81 Years Ago

The fear that our devices are somehow altering our brains might seem exclusively modern. But in 1931, Technology Review published “Machine-Made Minds: The Psychological Effects of Modern Technology,” in which John Bakeless explored how machines had transformed the very nature of human thought. Here’s what he had to say:

It is a curious fact that the writers who have dealt with the social, economic, and political effects of the machine have neglected the most important effect of all—its profound influence on the modern mind. Anything that shapes our thoughts shapes society also; and the effects of the machine on contemporary thought must, therefore, be at least as significant as its effects on contemporary economics or industry, or the life of society in general.

Even our republican form of government is possible only because a few machines—mainly vehicles (railroads, airplanes, and motor cars) and means of communication (mails, telephone, telegraph, radio, wireless, and machine-made newspapers)—bring the minds of a continent sufficiently close so that we can live and work together. In fact, if we may trust ­Shakespeare, who certainly was not a product of the Machine Age, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” If the machine really controls our thoughts, no wonder it controls all else.

Consider the mental equipment of the average modern man. Most of the raw material of his thought enters his mind by way of a machine of some kind—often through the agency of several machines. Newspapers, magazines, moving and talking pictures are the clearest examples.

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All this creates an almost incalculable difference between the modern mind—the scholar’s in his study, the technologist’s in his laboratory, the engineer’s in the field, as well as the giggling, gum-chewing shop-girl’s on her way down town in the subway—and the mind of the Eighteenth or early Nineteenth Centuries. For the first time, thanks to machinery, such a thing as a world-wide public opinion is possible.

Quite as significant as the machine-made power of the press and of mechanically reproduced art upon our minds, are the various mechanical devices developed during the last two decades for pouring ideas into our eyes and ears—movies, talkies, radio, and television. Some of these mechanical devices probably have more effect upon the less literate levels of modern society than the printed word could ever hope to have.

The danger is that our minds may be tied down to the machine. Our art may some day be restricted (as advertising art always has been) to that capable of mechanical reproduction, our music to the requirements of radio, talkie, and phonograph … All because we have misused the machine, or allowed it to misuse us.

If the world ever realizes that hitherto Utopian vision of a general diffusion of the good things of life—an ample assurance of food, clothing, and shelter for everyone, to which is added leisure for art, letters, pure science, and philosophy, the gorgeous playthings of the mind—it will have to look for them to the machine. That is, it will have to look to the machine for the economic basis on which these things must inevitably rest.

Strangely enough, we have hitherto been willing to enslave ourselves to the machine instead of enslaving it. Most of our contemporary troubles arise from that odd willingness to allow the machine to be master instead of slave. If we are to build a great civilization in America, if we are to win leisure for cultivating the choice things of the mind and spirit, we must put the machine in its place.

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