The Violence of Machines

“Industrialism…has been from its beginnings in a state of riot. It is based squarely upon the principle of violence towards everything on which it depends, and it has not mattered whether the form of industrialism was communist or capitalist; the violence towards nature, human communities, traditional agricultures, and local economies has been constant.”

Wendell Berry, ‘In Distrust of Movements’

Christians believe that human beings are broken. On the one hand, we’re dust breathed into life by Love, capable of compassion, generosity, kindness, and joy. On the other hand, we’re fallen creatures who bend our selfish wills against our Creator, creation, and each other. Nobility and savagery sit side by side in every human heart.

In one of his sermons, Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, portrays these two tendencies as opposing impulses of identity: to identify ourselves either with or against the other. In our better moments, we identify ourselves with God, with the created world, and with our neighbours–this is love. In our worse moments, we identify ourselves against God, against the created world, and against our neighbours–this is pride. The first is an act of peace, the second an act of violence.

As the quote from Wendell Berry at the start of this post argues, from one perspective the Industrial Revolution can be seen as being based on ‘the principle of violence towards everything on which it depends.’ People like C.S. Lewis, Jacques Ellul, and R.S. Thomas tried to draw people’s attention to the dangers of the ‘Machine,’ by which they meant the development of technological means for imposing the human will on more and more of the natural world. Through technology, so the old rhetoric goes, humankind can break through the limits imposed on us by nature and fashion a world of our own making. Nature was no longer something with which we had to cooperate (like it or not) but that which must be conquered and dominated for our own good–be that economic prosperity, public health, the enlightenment of ‘backwards’ people, or the enrichment of the powerful.

Throughout his many essays, Berry points out the absurdity of believing that violence enacted on the present will lead to a better future,

“We do as we do, we say, ‘for the sake of the future’ or ‘to make a better future for our children.’ How can we hope to make a good future by doing badly in the present, we do not say. We cannot think about the future, of course, for the future does not exist: the existence of the future is an article of faith. We can be assured only that, if there is to be a future, the good of it is already implicit in the good things of the present.”

Or as Jesus says, ‘Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.’ One of the reasons for this is that because the future is only a fiction, it can be used to excuse all sorts of villainy in the present. The ends justify the means. After two hundred years, we’ve become thoroughly accustomed to the idea of putting up with ugliness and inhumanity in the present in the belief that we’re thereby progressing towards a bright future. That future will assuredly be achieved by identifying ourselves against the world in which we belong and overcoming it.

Once we transcend distance, physical limitations, and death itself we can finally live like gods.

One of the most influential passages I’ve ever read (and have quoted in 2 of my 3 books) comes from a letter that J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote to a fan. He distinguished between ‘Art’ and ‘Magic’, the first found among his Elves and the latter, most blatantly, with Saruman and his attack on Fanghorn and later his corruption of the Shire.

While Art grows from a desire to be ‘sub-creative’ that is ‘at once wedded to a passionate love of the real primary world’, Magic ‘rebels against the laws of the Creator’ and leads ‘to the desire of Power, for making the will more quickly effective,–and so to the Machine…By the last I intend all use of external plans or devises (apparatus) instead of development of inherent inner power or talents–or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills.

J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 131

What does all this mean in the present? It seems to me that the mounting fears of the present–pollution, climate change, soil erosion, growing inequalities, creaking institutions, loss of social cohesion, and even the managerial revolution–are pressing us powerfully to examine ourselves root-and-branch. For all of our achievements of the past 200 years, we have created–are creating–a world that seems increasingly unsustainable. As I used to say to my undergraduate students in my class on the medieval church: ‘Say what you will about medieval society, at least it could have lasted until the end of time. The jury’s still out on the longevity of our own society.’ Even the late Stephen Hawking was less than optimistic about humanity’s current trajectory.

But the future, as I said, is a fiction. What we do know in the present is that we and the world aren’t getting along very well. The violence of machines and systems imposes itself on the world as we develop at a frantic pace new means of bending that world to our individual and collective wills. And having banished the sacred, we find it hard to explain why we must accept sensible limits on how we live or with what we may tinker.

The answer to this isn’t to complain about the world or despair about the future. It’s certainly also not to demonize others, to add to the cacophony of debate and discord. This is our time; this is our present. Armed with the wisdom of the past, we must do what we can to live well in the present. Part of that old wisdom is the conviction that living well means embracing the virtuous life by upholding all that is good, true, and beautiful. Coming together with our neighbours to nurture that ‘good life’ is the best way for each of us to plant the kinds of seeds that may blossom and bear good fruit for the future.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

 

 

 

 

 

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