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The Humanizers & The Mechanizers

Posted: Thu, April 11, 2013 | By: Miscellaneous

by Franco Cortese

In this 4th part of his 1920s futurist work, The World, The Flesh and the Devil: An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul, JD Bernal gets a bit more cultural, and a bit more political. Individuation or Standardization? Which will be the fruit of technology? J.D Bernal was entertaining “Orwellian” possibilities long before 1948, and even longer before 1984

IV. The Devil

Why do the first lines of attack against the inorganic forces of the world and the organic structure of our bodies seem so doubtful, fanciful and Utopian? Because we can abandon the world and subdue the flesh only if we first expel the devil, and the devil, for all that he has lost individuality, is still as powerful as ever. The devil is the most difficult of all to deal with: he is inside ourselves, we cannot see him. Our capacities, our desires, our inner confusions are almost impossible to understand or cope with in the present, still less can we predict what will be the future of them. Psychology at the present day is hardly in a better state than physics in the time of Aristotle; it has acquired a vocabulary, the general movements and transformations of conscious and unconscious motives are described, but nothing more. Yet in the absence of scientific analysis something must be said, because all the changes I have predicted in the organic or inorganic world must, in the first place, start from some human psychological motive and effect themselves through the operation of human intellectual processes. We are obviously not in a position to predict the particular new orientations which a change in psychology would give to human development, beyond that which would result from the removal of what we know are inhibitory causes, so that here I will only attempt to estimate the effect of psychological forces in preventing or retarding the kind of processes outlined in the first two sections. The progress of the future depends no longer on physiological evolution but on the reaction of intelligence on a material universe. It will be hindered or stopped either by a failure in the capacity for maintaining creative intellectual thinking, or by the lack of desire to apply such thinking to the progress of humanity, or, of course, by both these causes together. Consider first the retarding factors that endanger the capacity for creative thinking. Some are apparent now. It is pretty clear that they are ineffective in stopping the course of thought at present, but they have not always been so in the past and we cannot be sure that they will not be so in the future. One of the most threatening retarding factors of the present is specialization, particularly as it is bound to increase with scientific knowledge itself. But it is doubtful whether specialization in itself is capable of bringing scientific thought to a standstill. It retards it in so far as the specialist is ignorant of current thought in other fields, and the remedy for this is obviously an intelligently operated system of distribution and grading of knowledge so that each worker may have the amount he requires outside his own field, in a form which can be absorbed with a minimum of mental effort. The problem is essentially that of communications to an army in action. After a rapid advance communications become disorganized, and there is a temporary halting until they are again in working order.

Such an organization of intellectual work for definite ends involves a fundamental change: it is analogous to the change from a good-gathering to a food-producing society. The modern scientist is a primitive savage. If he is active and enterprising he tracks his prey down alone or in small parties; if he is industrious and thorough he gathers and piles up the natural products around him, but for his success he has to thank not only his own skill and the lore of his craft but the richness of nature and the paucity of his companions. Good hunting will not last much longer, but the tilled ground is richer.

We shall be forced to attempt planned and directed research employing hundreds of workers for many years, and this cannot be done without risking the loss of independence and originality. This is a serious and fundamental obstacle but it may be overcome in two ways. It should be possible so to improve educational methods, that mental activity, the capacity to form new associations, should not be incompatible with the performance of routine work: that is, every research worker should be potentially able to add to and modify the whole course of the research and suggestions. At the same time it is certain that originality, organizing power and industriousness will continue as now to be very unevenly distributed; and it is an essentially social problem to make the best apportionment of functions, using for the more routine operations people who under present conditions would not be scientific workers at all, and using the organizers to translate into plans of action the incoherent ideas of the thinkers. Pedantry and bureaucracy - symptoms of an unintelligent respect for the past - are at present real dangers, but, once their genesis is understood, they can be made to vanish.


Specialization is brought about by the wideness of the field in which science operates, but as we go more deeply into nature the intrinsic complication of the phenomena increases and the modes of thinking used in ordinary life become more inadequate to deal with them. It is conceivable that the supply of minds capable of making any impression on these deeper problems may more and more fall behind the number required, and that all the efforts of education to produce ten genii where one grew before will be foiled by intrinsic difficulties in nature. It is impossible to know whether this will happen. One may guess, from experience of the past, that nature is never so complicated as it looks; that the value of theory and deductive thinking and the use of appropriate language and symbolism will reduce the difficulties in the measure that they are approached.

However they appear to the pessimist of the present day, it is not in specialization or complication that the chief danger to progress seems to lie: it is in something much more deep-seated and much more elusive. Bertrand Russell, in one of his Skeptical Essays, predicting the approaching end of the scientific age, suggests that people will turn from physics to metaphysics because the hope that the former held out is seen to be vain except to new, half-cultivated peoples. Perhaps after all it is hope that really determines whether an age is or is not creative. But the existence of hope in a society at any time itself depends on many unexplored psychological, economic and political causes. I do not think that the factors involved are of a mystical order, but that they require considerable disentangling.

There seem to be two psychological determinants in any culture: a crop of perverted individuals capable of more than average performance, and a mass of people effective not so much by their number as by their secure hold on tradition. In the normal state the perverse are dominated by the mass in two ways. Their mode of expression is dictated by the modes conceivable in the society; everywhere, even the most aberrant individual must conform to one of a small number of recognized types. The same type of mind that would now make a physicist would in the middle ages have made a scholastic theologian. Further, there is a process of selection in which the current tradition decides what is to be the relative value and effectiveness of each type. Thus, even, if at all times types are always produced in the same abundance, only the selected are effective, as meditative ascetics in India or energetic salesmen in America. The mass of the people, or more properly the ruling class, pay the piper and call the tune; genius is potent only when it fits the tendencies of the age. From this standpoint we are approaching the close of the period of respectable comfort which puritanism demanded and mathematics and handicraft produced. But this period may not end in a regression to the mediæval state through the ultimate dissatisfaction with science; before that happens science, raised to power by industrialism, may in its turn become the directing tradition.

Political and social events must also be effective, but not in a very obvious fashion. But political confusion and prolonged peace undoubtedly affect creative thought but whether they respectively hinder or help it is not at all certain. When one contrasts Athens, renaissance Italy and feudal China, on the one hand, with the Roman, the Spanish and the Chinese Empires on the other, war would seem positively to help mental activity. But as many examples could be found to the contrary. There may be something in the suggestion that wherever war appeared stimulating it was a war between approximate equals so that the disasters were seen to be due to human folly or perversity. In the case of of the Empires, on the other hand, peace was achieved at the price of a submission to authority, bureaucratic or spiritual, which deprived men of their self-reliance and creative ability. However this may be, historical factors tend to have somewhat of a cyclic nature, and in the long run to cancel each other out, although it is always possible that one age will destroy, or cause to be forgotten, more than the previous ages produced, and that a definite culmination may be reached in human progress. This may be closer than we think (if it is not already passed) and humanity may become static until it is destroyed by cosmic forces. Yet it seems more probably that we are on the point, owing to our material achievement of reaching another order of cyclic changes, which may lead us to the stars.


Whether an age or an individual will express itself in creative thinking or in repetitive pedantry is more a matter of desire than of intellectual power, and it is probably more the nature of their desires than of their capacities that will determine whether or not humanity will develop further. Now it would seem that the present time is a very critical one for the evolution of human desire. It is an age in which the nature of desire has been glimpsed at for the first time, and that glimpse enables us to see two very different possibilities. The intellectual life, both in its scientific and its æsthetic aspects, is seen no longer as the vocation of the rational mind, but as a compensation, as a perversion of more primitive, unsatisfied desires. Now the question arises is this perversion in the line of evolution, or is it a merely temporary, pathological process? If by a sounder psychology, a way of living more in accordance with nature, it should be found that the satisfaction of purely human - or, as we might almost say, purely mammalian - desires is capable of absorbing all the energy that suppression now forces into scientific or æsthetic channels, then the human race may well find itself statically employed in leading an idyllic, Melanesian existence of eating, drinking, friendliness, love-making, dancing and singing, and the golden age may settle permanently on the world. On the other hand it may that though the desire, the necessity to escape life on the paths of intellectual or æsthetic creation may be weakened by the application of an intelligent psychology, yet a corresponding freedom from the internal conflicts which now hinder both these forms of expression may more than compensate for what is lost, and we may find the capacity to live at the same time more fully human and fully intellectual lives. The latter alternative is more in line with the recent developments of Freudian psychology which divide the psyche into the primitive id, the ego which is its expression of contact with reality, and the super-ego which represents its aspirations and ideals. Rationalism strove to make the super-ego the dominant partner; it never succeeded, not only because its standard was too high to allow any outlet for the primitive forces, but because it was itself too arbitrary, too tainted with distorted primitive wishes ever to be brought into correspondence with reality. Naturalism, less definitely, aimed at giving the primitive wishes full play but equally failed because these wishes are too primitive, too infantile, too inconsistent with themselves to be satisfied even by the greatest license. The aim of applied psychology is now to bring, by analysis or education, the ideals of the super-ego in line with external reality, using and rendering innocuous the power of the id and leading to a life where a full adult sexuality would be balanced with objective activity. It is this alternative that makes the mechanical, biological progress that I have outlined not only possible but almost necessary, for a sound intellectual humanity will never be content with repeating itself in circles of metaphysical thinking like Shaw’s Immortals, but will need a real externalization in the transforming the universe and itself. Such a development could hardly leave unchanged the present types of human interests in art and science and religion.

It is here that prediction is most difficult and most fascinating. Under the influence of psychology it may well be that, just as all the branches of science itself are coalescing into a unified world picture, so the human activities of art and attitudes of religion may be fused into one whole action-reaction pattern of man to reality. The recognition of the art that informs all pure science need not mean the abandonment for it of all present art, rather it will mean the completion of the transformation of art that has already begun. Art expressing itself on one side in a kind of generalized architecture, massive or molecular, gives form to the infinite possibilities of the application of science; on the other a generalized poetry expresses the ever-widening complexities of the understanding of the universe, while religion clarified by psychology remains at the expression of the desire that drives man through the universe in understanding and hope.

It is not sufficient, however, to consider the absence or presence of desire for progress, because that desire itself will not make itself effective until it can overcome the quite real distaste and hatred which mechanization has already brought into being. This distaste is nothing to what the bulk of present humanity would feel about even the milder of the changes which are suggested here. The reader may have already felt that distaste, especially in relation to the bodily changes; I have felt it myself in imagining them. The effectiveness of these conservative feelings is the balance of two opposing factors. The changes in question do not come all at once: envisaged in broad outline in the sequence given, their nature would suggest that they follow each other with increasing frequency, as the past has already shown. Now the more rapid the environmental changes the less will the individual mind be able to adapt itself to them and the more violent will be its emotional reactions. At the same time these changes give more and more power to those groups of men which are involved in them and are bringing them about, so that, up to the present, in the war of the machines, the mechanists have always been the victors; but, of course, if the emotional reactions of the mass increased more rapidly than the power of the mechanists, the reverse would be the case. A severe crisis in mechanical civilization brought about by its inherent technical weakness or, as is much more likely, by its failure to arrange secondary social adjustments, is likely to be seized upon by the emotional factors hostile to all mechanism, and we may be closer to such a reversion than we suppose. To recent books representing very divergent standpoints, the last works of Mr. Aldous Huxley and Mr. D. H. Lawrence, show at the same time the weakening desires and the imminent realization of futility on the part of the scientist, and a turning away from the whole of mechanization on the part of the more humanely-minded. The same thought is echoed from still another angle in the writings of Mr. Bertrand Russell. They may be prophets predicting truly the doom of the new Babylon or merely lamenting over a past that is lost for ever. With these uncertainties before us, each must follow his own desires, accepting that his opponent may be as right as himself. The event will show which, but only after his own time.

There remains still another possibility: the most unexpected, but not necessarily the most improbable, the development of a di-morphism in humanity in which the conflict between the humanizers and the mechanizers will be solved not by the victory of one or the other but by the splitting of the human race - the one section developing a fully-balanced humanity, the other groping unsteadily beyond it. But this possibility involves the consideration of mechanical and biological factors, the synthesis of which, with the psychological, will be attempted in my concluding pages.


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