What made human progress easier

Science reflects: What can science do?

The alarm clock is ringing. A quick look at the smartphone, answer the first message, then get up. Turn on the coffee machine, put the breakfast dishes in the dishwasher. With the driverless subway to the train station, in front of the university or to the library, print out the necessary online scripts for the lectures. Even in the first few hours of the day we use so many machines that sooner or later we have to ask ourselves the question: can we still manage without machines? Aren't we actually submitting to the dictates of machines and thereby catapulting ourselves directly into a “self-inflicted immaturity” [1]?


Because if the printer is broken, you don't have time to wait for the washing machine, the cell phone battery is empty or the internet doesn't work, we are quickly faced with a more or less big problem: We cannot bring the documents with us to university or don't wear our favorite T-shirt, have to wait until our cell phone is charged and still have a charging cable with you to be on the safe side, or call someone to check our internet. We can rarely repair our machines ourselves.
So we adapt our daily routine to the machines: We are at home when they are being repaired, we make sure that we have electricity available for our cell phones in good time, or that we are at home long enough for the washing machine to do our laundry. Most of the time we are not even aware of this adaptation - as long as all the machines around us are working, we often do not even notice it. But what does that say about us? How much do we really depend on machines already, and to what extent do they already dictate our lives? Nowadays nobody really wants to do without the convenience of modern technology and often cannot: Computer skills are required in almost all professions, studies are organized online and you quickly fall behind in groups of friends if you don't network with the same apps can. That is why we are beginning to counteract our adaptation to the machines that society - and thus ourselves - has forced upon us: by adapting the machines to us. For example, we develop power banks so that we can charge our smartphone at any time - even without a socket. But despite this (illusory) step towards independence, the dictate remains: The power bank also wants to be charged at some point.


But, may one or the other object, what exactly does this have to do with the extreme dependence of people on the machine in "The Machine Stops"? Should a practical smartphone and machines that make tasks easier, such as the dishwasher or washing machine, be equated with Forster's machine? After all, the differences are obvious: while people in Forster's dystopia are in the machine that determines their entire life, yes, without which they cannot survive, to which they are completely adapted, we control our machines ourselves and are ultimately too survivable without technologies - right? Who knows today how to do laundry without a washing machine, how to meet without having to agree in real time that you will be late or where exactly you are? Who can read analogue street maps without Google Maps or look up information in the lexicon without Google? We may not be up to date with the Forster people yet, but we are probably well on the way there. The development of the tech-savvy evolution has already been completed in Forster's machine, with us it is still in its infancy.
So what can we do about it? Can we even do anything about it? According to Immanuel Kant, the outcome of a person's self-inflicted immaturity is the enlightenment. [2] Perhaps this can also be applied to the self-inflicted immaturity through the adaptation and the resulting dictation of the machines: It would be an illusion to believe that people will ever return to a life without machines, but the knowledge of the increasing dependence the people of the machines could free us from this pull.
Because perhaps the danger lies precisely in the fact that we do not notice this pull, which gradually pulls us into dependency and thus soon also into the dictates of the machines. We get used to new technologies so quickly that we stop questioning them. We only see the benefits, the improvement on what was before. A cell phone is better than a cable phone because we can take it with us wherever we go. The price for this, however, is that we have to have electricity available on a regular basis - in the case of a smartphone, even internet for WhatsApp and co. We should question more often whether we are willing to pay this price that has to be paid for the respective technological advances - otherwise we will submit to the dictates of machines.


about the author:
My name is Helke Rüder, I am studying theater and media studies and German at FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg. Media and modern technologies determine our lives in a way that could not have been dreamed of a hundred years ago - except of course Forster, who predicted our digitally networked world in the age of the Internet with terrifying accuracy. In my opinion, our lack of awareness of the many machines is an essential point on the way to Forster's machine company.


[1] Cf. Immanuel Kant: Answering the question: What is Enlightenment ?, Staadt, Wiesbaden, 1914

[2] Ibid.