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Our mechanical life.


“Men are grown mechanical in head and heart, as well as in hand…Their whole efforts, attachments, opinions, turn on mechanism, and are of a mechanical nature.”

THOSE ARE THE prophetic words of Thomas Carlyle nearly two hundred years ago. “There is no end to machinery,” he wrote, and indeed, there seems to be no end to dominance of the digital-mechanical in modern life. Matthew Arnold a few decades after Carlyle made the same point: “Faith in machinery is…our besetting danger; often in machinery most absurdly disproportioned to the end which this machinery, if it is to do any good at all, is to serve; but always in machinery, as if it had value in and for itself…”

Everywhere the digital-mechanical is replacing the human: self-service at the supermarket; pay at the pump in filling stations; machines at the bank for paying in cash as well as drawing it out; online banking, online payment of bills; money that never runs through your fingers. The replacement of flesh and blood continues. The human interface in daily transactions is vanishing.

Many of the improvements brought about by mechanisation are undoubtedly good. What is decidedly not good is how the concept of mechanical process as the best or the only way of conducting life has lodged itself in the human mind, especially the bureaucratic mind. It is now the default setting for many individuals as well as groups. If the theory of retired psychiatrist and clinical consultant, Iain McGilchrist (in The Master and his Emissary), that in modern society the left hemisphere of the brain is achieving dominance over the right, is correct, a lot of this conjecture falls into place; and does not bode well for society.

To paraphrase in the most crass of layman’s terms: in the left hemisphere everything is categorised, labelled and made abstract: to the mind dominated by this hemisphere these assembled bits don’t just represent the world, they are the world, in the same way that a map is construed as the world. Emotion, context, complexity, the metaphorical and the contradictory nature of much human experience in its wholeness are alien. It’s all a matter of calibration, measuring, computing and ticking of boxes.

Individual initiative and power go out the window where this kind of thinking prevails. The whole culture gets homogenized. The map becomes the substitute for the world and nothing is allowed to disturb its processes. Should reality stick its untidy and unruly head out of the paperwork then the cognitive dissonance of the operators goes into overdrive to bat it down again: reality itself is at fault, causing the trouble, and it must be quashed, on an individual basis if necessary; more tweaks to the system are added, more regulations, more paperwork, more keytapping digital pointlessness.

The eccentricity that Mill praised…is steamrolled out of existence. Just look at what happens to people with views that dissent from the prevailing fashions on just about anything.

The effect is a levelling down, a crushing dullness, the draining of all genuine intellectual and creative endeavour. Eccentricity and individualism are abhorred. Conformity is most in demand. The eccentricity that Mill praised as a beacon of individual liberty and therefore of social prosperity, is steamrolled out of its existence. Just look at what happens to people with views that dissent from the prevailing fashions on just about anything.

The worrying thing is that this mindset is universal. We can see it in the corporate sector with its drive to cut costs and increase profits, to replace humans with machines where possible, but, lest those of a progressive bent smugly intone their cliched critiques about the dehumanising nature of capitalism and neoliberal economics let them be aware that their own so-called thinking is nothing more than the groaning of the thoroughly mechanical mind.

Let them look at the state education system, which whatever tinkering conservative politicians have employed over the decades to rectify it, is still completely dominated by left wing educationalists, teachers, lecturers and unions – and increasingly bureaucrats. The secondary education system has been transformed into a factory-style assembly line of atomised bits of material. Everything is in chunks (“Bytesize”, as the BBC’s own education website labels itself), doled out, measured and marked with nothing but the passing of the test accounted as important.

It’s no wonder so many young people leave school semi-literate and semi-numerate. How can you teach literature, for example, when you have to present pupils with fragments of a book only, and are actively discouraged from getting them to read the whole book? (I have two examples of this told to me recently.) The sense of any area of knowledge with a cohering wholeness is being destroyed; the importance of the interconnectedness of things is weakened. All that matters is getting the grades up and getting them in the largest amounts possible. It is difficult to foster independence of thought in such a system.

So we can see at work two of the forces working to destroy the universities (mainly the humanities — STEM subjects may resist more successfully) as well as the secondary schools, ie the increasing bureaucratism of their governance on one hand and on the other a continuing intellectual corruption by leftist ideology.

Whether there will be a tipping point at which this over-mechanicalisation becomes unworkable, I don’t know. In the meantime I’ll continue to use cash as much as I can, be as obtuse as possible in the face of box-ticking admin demands, interact with humans rather than machines, and insist that students read the whole damn book not just bits of it. I may even tell them about Thomas Carlyle.

Currente Calamo columnist, poet and writer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent book is Albion Days (perennisperegrinator press).

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