Jolly Old England stopped being so “Jolly” and “Old” towards the end of the 18th Century (forgive me if my unreliable and mostly obfuscatory memory deludes me) as the multiple applications of the steam engine became more and more apparent. At the time the country was in a bit of a pickle because of advances in farming techniques causing the illustrious British free peasantry to migrate to large population centres. Of course, there were no jobs there either, and the peasantry mostly brought with them misery and squalor.
The Marvellous Contraption known as the Steam Engine fixed that. It, with it the invention of the Factory, could produce goods at a higher rate than they could be if made entirely by hand. Automated, steam-powered gizmos would do the work, and skill was no longer required to construct, say, a table or a tapestry. All that was required was a person to go through the motions – certainly easier labour than back-breaking ditch-digging or what-have-you.
The factory doors swung wide, and in poured the desperate masses, who found that they couldn’t farm in the cities any more than they could from the outside of what once was their property fence. Of course, like many other social innovations, the Factory and the Steam Engine was to ultimately worsen the state of the poor, and indeed, all humanity.
What happened in the late 18th Century was not the grand Revolution of Industry that social science teachers laud so warmly. I mean, it was a Revolution, but it was more, too. When the first peasant, country-fresh with the smell of pig-shit lingering about his breeches, sat down at the Loom and pulled the lever, he was turning the switch that began the Age of the Machine.
When he sat down, he became one with the machine. It was a mutual acknowledgement of need – the poor man was useless without the Loom – he had no skills that could be of use. The Loom was useless without the man – it couldn’t guide its creations entirely, and it couldn’t repair itself or keep itself functioning alone. Together they were a great force of creation. And even though all the man could do (or had to do) was pull a lever and feed the cotton into the machine, they could create wondrous tapestries. They functioned, they earned, they were valued more than the sum of their parts were.
It went well for a time, but the seeds of the Great Age of Machines were being laid there on those Cotton House floors... seeds that were to leave England and spread all over the Earth, and bringing the lives of all Man under their scope. You see, it mattered not who the man was at the lever. The Loom was the essential part of this equation, and although it wasn’t able to work alone, it didn’t demand much skill of the man who pulled that lever, and therefore, the man became the replaceable part. Men were worth less than the machinery – if a man died, what of it? Another could pull the lever. So men died in unsafe conditions, and the face of the Loom grinned mechanically in the half-light of that dawn of Ages.
This seed of the Dawn created a mindset in all men, that was to cheapen the worth of life and labour. Machines arose everywhere, always becoming more self-sufficient and more capable of working with less human intervention. Life became tougher for the uneducated, as more and more technical skills were to become required to work with the Machine – a terrible metal beast that was now invading all areas of human endeavour, growing larger, stronger, more indispensable. The way to success was not now to know as much about as many things as possible, but now to know as much as possible about one thing – one skill that would be an indispensable part in the working of some machine.
The sun is high in the sky in this Age of the Machines, and it lights a world that is a network of human components, standing atop a great, world spanning Machine, each trying to find a place to fit in to the Machine so they are indispensable. For, the surface of the Machine is a barren, lifeless place, with little food or comfort for those who cannot get inside its workings. As the sun beats down on those who wait in line for a lever to pull – any lever – the ‘skilled’, the graduates, have found their niche in the Machine – maintaining, repairing, upgrading. All the unfortunate and the uneducated are now, as in 1790, an arm, an eye, an ear – one component that the Machine needs, that anyone can do. They are in a dangerous position, as they are replaceable, and the human components of the machine who choose who will pull these anonymous levers and feed the cloth, can be removed the second they become weak or if someone will pull that lever for cheaper.
As the Machine gets faster, smarter, more connected and more self-sufficient, it will increasingly be able to handle many of the higher functions that skilled people are currently employed for. As the sun rises yet higher over this scene, the fortunate who are in a position to train themselves enough not to be left baking on the surface, looking for a lever, will have to do so – specialise, specialise! Make yourself the only person in the world who can do your job, if possible, and you’re safe. So long as someone else doesn’t find a way to make your specialty redundant.
Over-specialisation breeds in weakness, however. And we see this today in society, where people and their machines are worth so much less than the sum of their parts than ever before. Remove a programmer from his computer, and he’s a dead man on these mean streets. Get a petrochemical engineer and ask him about any field of human knowledge not specifically related to his employment, and you’ll most likely get a blank stare. In this Age, people fear being made redundant so much that they specialise to the point where they CANNOT work without their own piece of the Machine – except to pull that cursed lever which they study so hard to avoid. And as they over-specialise in this way, become parts of human watch-works clinging desperately to a niche under the metal surface and away from the Sun, they lose track of what makes us humans. They lose history, culture, identity and language. They lose perspective. They lose art, they lose life, they lose hope, and they inevitably lose themselves.
We no longer prize knowledge in this world if it can’t find you a place in the Machine away from that lever and away from the surface. That is, unless it is vocational, it’s worthless. Spit in the eyes of the traitors who spout this foul soul-toxin – the mechanical voice of the Loom grating through fleshy lips. The man decrying his own humanity.
Take your place as hardware in this Machine, or wander the surface, a ghoulish shell, a being of no worth. I reject this philosophy, and speak my own – that the only Good in this world is Knowing, and knowing as much as possible at that. The concept that humans exist only to make a “living”, to service this Machine that was meant to service us, is a dark reflection on the mentality of general humanity.