All civilizations have been ugly. They could not well avoid it.
But this civilization is unique. Machines make it possible for this one to be beautiful, and yet it is in many respects indescribably uglier than the civilizations that have preceded it.
For this civilization, instead of using machines to free its finest spirits for the pursuit of beauty, uses machines mainly to produce factories—factories which only the more surely hinder quality-minded individuals in their warfare upon ugliness, discomfort, and misunderstanding.
Consider, for instance, the persuasive and eloquent apology for the factory which Mr. Glenn Frank has recently written and which he entitled The Machine Age.1 Among contemporary students of our civilization Mr. Frank has no superior in equipment and experience for the task of defending our “machine civilization” from those who venture to criticise it. He is a practical man, with years of business experience under Mr. E. A. Filene of Boston, the head of the largest men’s and women’s clothing store in the world. He is a forceful writer, with the skill in expressing himself to be expected from a man for so many years the editor of the Century. He is an erudite man, for he is the president of the University of Wisconsin, one of the best exemplars of the higher education in these machine-dominated states.
And yet Mr. Frank makes the serious mistake of taking a facile phrase, the machine age, too seriously. To speak rhetorically of a machine age is permissible if the inferences drawn are merely rhetorical. But it is not permissible to assume that “machine age” is a self-defining term and that no obligation exists for defining it as carefully as every general concept should be defined when it is used as a basis for broad generalizations. In the absence of definition I can truthfully say that I am heartily in favor of my kind of machine age and very much opposed to Mr. Glenn Frank’s kind of machine age. Plainly, if we are to understand each other, we must define our terms.
Mr. Frank fails not only to define adequately the term which gives his thesis its title but he uses it interchangeably with such expressions as “the machine,” “machine industry” and “machine civilization”—expressions which he likewise fails to define.
Certainly Mr. Frank, who says he has spent every hour which he could steal from his profession for the past ten years in research for a correct understanding of American civilization, ought not to fall into this error. And yet if so well equipped a student fails in this way to penetrate beneath surface appearances it is not surprising that defenders and critics of the machine age both make the same mistake.
It is a rather common mistake. Most of those who criticise the machine and nearly all of those who defend it show clearly that they do not really understand the machine.
The time has come to understand it. The time has come to begin the discussion anew with a better definition of the thing that occasions the dispute. Perhaps we shall then find ourselves a little nearer to the discovery of what is probably the wisest course of conduct upon which mankind may enter with respect to the machine.
In India, where criticism and defense of the machine is in the realm of practical politics, the failure to define the term “machine” has led to a considerable confusion among the followers and the opponents of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
Writing with deep appreciation of the revival of domestic spinning, Gandhi says:
Slowly but surely the music of perhaps the most ancient machine of India is once more permeating society.2
But in the same book in reply to the charge that he is opposed to machinery and progress he says:
Do I want to put back the hand of the dock of progress? Do I want to replace the mills by hand-spinning and hand-weaving? Do I want to replace the railway by the country cart? Do I want to destroy machinery altogether? These questions have been asked by some journalists and public men. My answer is: I would not weep over the disappearance of machinery or consider it a calamity.3
I have taken the liberty of italicising the line which makes it very plain that two different kinds of machines are referred to in the two quotations. In the first, Gandhi speaks approvingly of the growing use of the machines of one kind. In the other, he says that he would not weep over the actual disappearance of machines of another kind.
Evidently there is real need not only for a definition of the term “machinery” but also for the drawing of a distinction between the two kinds of machinery to which Gandhi referred.
According to the dictionary, very nearly every kind of mechanical contrivance which does not fall plainly into the category of tools, falls into that of machines. The dictionary makes it clear that the term “machine” is applicable to innumerable mechanical appliances, many of them antedating the application of power to machinery and many of them very different from those which are conjured up in the mind when we think of modern machines.
If we forget the dictionary definition of machines, it is very easy to forget that machines are very old; that machines were used to perform the work of the world long before the industrial revolution. What the industrial revolution brought upon us was not the machine but the application of power to the operation of machines. Power did not introduce mankind to the machine. Power merely revolutionized the manner in which man used the machine.
What is called the industrial revolution was really the economic, social and political changes caused by the transfer of machinery from the home and workshop to the mill and factory.
It is quite possible that the application of power to machinery resulted in a reduction in the amount of machinery used per capita. The spinning wheel was certainly a piece of machinery. It is extremely doubtful whether the number of spinning machines per capita is as great as the number when practically every home boasted several spinning wheels and many kinds of spindles. It is doubtful whether the number of looms per capita is as great as before the introduction of the power loom. It is doubtful whether the number of iron mills, flour mills, and lumber mills per capita is as great as when every neighborhood included a number of them.
What did result from the application of power to machinery was the gradual abandonment of machine production in the home and workshop and its transfer to the mill and factory. An even more unfortunate result was the fact that this transfer blighted the development of the technique of domestic production for nearly two hundred years. Only since the development of the internal combustion engine and of the electric motor has a technique of domestic production been developed which makes it possible for the family to compete with the factory.
It is easy to forget that the distinctive feature of our present industrial civilization is not so much our machine technique as it is our factory technique. It is the impressive use of machinery by the factory that makes us forget that there is a significant distinction between the domestic machine and the factory machine.
Factory machines, important as they are in our present civilization, are by no means the only type of machines which are characteristic of this age of ours. In the discussion of this question this other type of machinery is almost invariably overlooked. Critics and defenders of the machine age forget that our domestic machines include sewing machines, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, mangles, refrigerating machines, cake mixers, meat grinders, polishing and scrubbing machines, and of course automobiles. In addition, suburbanites and farmers use bread mixers, cream separators, fruit presses, steam pressure cookers, mechanical churns, automatic pumping systems, lighting plants, saw mills, grist mills, all of which are distinctly domestic and not factory machines. Obviously it is not these machines which Mr. Glenn Frank has in mind when he speaks of machines; of a machine age; of machine industry; of machine civilization. Yet these domestic machines are indubitably machines, often power driven, and they are indubitably characteristic of the times; perhaps even increasingly characteristic. The industries which are producing these domestic machines are growing rapidly, a growth of ominous significance for many non-essential and undesirable factories.
The distinction between the factory machine and the domestic machine is very important. For domestic machines are generally waging economic warfare with factory machines.
The domestic sewing machine is at war with the factory sewing machine.
The domestic washing machine and domestic mangle are at war with a whole group of laundry machines.
The domestic refrigerating machine is at war with the machines in the artificial ice-factories.
The domestic steam pressure cooker is at war with the machines in the canneries and packing houses.
The domestic cream separator and churn are at war with the butter-making machines in the creameries.
The domestic flour and grist mill is at war with the four mills, feed mills and cereal mills with their legions of brands and gayly colored cartons.
Even the family automobile and auto truck, by a logical extension of the term factory, may be said to be at war with factory machinery—with the railroads and the trolley cars which produce mass-transportation as compared to the individual transportation produced by the individually owned automobile. Young as they are as means of transportation, the automobile and the auto truck have already served largely to relegate the mass-producers of transportation to that heavy-hauling for which they are best adapted. As domestic machines are perfected, as they approach more nearly to the state of perfection to which the automobile has already attained, it is possible that they may tend to restrict factory production to that heavy-manufacturing to which the factory is best adapted.
Some manufacturers are well aware of this conflict between the two types of machines. The laundries of the country and the manufacturers of machines for use in laundries became alarmed several years ago at the great increase in the sale of domestic washing machines and mangles. Improvements in these domestic machines, especially the attachment of electric motors to them, threatened to check the abandonment of home washing upon which the future prosperity of the laundries and the manufacturers of laundry machinery was dependent. The of the largest manufacturers of laundry machinery in America, The American Laundry Machinery Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, began a general advertising campaign to urge the women of the nation to use laundries rather than to do their washing at home. A “Visitors’ Week Laundry Party” was made a part of this campaign and promoted by this company as an annual event. During this week the laundries of the country invite housewives to visit their plants. This one company spends about a quarter of a million dollars annually to keep America safe for the factory idea of washing our dirty linen.
Could anything more clearly demonstrate the fact that there is a fundamental difference between the two types of machines? Machinery is used by the laundries to destroy domestic laundering, but machinery is also being used in the home to maintain it. If home laundering survives, it will be because the domestic machinery has been sufficiently perfected to free housewives from the drudgery of old fashioned scrub-boards and sad-irons. They will have been freed from this drudgery just as surely as if they had turned to the laundries to free them though they would still have useful but not such heavy work to do in the home. If the laundry prevails, the housewives will be freed from wash tubs and ironing boards, but only on condition that many other women work in laundries. Who that knows something of the conditions of labor in our laundries will say that this would mean a net gain in the beauty of civilization?
This illustration can be duplicated in one field after another and in all cases the conclusion to which one is driven as to the net social result is the same.
If mankind is not to be made into appendages to machines, then domestic machines must be invented capable of enabling the home to meet the competition of the factory—the right kind of machinery must be used to free man from the tyranny of the wrong kind of machinery.
It is not the machine, therefore, but the factory which needs consideration at the hands of thoughtful people.
It is the factory, not the machine, which proliferates at a rate which man has found impossible to control, and which is so relentlessly mechanizing the whole of life and reducing all (except the relatively few blessed with administrative genius) to mere cogs in a gigantic industrial machine.
It is the factory, not the machine, which makes railroads and steamship lines absolute necessities and which makes city and country dependent upon our lines of mass-transportation.
It is the factory, not the machine, which is reducing all men and all commodities to a dead level of uniformity because the factory makes it impossible for individual men and individual communities to be self-sufficient enough to develop their own capacities.
It is the factory, not the machine, which destroys both the natural beauty and the natural wealth of man’s environment; which fiiis country and city with hideous factories and squalid slums, and which consumes forests, coal, iron and oil with a prodigality which will make posterity look back upon us as barbarians.
It is the factory, not the machine, which is responsible for the fact that we now make things primarily for sale rather than primarily for use; that we make things as cheaply as possible instead of as substantially as possible.
It is the factory, not the machine, which encourages wastefulness and which makes us measure products in terms of money instead of in terms of the labor involved in making them and the worth of the materials of which they are composed.
It is the factory, not the machine, which tends to decrease the number of men engaged in production and which condemns more and more people to the idiotic task of flunkeying for one another.
It is the factory, not the machine, which is responsible for the class antagonisms and for the foolish and often bloody strikes which disgrace the supposedly enlightened and progressive industrialized countries.
It is the factory, not the machine, which is destroying the skilled craftsman to whom work is a means of self-expression as well as a means of support.
It is the factory, not the machine, which creates the citizen who lacks a sustained interest in government; which destroys the initiative and self-reliance of men by making them into mere machine-tenders and clerks in factory offices.
It is the factory, not the machine, which has transformed man from a self-helpful into a self-helpless individual and which has changed mankind from a race of participators in life to a race of spectators of it. By destroying the economic foundations of the home it has robbed men, women and children of their contact with the soil; their intimacy with the growing of animals, birds, vegetables, trees and flowers; their familiarity with the actual making of things, and their capacity for entertaining and educating themselves. If we live in flats and hotels, eat from tin cans and packages, dress ourselves in fabrics and garments the design of which we only remotely influence, and entertain ourselves by looking at movies, baseball and tennis and listening to singing and music, it is due to the fact that we have applied the factory technique, not the machine technique, to sheltering, feeding, clothing, and entertaining ourselves.
Finally, it is the factory, not the machine, which is responsible for the extension of the soul-deadening repetitive labor that is the greatest curse of this civilization. Not only are the natural-born robots of the nation condemned to perform the same identical operation hour after hour and day after day, but those who are capable of creative work in the crafts, the arts and the professions are forced to conform to repetitive cycles because the factory leaves open no field in which they may exercise their talents and live. In some cases it entirely destroys the market for their services; in others, it limits the market to a small part of what it should be in a great civilization. We have a great market only for the mass-producers of culture—for mass-art: rotogravure; for mass-literature: newspapers and magazines; for mass-drama: movies. This is the ugliest crime of which the factory, not the machine, is guilty. Accepting the democratic dogma that the individual, no matter how gifted, must be subordinate to the welfare of the mass, mankind is forgetting that the destruction of conditions which make it possible for superior individuals to impose their tastes upon society means the destruction of any really desirable way of life for all of the race.
The trouble with Mr. Glenn Frank and the apologists for the factory is just this: they accept without question what is the most dangerous social myth of this factory-dominated civilization. They do not realize that the idea that mankind’s comfort is dependent upon an unending increase in production is a fallacy.
It is more nearly true to say that happiness is dependent not on producing as much as possible but on producing as little as possible. Comfort and understanding are dependent upon producing only so much as is compatible with the enjoyment of the superior life. Producing more than this involves a waste of mankind’s most precious possessions. It involves a waste of the only two things which man should really conserve—the two things which he should use with real intelligence and only for what really conduces to his comfort. When he destroys these two things, he has destroyed what is for all practical purposes irreplaceable. These two things are the natural resources of the earth and the time which he has to spend in the enjoyment of them.
When he produces more things than are necessary to good living, he wastes both of them; he wastes time and he wastes material, both of which should be used to make the world a more beautiful place in which to live, and life in it more beautiful than it is today.
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