From awe to impatience with machines

Christine Rosen at InCharacter.org writes about our relationship with machines. Her argument: people in the 1800s and early 1900s were awed by machines while today, “the more personalized and individualized our machines have become, the less humility we feel in using them.” Rosen suggests how this came about:

The awe experienced by earlier generations was part of a different worldview, one that demonstrated greater humility about many things, not least of which concerned their own human limits and frailties. Today we believe our machines allow us to know a lot more, and in many ways they do. What we don’t want to admit – but should – is that they also ensure that we directly experience less.

A thought-provoking essay. Machines are now so common and cheap that I think we often hardly recognize how they have changed our lives. In fact, new machines need to be almost life-altering (or have some new image attached to them) to gain our attention. Many of our common machines, like the automobile or many kitchen appliances, haven’t changed all that much over time as they still perform the same basic functions.

Having a sense of awe about a machine might also help us recognize some of the downsides of using new machines. If we are used to computers, we don’t think much anymore about the implications of joining a site like Facebook. Or we may not consider how having a search engine like Google affects how we think or gather and process information. We tend to accept new machines today as inevitable signs of progress (and we are progressing, right?) rather than stepping back and assessing what they mean.

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