough to remember, for example, when we were promised that the advent of email would save us hours of time: no more faxing, or opening and replying to letters! Now we spend thirty days a year (!) on email alone, and it is increasingly impossible to be out of touch with anyone, anywhere. 

This is the devil’s bargain of the technium, and we have been falling for it forever: embrace the new, lose the old, and find yourself more deeply entwined in a technological web from which you cannot extricate yourself even if you want to. Also known as the progress trap, this is the world we live in, and the robot mower is only its latest examplar. Also available in all reliable outlets are such joys as Smart fridges, robot vacuum cleaners, instant boiling water taps (no more tiresome boiling the kettle!), ‘Smart body analysers’, Smart watches, and of course the terrifying Alexa, who will helpfully monitor all of your private conversations and pass them straight on to Jeff Bezos. All are sold to us as exciting, time-saving, life-improving gadgets. All are traps, into which we happily pay to walk.

In my last essay, I wrote about the collapse of Christendom in the West. It might seem like a jump from Jesus to robot lawnmowers, but there’s a throughline. It's often suggested that when we moved from Christendom via the Enlightenment into our current age (modernity? post-modernity? post-post-modernity? Answers on a postcard) we desacrilised or 'disenchanted' our culture: that we became pure materialists. For its supporters, this process was a move towards ‘reason’ and away from ‘superstition.’ For opponents, it represented a slide into decadence and moral dissolution. Either way, the disenchantment thesis, as we might call it, has been influential since it was most famously enunciated a century ago by Max Weber.

But in an interesting essay for Aeon magazine a couple of years back, the historian Eugene McCarraher took issue with this notion. Modernity, he claimed, did not in fact dispense with the West’s sacred order, leaving only dessicated materialism in its place. Our replacement value system is just as enchanted as before - but we have failed to acknowledge it, because it poses as something else:

Since the 17th century, much modern history has provided good reasons to show that ‘disenchantment’ is more of a fable, a mythology that conceals the persistence of enchantment in ‘secular’ disguise. Capitalism, it turns out, might be modernity’s most beguiling form of enchantment, remaking the moral and ontological universe in its pecuniary image and likeness.

If McCarraher is right, we have not junked a sacred order for a profane one. We have instead enthroned a new god, and disguised its worship as the disenchanted pursuit of purely material gain. We have dressed up as a mere ‘economy’ our new idol and sovereign: the Machine.

But what is this Machine, where did it come from and how might we pin it down? In the next few essays, I will be attempting to come up with some answers, and I am hoping that some of you will help me fill in some of the inevitable gaps. Here I want to start by offering up a working definition, aided by one of its most effective chroniclers. 

Lewis Mumford’s massive study The Myth of the Machine, published in two volumes between 1967 and 1970, is an exhaustive attempt to chronicle the rise and triumph of the system of power and technology which now entwines us all; a system he calls ‘the megamachine.’ He lays out his stall early in the first pages of volume one:

The last century, we all realise, has witnessed a radical transformation in the entire human environment, largely as a result of the impact of the mathematical and physical sciences on technology … Never since the Pyramid Age have such vast physical changes been consummated in so short a time. All these changes have in turn produced alterations in the human personality, while still more radical transformations, if this process continue unabated and uncorrected, loom ahead.

My old hardback copy of Mumford’s book smells musty and ancient now, like a good second-hand bookshop. He wrote this paragraph when colour TV was in its infancy, and humanity had not yet landed on the moon. The process did, needless to say, continue uncorrected. Mumford died in 1990, before the internet, before mobile phones, before the rising age of AI and Smart Everything, but he saw precisely what was coming:

With this new ‘megatechnics’ the dominant minority will create a uniform, all-enveloping, super-planetary structure, designed for automatic operation. Instead of functioning actively as an autonomous personality, man will become a passive, purposeless, machine-conditioned animal whose proper functions, as technicians now interpret man’s role, will either be fed into the machine or strictly limited and controlled for the benefit of depersonalised, collective organisations. 

Those ‘depersonalised, collective organisations’ are the giant world-spanning corporations which now control most of our lives. They produce the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the technology we use, the ‘entertainment’ we consume and the ‘news’ we base our opinions upon, all the while employing millions of us as labourers, and harvesting us as products ourselves, through the detailed personal information we freely volunteer them daily all over the web. 

These corporations operate via a global technological network of staggering power and complexity - undersea cables, orbiting satellites, monitoring devices in our homes and in our pockets, and, soon, web-connected streets, buildings and appliances, all monitoring us in real-time, and selling us what we didn’t know we needed. They are facilitated by equally depersonalised, collective States, which exist not to promote the interests of their citizens (despite what those corporate-controlled media and entertainment systems would have us believe), but to service the corporations and provide for their interests: a process known as ‘economic growth.’ 

This ‘growth’ is the overriding purpose of the ‘global economy’ which the Machine has built: everything else is of secondary concern. The growth has no specific aim and no end in sight, and can always be justified by pointing to problems - poverty, environmental degradation - which were in many cases caused by the growth, but which can now only be solved by more of it. It is facilitated by the production and consumption of ‘goods and services’, the desire (or ‘need’) for which has been manufactured by vast marketing and advertising concerns whose best minds are trained in the essence of pyschological manipulation. 

The rise and triumph of the Internet - the neurological network of the Machine - has meant that there are now few places on Earth we can escape from the incessant noise of this State-corporate ‘growth’, and the incessant urge to contribute to it by clicking, scrolling, buying and competing. It has prescribed all of our values, and proscribed the alternatives, and it shows no sign of stopping. It cannot stop, in fact, for to do so would mean collapse. Growth has become an end in itself, long-divorced from any means. And as the great Edward Abbey once pointed out: ‘growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.’

This, then, is the Machine. It is not simply the sum total of various individual technologies we have cleverly managed to rustle up - cars, laptops, robot mowers and the rest. In fact, such 'technics', as Mumford calls them, are the product of the Machine, not its essence. The Machine is, rather, a tendency within us, made concrete by power and circumstance, which coalesces in a huge agglomeration of power, control and ambition. And it is not a new development. Indeed, it can be traced back much further than we might imagine, to the dawn of civilisation itself:

A close parallel existed between the first civilisations of the Near East and our own, though most of our contemporaries still regard modern technics, not only as the highest point in man’s intellectual development, but as an entirely new phenomenon. On the contrary …[it] had its origin not in the so-called Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century, but at the very outset in the organisation of an archetypal machine made of human parts.

A machine made of human parts. This is what Mumford called the ‘megamachine’: an entire society, ordered from the top down, justified by a mythos employed by its leaders, and driven by a desire for ‘order, power, predictability and above all, control.’ The archetypal example of the megamachine, in Mumford’s account, came not from modern Europe or America, but from Ancient Egypt, whose legions of enslaved pyramid-builders were conditioned to think and behave like cogs in a vast, inhuman mechanism:

The workers who carried out these designs had minds of a new order: mechanically conditioned, executing each task in strict obedience to instructions, infinitely patient, limiting their response to the word of command. Machine work can be done only by machines. These workers during their period of service were, as it were, stripped down to their reflexes, in order to ensure a mechanically perfect performance.

If that sounds like a description of an English factory circa 1848 - or a Chinese factory today - then that’s because it is. The pyramids may be four thousand years old, but the 'chief testimony’ of the megamachine assembled to build them is horribly familiar to us now:

A waste of destroyed villages and cities and poisoned soils: the prototype of similar ‘civilised’ atrocities today. As for the great Egyptian pyramids, what are they but the precise static equivalents of our own space rockets? Both devices for securing, at an extravagant cost, a passage to Heaven for the favoured few.

If we are to talk about the Machine today, then, the first thing to note is that it is neither unique to modernity, nor new in its essence. In ancient Egypt, says Mumford, the seeds of our current, globe-spanning techno-empire were already being sown:

Some of the seeds shot up at once in riotous growth: others required five thousand years before they were ready to sprout. When that happened, the divine king would appear again in new form. And the same infantile ambitions would accompany him, inflated beyond any previous dimension, different only because they were at last realisable.

Combine the analysis of Mumford here with that of Spengler and a picture emerges of a rhythm in human history, in which centralised civilisations arise, accrue power to themselves through conquest, and then construct systems which coalesce into megamachines, with their parts made up either of human, mechanical or digital components - or, as today, all three. These megamachines grow and grow, pursuing ever more vainglorious goals - global economies, genetically modified organisms, interplanetary travel, the abolition of death - until they have swallowed cultures, devastated ecosystems and broken boundaries they didn’t even know existed. Then they fall; but like Sauron, they will always rise again. 

But, says Mumford - and here is the connecting tissue that links him to Spengler to Macintyre to McCarraher - no society would go to all this effort for purely material ends. The Machine is not simply a vast, soulless mechanism for accruing material wealth. It is, in some deadly fashion, a sacral object in itself. It is its own enchantment:

Communities never exert themselves to the utmost, still less curtail the individual life, except for what they regard as a great religious end … where such efforts and sacrifices seem to be made for purely economic advantages, it will turn out that this secular purpose has itself become a god, a sacred libidinous object, whether identified as Mammon or not. 

This is what Mumford calls ‘the myth of the Machine’. Sometimes, in our age, we call it growth. Sometimes we call it progress. Sometimes we don’t need words, for no words can ever circumscribe a deity. But a deity it is - and throughout human history, from Egypt to Babylon, Sumeria to Rome, whenever the Machine falls, we work to build it up again, because at some level we need to hear the story that it tells us about ourselves:

The one lasting contribution of the megamachine was the myth of the machine itself: the notion that this machine was, by its very nature, absolutely irresistible - and yet, provided one did not oppose it, ultimately beneficent. That magical spell still enthrals both the controllers and the mass victims of the megamachine today.

That it does. Across the spectrum, from conservatives to liberals, Marxists to fascists, socialists to greens, believers to atheists, very little serious criticism of the enwtined myths of progress, growth and materialism will ever be heard in the public sphere. Ultimately, most of us accede to our sovereign, happily or otherwise. We are told daily, after all, that there is no realistic alternative to pursuing what, in Mumford’s telling, is the ‘fundamental animus’ of the Machine:

The effort to conquer space and time, to speed transportation and communication, to expand human energy through the use of cosmic forces, to vastly increase industrial productivity, to over-stimulate consumption, and to establish a system of absolute centralised power over both nature and man.

Conquest and expansion are the essence of the Machine. If it could be said to have an ideology, it would be the breaking of bounds, the destruction of limits, the homogenisation of everything in its pursuit of its continued growth. The end result of this is the flattening of the world - cultures, ecosystems, landscapes, traditions: any forms of resistance which limit the scope of its kingdom. The Machine is, to its core, anti-limits and anti-form: which means anti-nature, and thus anti-human. As such, its endpoint is already clear: it’s been explored in a thousand novels over the last centuries (I recently added my own effort to the list) and predicted and warned against by philosophers, film-makers and scientists. The Machine is aimed squarely at what C S Lewis termed the abolition of Manwhich is also the abolition of nature itself.

Those novelists and film-makers, issuing their now-quaint warnings about the eclipse of humanity by its own technology, had two curiously related characteristics: they were right, and their being right made no difference at all. We all nodded sagely at The Machine Stops, as we did at The Matrix ninety years later, and then we went home and nothing changed. The great genius of the Machine, and one reason for its flourishing, is that it can absorb its own critics, co-opt their criticism, and then, very often, commercialise it. And so pervasive are the Machine’s values that often those who promote what they imagine is an alternative find themselves doing its work.

Consider, as an example, the two great totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century. Communism and fascism - in reality variations on the same theme - sold themselves as alternatives to the ‘decadence’ of liberal capitalism. Both promised to create universalist utopian societies, but both were in fact Machine ideologies - arguably the purest manifestation of the politics of the Machine yet seen. Both were controlling, purist, materialistic, totalitarian, militaristic, imperial, technological and at least in theory ‘scientific’, manifesting the most twisted forms of pseudo- rationalism imaginable. Consider Lysenkoism or the measuring of skull shapes to determine racial makeup; watch a film of the Nuremberg Rally or a Soviet military march-past in Red Square. Here is the Machine, naked and unashamed.

But today’s milder forms of resistance are quickly co-opted too. I’ve written many times about how the once-radical green movement has been transformed into a Machine accelerant. A movement which began by calling for more simplicity and slowness, closeness to nature and simple living has mutated into a crusade to coat wild landscapes with glass and metal, abolish farming, further industrialise the global food supply, track and trace our consumption patterns and promote a vision of ‘sustainability’ that would make any Fortune 500 company smile.

The same has happened in other areas too. Here on Substack, ‘reactionary feminist’ Mary Harrington is exploring how the long crusade for recognition and fair treatment of women has become a device for filling the workforce with females while eroding the inconveniently un-Machine-like family unit: all at a profit, of course. As for that ‘social justice’ movement that keeps conservatives awake at night: its ‘radicalism’ just happens to be Machine-shaped, as the emergence of woke capitalism demonstrates. The new left, like the Machine which birthed it, longs to abolish all markers, limits, borders and boundaries, thus fitting seamlessly within the world made by the Machine. Hence the curious sight of a supposed ‘revolution’ which has the support of every major corporation and media outlet and the entire intellectual establishment of the West, and sees Big Tech shutting down its dissenters on a daily basis.

This is where we are. What, then, might we say are the essential characteristics of the current manifesation of the Machine, and what are its fundamental values? I’m going to take the risk of trying to list them here. This first draft comes with an open invitation to you to challenge it, or to add in anything that’s missing, in the comments section. Maybe together we can start to pin down the shape of our collective sovereign.

Characteristics

  • Centralised, hierarchical, large-scale society.

  • Effective bureaucracy, able to order and monitor citizenry.

  • Military/police might sufficient to enforce order.

  • Large population, mostly urban/metropolitan, reliant on Machine for survival and thus inclined to defend it.

  • Centrally-directed economy; powerful financial institutions.

  • Need to expand via colonisation (via military might, international treaties or commercial pressure) to secure further markets and resources.

  • Propaganda system, designed to normalise the above (‘the media’).

  • Drive to replace human parts with technological parts; expansion of technological system to all areas of life.

  • Advanced universal communications network, able to both propagandise and monitor/track population (‘the web’).

  • Sophisticated matrix of production and distribution of goods and services (‘the market’).

  • Economic ‘efficiency’ as sole/primary assessment of value. Commerce as primary driver and value of society.

Core values

  • Progress: central myth of Machine age. Material improvement in all areas is both necessary and inevitable. The future will always be better than the past.

  • Openness: limits are shackles, borders are offensive, self-definition is a right. All should be exposed, taboos must be shattered. Happiness will result from fewer restrictions.

  • Universalism: Machine values are applicable everywhere and should be available to everyone by right, given their liberatory nature (see above).

  • Futurism: Against the past, against place. History is to be escaped from, roots are limits to progress, and possibly darkly prejudicial.

  • Individualism: fragmentation of place-based communities, family units and other traditional ways of organising, in favour of the promotion of personal desire and ambition.

  • Technologism: new technology is benevolent and inevitable, and despite hiccups should be embraced. ‘Technology is neutral’ and has no telos: it can be used for good or ill.

  • Scientism: ‘Science and reason’ as ‘objective’, utilitarian arbiters of value.

  • Commercialism: market values infiltrate all areas of life; fulfilment is to be found through material consumption.

  • Materialism: Gods, ghosts and other backward superstitions are to be transcended.

  • TINA: ‘there is no alternative’. The Machine is ‘absolutely irresistible … and ultimately beneficent.’ Opposition is naive idealism at best, and a dangerous denial of its benefits to the needy at worst. Anti-Machine frustration directed into ‘art’, now a neutered and saleable commodity.

This is an imperfect start, but I’ll look forward to hearing what others can add or subtract. What I am trying to do here is start to pin down what constitutes our contemporary myth of the machine. Because the Machine is, before it is anything else, a myth - which is to say a story, promoting a set of values. Such a story will take external form if enough people tell it to each other, and believe it. The story of the Machine has been told for so long that we have forgotten it is a story at all.

About halfway through the first volume of The Myth of the Machine, pondering the various horrors this sovereign has unleashed, Mumford wonders why any of us put up with it:

Why this ‘civilised’ technical complex should have been regarded as an unqualified triumph, and why the human race has endured it so long, will always be one of the puzzles of history.

But this puzzle itself implies a faint light: a chink in the roof of the cavern that might point to some means of escape. If the Machine is a story, then the first step to its dismantling is neither monkeywrenching nor revolution - it is to stop believing the story. The second step is to stop telling it to others; and the third is to begin the search for a better one.

To liberate ourselves, steadily, one human soul at a time, we simply have to walk away from the Machine in our hearts and minds, as the Israelites of the Exodus walked away from its original master, Pharaoh. Or, as Mumford has it in the conclusion to the second volume of his masterwork:

For those of us who have thrown off the myth of the machine, the next move is ours: for the gates of the technocratic prison will open automatically, despite their rusty ancient hinges, as soon as we choose to walk out.

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Next time: the Industrial Revolution as Machine modernity’s creation myth.