Nicholas Carr’s forthcoming The Glass Cage, about the ethical dangers of automation, inspired me to read George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), which contains a lengthy tirade against the notion of progress as efficiency and convenience. Orwell declares that “the tendency of mechanical progress is to make life safe and soft.” It assumes that a human being is “a kind of walking stomach” that is interested only in passive pleasure rather than work: “whichever way you turn there will be some machine cutting you off from the chance of working — that is, of living.” Convenience is social control, and work, for Orwell at least, is the struggle to experience a singular life. But the human addiction to machine-driven innovation and automation, he predicts, fueled apparently by a fiendish inertia that demands progress for progress’s sake, will inevitably lead to total disempowerment and dematerialization:
There is really no reason why a human being should do more than eat, drink, sleep, breathe, and procreate; everything else could be done for him by machinery. Therefore the logical end of mechanical progress is to reduce the human being to something resembling a brain in a bottle.
Basically, he sees the Singularity coming and he despises it as a “frightful subhuman depth of softness and helplessness.” And there is no opting-out:
In a healthy world there would be no demand for tinned foods, aspirins, gramophones, gaspipe chairs, machine guns, daily newspapers, telephones, motor-cars, etc., etc.; and on the other hand there would be a constant demand for the things the machine cannot produce. But meanwhile the machine is here, and its corrupting effects are almost irresistible. One inveighs against it, but one goes on using it.
This “brain in the bottle” vision of our automated future, Orwell surmises, is why people of the 1930s were wary of socialism, which he regards as being intimately connected ideologically with the theme of inevitable progress. That connection has of course been severed; socialism tends to be linked with nostalgia and tech’s “thought leaders” tend to champion libertarianism and cut-throat competitive practices abetted by technologically induced asymmetries, all in the name of “innovation” and “disruption.”