I get into a lot of conversations these days about how we used to consider technological progress good by definition, but now — despite or maybe because of the farther-progressed-than-ever state of our technology — we feel a bit wary about it all. We line up for the latest smartphone, but as we do we reflect upon how it increasingly looks we’ll never line up for the jetpacks, flying cars, and moon colonies we dreamed of in childhood. We enjoy our phones, but we resent them as well, remembering those long-ago assurances that technology would increase our leisure, not fill it with anxiety about insufficiently rapid responses, nagging leftover work, and missed-out-on information of every kind. When did the trust between our tech and ourselves break down?
Not so recently, it turns out — or rather, not just recently. The human-technology relationship goes through its good times and its bad patches, and at any given time some of us like the direction its progress looks to be moving in more than others do. You may have heard of one particularly well-known technological critic of the early twentieth century, a cartoonist by the name of Rube Goldberg. More likely, you’ve heard of the preposterously elaborate machines he drew in his cartoons.
One representative example, an “automatic suicide device for unlucky stock speculators,” involves the ring of a phone (“probably a message from your broker saying you are wiped out”) which wakes up a dozing office manager whose stretching hits a lever which launches a toy glider which hits a dwarf whose jumping up and down in pain works a jack which lifts up a pig to the level of a potato, and when he eats the potato… well, in any case, the process ends up, some time later, pulling the trigger of a gun mounted right over the tickertape machine. “If the telephone call is not from your broker,” Goldberg notes, you’ll never find out the mistake because you’ll be dead anyway.
“The surrealism of Goldberg’s cartoon inventions,” writes Brendan O’Connor at The Verge, while meant to entertain, “also reveals a dark skepticism of the era in which they were made. The machines were symbols, Goldberg wrote, of ‘man’s capacity for exerting maximum effort to accomplish minimal results.'” They had a strong appeal in that “era of increasing automation, and increasing concern about automation, exemplified in Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 masterpiece Modern Times. One of the film’s dystopian curiosities, the Billows Feeding Machine, invented by Mr. J. Widdecombe Billows, has a distinctly Rube Goldbergian quality to it — this is likely no coincidence, as Goldberg and Chaplin were friends.”
In the clip at the top, we see the Billows Feeding Machine in action, not quite fulfilling its promise to “eliminate the lunch hour, increase your production, and decrease your overhead.” The disappointed higher-ups render their verdict: “It’s no good — it isn’t practical.” A modern-day J. Widdecombe Billows would know better how to respond to them: it’s still in beta.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.