This Wonderful New Machine

The Argus – 4 September 1937

This Wonderful New Machine

    It is impossible not to be stirred to enthusiasm by the magnificent flight of the Russian aviators over the North Pole from the Old World to the New.
    Such an achievement, could they have foreseen it, would at one time have filled many optimists, not only with admiration for the courage and endurance of the aviators, but with new hope for the future of the human race.
    Shelley, for example, believed that the conquest of the air would bring the dawn of universal liberty.
    It is true that he was thinking not of aeroplanes (of which he had no prophetic vision), but of balloons. So ardent was his faith in the beneficence of the balloon, however, that he declared that the first shadow of a balloon that fell on the African Continent would bring about the universal annihilation of slavery.

    Unfortunately no machine is in itself beneficent. I admit that I never heard of any harm being done by a sewing-machine; but most machines can obviously be used both for good and evil purposes.
    The motor-car gives speed to the smash-and-grab thief as well as to the doctor. The printing press can be used either to disseminate truth or to keep a people in ignorance and incite it to self-destruction with sensational false-hoods. Wireless is a spreader both of truth and of lying propaganda.
    I suppose that the machines on which the optimists based most of their hopes were the machines that enabled men to travel faster and farther than their ancestors and the printing-press.
    Railway trains, steamers, and aeroplanes, it was thought, would bring the nations closer together and being closer together, they would love each other like brothers. People forgot, unfortunately, that Cain and Abel were brothers, and that Cain loved Abel none the better for seeing a lot of him.
    Linking the nations together by great transport systems is, I agree, a fine thing; but we shall only be deluding ourselves if we imagine that nations will necessarily like each other better if they can travel to each other’s shores at a pace that would once have seemed miraculous. The man who idealises transport dreams of a time when systems of transport will have made the world one great neighbourhood. But some of the most ferocious quarrels have been between neighbours.
    It might be argued with some plausibility, indeed, that, in the interests of international peace, the best thing that could happen would be a miracle that would make it quite impossible for the inhabitants of one nation ever to set foot on another nation’s territory.
    There is a real danger, unless men acquire sense, that all this wonderful progress in methods of transport will serve mainly to bring the nations within striking distance of one another. Transport, we are told, will help to make the world one place. It is also conceivable that it may help lo make the world one shambles.
    I am not, I may say, one of those people who hate machines with a deadly hatred. Temperamentally, I admit, I am inclined to dislike them when they are new. For some time I disliked the motor-car as the enemy of the horse. I certainly disliked the first gramophones, and the first gramophones deserved to be disliked. I w as rather sorry when wireless was invented.
    To-day, however, I would rather ride in a motor-car than in a hansom cab. I should not like to be without a gramophone. And my house would seem bare to me if it did not contain a wireless set.
    I am still a little sorry that the aeroplane was invented; but, in time, no doubt, even for me it will fit into the pattern of Nature like the train and the steamship. I might even become enthusiastic about it if I were sure that human beings had sense.

    But is there any evidence that human beings have sense, or that they are getting more sense as the world gets older?
    For some centuries it looked as if, despite innumerable set-backs, the human race was slowly progressing to a freer and more intelligent existence. People began to speak of progress as an almost inevitable thing, and it was taken for granted that, as progress continued, men would make a better and better use of the machines on which their progress so largely depended.
    That magnificent machine, the printing-press, for instance. “Teach people to read,” it was said, “and it will no longer be possible to keep them in ignorance.”
    It was not foreseen at the time that the printing-press could be a powerful instrument in the hands of a dictatorship, and that it could be used as effectively to educate a people into ignorance as to educate it into knowledge.

    The printing-press, as we see it used in various countries to-day, indeed, is a machine for keeping people who can read more ignorant in some respects than if they were illiterate. Newspapers in these countries are papers for keeping the news from their readers.
    Hence, while machines may be regarded as a blessing in an age of progress, I doubt whether they are anything to be thankful for in a country that has entered an age of retrogression. The misuse of machines is one of the greatest disasters that can happen to mankind; and in an age of retrogression they are sure to be misused.
    The chief problem of the world at present is to prevent the retrogression from spreading and to keep alive and strengthen a progressive civilisation in which men would make an intelligent use of the machines that, so used, would undoubtedly hasten the approach to the Golden Age.
    If retrogression becomes universal, however, all that the printing-press will give us will be lies In widest commonalty spread, and all that the aeroplane will give us will be bombs in widest commonalty spread—neither of them evidence of the beneficence of machinery.

    Fortunately human beings have a certain amount of sense in reserve, if not always visible. And I should not be surprised if it turned out that there is enough common sense in the world to make it fit before long to be trusted with the printing-press and even with the aeroplane.
    If only the human race progressed in wisdom as fast as it is progressing in mechanical achievement I should become almost an optimist about machinery.

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