Monday, August 29, 2011

The Machine Dialectic

The idea of the machine dialectic is this:

Humans externalize themselves in their labor. So, a person produces something and that thing then serves to affirm that human's existence. The human can look at the thing and say happily, "I did that!--I made that!"

However, human nightmares are born also with human externalizations.

The thing can act back up on the person to shape him or her in ways detrimental to life itself.

The things we produce can become systematized in ways that dictate our interpretations, decision frames, and actions.

Consider the automation of labor. For two hundred years, machines have dictated labor patterns. The steam engine, the cotton gin, the lathe machine, etc all acted back up human labor to shape its forms and rhythms.

Those who benefit from labor's automation have always pushed forward its development.

Automation may require new skill sets for those still employed, but typically means less labor is required for production.

The assembly line, that most significant of inventions, de-skilled work by breaking down the work process into simplified steps while eventually replacing workers with automation.

The automation of work enabled by machines contributed to the great depression in the 30s and now as outputs exceeded the consumptive capacities of largely impoverished populations.

In the contemporary era, much production work has been automated and the remaining productive work is shipped on massive machines (powered boats) far away to where labor is cheap.

Our machines have produced a dearth of jobs and are contributing to social instability as a consequence.

By easing our food production, our machines have enabled massive population explosions.

But all these machines have also created a system that is acting back upon their makers by slowly killing them.

The energy needed to run the machines is poisoning the earth. Carbon-based fuels produce toxic waste when extracted, refined, and consumed. Nuclear power produces toxic waste when extracted, refined, and consumed.

The latest news about Fukushima is frankly terrifying. The meltdown of that terrible machine will kill many, many of us and other life forms.

Perhaps the most terrifying aspect of our machines is that we simply cannot live without them at this point in time.

An electro-magnetic pulse from the sun could potentially disrupt all of our electronics-based machines. Utter chaos would result because most of the world's populations would die within a few months without the machines that keep us fed while slowly sucking away our vitalities through their terrible effluents.

A meteor from space could have the same effect.

In the past, human reliance on machines was less extensive and so disruptions to our planet caused by objects or phenomena from space were more localized.

However, we have now extended our reliance on machines to such an extent that a major disruption to their operations would result in near complete societal disruption.

Yet these machines are not merely beneficent providers of life. These machines are poisoning our planet and us.

The dialectic of the machine has in fact materialized into a nightmare as the machines we have produced kill us slowly and could, in the event of their disruption, cause us to die rapidly.

Films such as Terminator, The Matrix, and 2001 have explored this nightmare scenario directly.

Yet, confronted with the reality of our indenture to the machines we have produced, we are utterly blind and so perhaps our destruction is guaranteed, whether it occur slowly through poisoning or rapidly through the chaos of disruption.

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