Sublime technologies

I agree, but I also protest: Henry Adams’ awe at seeing a 40-foot dynamo attractively displayed at the 1900 Paris Exhibition is one thing, but my guess is that an early-20th-century worker-with-dynamos might have eventually found them boring, utilitarian, only worthy of special emotion when they malfunctioned. And is awe of machines truly absent when Apple can call a new product “magical and revolutionary” and one can make a reasonably intelligent case that it might be? For my part, I do feel wonder along with fear and trembling on occasion over the mysteries of email, say nothing of free Skype conferences with friends in Africa, or the reasonable expectation that I can now find out most things I want to know nearly instantaneously.

In the early age of machines, they inspired awe by proving capable of doing what man could never do alone (such as power an entire factory), or what we once believed only man could do (play chess). Now we expect our machines to do just about everything for us, from organizing our finances to writing our grocery lists. Our machines not only ease the mundane burdens of daily life (cooking, cleaning, working), but also serve, increasingly, as both our primary source of entertainment and the means for maintaining intimate relationships with others. Henry Adams’s dynamo has been replaced by Everyman’s iPod, and awe has given way to complacence and dependence. Your computer’s e-mail program doesn’t inspire awe; it is more like a dishwasher than a dynamo. Nineteenth-century rhapsodies to the machines that tamed nature, such as the steam engine, have given way to impatience with the machines that don’t immediately indulge our whims.

from “Awe and the Machine,” by Christine Rosen, In Character, A Journal of Everyday Virtues, 1 March 2010

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