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City Places for City People
A Word from Richard Risemberg for December, 2002

Machine Tools

"La grandeur d'un metier est peut-etre, avant tout, d'unir des hommes...." "The greatness of a craft consists firstly in how it brings comradeship to men…."
Antoine de St.-Exupéry

December, 2002--A very pleasant part of our domestic ritual is that I often read aloud to my girlfriend at the end of the day. The last work we enjoyed in this way was Fitzgerald's crystalline translation of the Iliad and the Odyssey, a muscular music spelling the beginnings of Western culture. It was sad to come to the final page and realize we should have to wait for several years before we read them again.

But we have a new project now: I am reading--for the first time in English--Antoine de St.-Exupéry's wonderful "Wind, Sand, and Stars" (original title: Terre des Hommes). St-Ex's writing is also both gusty and poetic, though not epic in the way of Homer's; and being a modern he addresses some concerns that are specific to our age. In particular he explores man's relationship to the machine.

St.-Ex was a pilot, one of the first airline pilots, in fact, beginning in the days of open-cockpit planes, when a professional pilot could be a poet and philosopher as well and no one thought it too terribly odd. As a pilot, he necessarily bore a love for the airplane, the tool of his craft, and he felt a disgruntlement when the technophobes of his time questioned the social value of machines, especially of the machines through which he expressed himself. He felt compelled to answer the accusations of the technophobes against his beloved airplanes, and against the machines around which centered guilds of men, of his compatriots. To this answer he devoted one chapter of the book.

Here he rages against those who rage against the machine, those who, in his time, accused the human love of machinery of being responsible for separating men from nature--or from their own nature.

In doing so, he argues for the beauty of machines, in particular for the poetic functionalism of the aircraft; he argues for the transparency of the machine, the quality which allows that "he who uses this machine should be able to forget it is a machine"; he avers that there is no essential difference between an airplane and a ploughshare, both being metal fabrications wrested from the earth by similar processes, or an airplane and a sailing ship, both being devices for engaging us in a medium not naturally our own; he argues that a machine is neutral in its values; and ultimately he argues that machines such as the airplane and the telephone (the examples he chooses) bring people together by collapsing time and space.

And he praises the fellowship that sharing knowledge of the machine brings to those who master them--not realizing that in an earlier chapter he has inadvertently contradicted himself.

He has not looked far enough outside the cockpit. While it is true that the airplane does indeed immerse the pilot in the problems of nature, it affects only the pilot thus. It is the pilot's function to engage the machine in natural forces to make it work, this being so whether the machine is a sailing ship or an airplane. It leaves the passengers uninvolved. But even for the pilot, there is an essential difference between a machine that derives all its impulses from nature, such as a sailing ship, and a fuel-powered machine which is meant to override, as much as possible, those powers of nature, and to realize our desires within an accelerated temporal scale that is outside both the conventions of nature and the conventions of our psychology--to enable and to formalize our impatience, as it were. And there is a difference between machines such as the ship, the plough, and the plane, which function within natural forces and environments, and machines such as the automobile, which requires that an artificial, highly controlled, and severely restricted environment be built for it, and which exists to insulate us from both time and sensation. And of course there's television, which presents you an image of a representation of an artifice, the reality of television being merely a wobbling of electrons.

The computer on which you are probably reading this can also be guilty of insulation, for it can present only simulacra, and if the manipulators of those simulacra (and I am one of those manipulators) present them as realities instead of as emblems, then we all do indeed suffer a diminishment of our humanity, and a lessening of our connectedness to the matrix of matters, forces, and personalities that comprise our actual environment.

How much time do we spend online viewing glorified advertisements? How much time do we spend in front of the television listlessly interpreting low-resolution representations of the whinings of trivial minds? How much time do we spend on the highway staring at blank expanses of concrete populated by tin pods confining our invisible, inaudible fellows? How much time in traffic jams cursing those who are cursing us for doing the thing we are all doing together in separate cells?

I use machines. I am using a machine right now to talk to you. I could call you on the phone and talk with you. It wouldn't be as good as meeting over coffee, where I could see you and we could share in the sensations of place, but it would be good. But I have friends who seem to be addicted to computer games. When one of them slips a CD into the computer and vanishes into a game for three hours, becoming rigid and unresponsive and finishing the session crabby and exhausted after fighting fierce battles against a program that cannot care whether it wins or loses, or whether it operates at all--the computer then is another opiate of the people, or an intellectual pornography. And even in an online "multi-player" environment, when you play with other people who live hidden behind masks and monikers, it builds the same delusion that does a dark American bar, where the patrons pretend to greet one another through the insulation of loud music and cheap booze…the presentation of emblems of fellowship across distances we fear to cross, the rickety rituals of fearful hearts.

In that earlier chapter of "Wind, Sand, and Stars" that I mentioned, St.-Ex describes taking up "conversations interrupted by years of silence, [resuming] friendships to the accompaniment of buried memories." He speaks of close friends who would see each other every two or three years, whose real commonality was perhaps only that they had becomes tools of the machine, exiles from the country of love. St.-Ex was a man to whom human relationships were paramount--yet they were rare in his life. Rare because the machine required of him so much of his time and attention. And the machine I speak of was not just the airplane, but that social machine which the airplane and the automobile and now telecommunications have made possible: the system constructed to send information and passengers quickly over the earth.

What have we gained by it? What have we lost?

We have gained speed but have lost time, for the time we spend hurrying about in machines we must spend in the limited environments we have made for those machines.

We have gained, in the case of the car, a derisory convenience, but lost the company of our fellows with whom we could be sharing the bus or tram or sidewalk.

We have made distance seem so trivial that we discount the distances we put between us, yet we rarely bridge them. It is so easy to move a thousand miles from our friends that we do it, and visit them every other year, or blather at them hurriedly during occasional phone calls, while ignoring our new neighbors.

We have made it so easy to establish the standard emblems of American culture everywhere that though we travel more, because we can, we experience less--because we can.

We have made it easier to move but more difficult to feel. We have traded forty minutes of pleasurable movement on our feet, or of conversation with our neighbors on the tram, for forty minutes of boredom alternating with frustration in a car, going farther to do what we used to do nearby, because of the sprawl the car both facilitates and needs.

We have all too often lost the very sensations of living, obscured as they are beneath the clutter of emblems that pass for communication, and distracted as we are by the demands of our tools, who master us as we master them.

There is hope, though. Here and there, good things do happen.

There is you, for example, who are reading this though it offers neither entertainment nor a good deal on this year's shoes.

There is my girlfriend, who also enjoys computer gaming and who loves her car as if it had been born of her own body…and who this morning got out her bicycle to ride two miles to the mall…in holiday traffic…in the rain…just because it felt better.

There is the growing realization, expressed among a thousand magazines such as this one, that the culture of convenience has made life rather dull and…inconvenient. That, as Gandhi once said, "There is more to life than increasing its speed."

Don't forget: we all will die soon enough. Where do you really want to go today?

Richard Risemberg

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