Dignity and the Elegant Design

Our digital century, yet in its early adolescence, has made much of human possibility and been proud to do so. This is a matter of affection as much as accomplishment. We love the idea of our unlimited potential and laud any achievement that seems to confirm it. Striving atop the shoulders of a long line of strivers, we pride ourselves in having pushed back the horizon of human limits with wave after wave of technological advance. Truly, the current pace of innovation is staggering, but it seems learning what we can do has not been accompanied by much growth in knowing better than to do some of it. The only limit we have truly pushed back, then, is the limit of restraint. Should possibility be our only measure? It’s a difficult question to address because technology is so immersive and our lives so pervaded by it that it proves very difficult to reflect on such a broad dilemma with any sort of perspective. Such reflection requires us to slow down, though slowing down is almost exactly what technology as a whole seems to be designed against. It becomes a scary proposition, like jumping out of a speeding car, to ask what technology might go on doing while we pause to take account of what we have already done with it. Nonetheless, thinking on the run is the source of much of the trouble with technology, so we must take things at a different speed in order to think differently.


Maybe the best way to slow the speed of time forward is to go backward. The terms of our relationship with technology seem to have been defined largely by and during the Industrial Revolution. The very word ‘revolution’ is telling. Revolution occurs and urgently when present tyranny has become intolerable. Out of desperation, people tend to reach for hurried and effective answers and so revolutions are marked by haste and efficiency usually above all other considerations, most of all above foresight and long accounting. The tools of revolt are rarely finessed and often brutal, and they have a frightening tendency to re-set our sense of normality. Conceived, purportedly, by necessity, a means to power is rarely set aside once power is gained, and this gradually compounds. The Industrial Revolution has been with us for some time, ever re-defining the normal as it seeks to topple an intolerable tyrant: work.

I think it’s fair to say that, for the past 300 years, the arc of human society has been bent into place by engineers, the authors and perfecters of machines. Curious and restless, an engineer is the kind of person who always believes in a better way and sees the world as a toolbox for finding it. Surely this kind of inventive person has always been around at least as long as there have been problems. The actual word ‘engineer’, though, is an industrial term for one who makes engines. It is a revolutionary word. This kind of mind, hand in hand with a machine age, has posed a problem. There has been a tipping point sometime not too far past when mechanical solutions to human problems became increasingly powerful and problematic. A matter of multiplication rather than addition that eventually got out of hand. It probably all starts with fire.

So much energy is wasted in a fire, just flying into space as haphazard heat and light. A pot of water, though, can capture some of that energy and store it. Better than air, anyway. As the water fills with energy, though, it gets restless. Its molecules fidget. Soon, that energy becomes uncontainable and the water cuts loose into a boil, escaping the pot as steam. This steam, being a hot gas, wants to expand and that tendency can be exploited by keeping the steam bottled up where the energy builds again, this time as pressure. Direct this pressure through a narrow outlet and it will rush out with enough force to, say, drive a piston. By unlocking the chemical codes of combustion and strong alloys[1], people gave themselves the basic building blocks of the steam engine.

This engine would seem to be an elegant design for making the most of the available energy. One thing is certain: the engine gave people the equation for turning energy into power. We sent that power churning through soil, sea, forest, and mountain with more force than a hundred men could muster. The engine set the stage for vast acreages plowed in a day, forests cleared in weeks, whole mountaintops sliced away. The dawn of this time of unprecedented haste and efficiency exploded harvest to the scale of outright plunder, all thanks to the capability of doing more with the effort of fewer creatures. This image of an array of machines ripping open, churning up, and otherwise obliterating places that were once good enough in order to make them more ‘exploitable’ is telling. Our capability shadowed by our culpability.

I can think of two gaps in the equation of the engine besides the obvious waste and pollution. Speed and effortlessness. Speed is a pressing danger. Anything done quickly must eventually be done un-carefully. This goes for plowing a field, building a house, assembling a car, waging a war, all the way down to running down the hall which, conveniently for me, is easy to make sense of. If you run fast enough and the architecture of the house is interesting enough, eventually you will come to a turn you simply can’t navigate at speed. If, though, you have enough momentum to somehow plow through a wall and keep going more or less unharmed, it is awfully tempting to consider this new ‘shortcut’ a dependable success. This illusion of success is enhanced by the extreme difficulty of effective hindsight while running at full tilt and is as such emboldened by its own half-blind measures. If going fast can work out so well, how about going faster[2]? Another perk of high speed is the rate at which you can leave slowpokes—those people who might stop and notice the damage you caused—out of earshot.


There have been plenty of slowpokes in every arena through which the engine of the Industrial Revolution has sped rough and disastrous. People who had built a culture of doing things well and who saw the walls busted down to do things quickly, with the speed an engine affords. Speed, then, leads to effortlessness. This issue of effortlessness is mostly a sadness born from creatures that have good effort to give yet are wasted and ultimately devalued, literally stripped of their economic value. Their fate has been easy enough to predict. Where is the fabric made by hand at the loom? It doesn’t exist. Those looms don’t exist. It’s all mechanical now.

I bring up looms to answer the objection that is surely cropping up by now. That I am afraid of technology and of progress. Stuck in the past. A Luddite. We ought to be clear, though, that the actual Luddites weren’t afraid of technology. They were afraid of losing their jobs. They were afraid of that black abyss that awaits anyone the machinery of the economy deems obsolete. Above that fear, though, they were angry at the indignity of their careful skill and effort being sold so cheap to a dumb machine mindlessly churning out a product, a product that a Luddite’s deft eye would spot as inferior. Those men were singled out to bear everyone’s loss, and for what gain? Sure, they could just re-train. This is an olive branch often extended to people scrapped in favor of something that is cheaper because it is less human and therefore less needy: to be melted down and re-cast as another eventually disposable part. A long enough cycle of retraining and being erased, though, just starts to look cruel. Can’t we at least admit here that progress is just as much a tyrant and just as willing to cage people as tradition? Could we admit it if a machine could affect a precious ego and design animated web logos in a coffee shop, deliver a TED talk, or host a podcast about the latest gizmos and so render even the lusted-after jobs of the so-called creative class obsolete?

You might say no. Those jobs can’t be automated. They need a human touch. So might have said the Luddites. And how many tech startups are hard at work disproving the necessity of the human element entirely? Ask not for whom the algorithm tolls; it tolls for thee.

At issue here is not the possibility of automation but the dignity of automation. Or, more pointedly, the inherent dignity of work for a person and what that says about de-humanizing work through automation. Sadly, before this question could even be asked, the bell of possibility has been rung and shows no signs of un-ringing. There is hardly a field of hand work that has not been significantly if not completely taken over by machines. What little remains has been so cheapened or otherwise made so hazardous as to be found in only the most low-wage[3] regions of the world. We have been so thoroughly convinced to hate work that we have sold it out from under ourselves in exchange for cheap goods. It’s hard not to think of Esau and that bowl of lentils. Having our appetite tugged upon, we all-too-willingly gave away something that was more important to us that we realized: the ability to work in ways that put something in our hands besides a paycheck. It would appear to be too late to speak up for the dignity of humanized work. Where, then, can we still find dignity to defend? To begin in this direction, we must leave steam power behind.

Part II   |   Part III   |   Part IV

*     *     *

[1] Iron, when heated over a fire (there’s that flame again), expands. Its molecules open up and, by the right process, carbon atoms can slip into the empty space. When everything cools and contracts, the carbon is locked into the iron. Voila! Steel. Steel can take a beating, for instance from a billion molecules of steam trying to get out of a boiler.

[2] Some people find speed intoxicating and some find it terrifying. The rest fall somewhere in the middle where speed is just a thing they use more or less unconsciously, just keeping up. That’s why the general rate of traffic is set by the fast lane.

[3] This would have to include the service economy, one of the last holdouts of manual labor, at least in the American and European economies, where people make stuff like food and drink and hotel beds. However, with often grueling schedules and the aforementioned low wages, these jobs are no picnic and their turnover rate is high.


One thought on “The Imagination Engine, pt. I

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