During my explorations of others’ influences on Heinrich’s work, I have come across many interesting titles. One book that most certainly must have had major influence on Heinrich’s thinking, is Stuart Chase’s Men And Machines (1929). This is one of the few titles to appear in Heinrich’s bibliography from 1931 to 1959. The book aims to gain a better understanding of machines, and their relation to men, by exploring what machines are, what they do, and what major effects their activities have.
The author, Stuart Chase (8 March 1888 - 16 November 1985) was an American economist, social theorist and writer. He wrote numerous books and pamphlets on a great variety of topics, including semantics, economy, and societal critique.
Men And Machines is an absolutely fascinating book that reads like a train, and contains not only a history of machines (very humorously told) but also some very reflected critique. It is eloquent, Chase appears to be well-read and well-researched and the book is spiced with statistics and quotes. I was surprised about both the tone, the rather left-winged ideas (not the first thing to expect from the USA perhaps) and many of the insights several of which have lost little in their actuality. All this make it a recommended read even 90 years down the road.
A quick and incomplete summary to make you curious:
Chapter 1 provides a philosophical start and reviews the three main attitudes towards machines: doom thinking/rejection, praise/embracing, or “sitting on the fence” and being inconclusive.
The second chapter discusses what machines are and what they do. Here already shows one thread running through the book:
“…certainly the functional classifications makes it obvious that there is nothing innately evil in the kind of work which most machines are designed to do. The evil, if any, must come in the abuse of function.” (p.40)
Chapters 3 to 5 tell the history of machines from the dawn of time (by the way, time is something seriously affected by the invention of the machine called ‘clock’) to the era of James Watt and the coming of the Power Age. Here we find among other things a nice discussion of the ‘conditions of possibility’ (a term Chase does not use) for the industrial revolution in England when it happened in the 1700s and 1800s. Besides, Chase provides some fascinating insights, like
“…invention is normally a social process, rather than the work of a few great men. We writers try to make our pages dramatic by concentrating on the geniuses, but inevitably we distort the story.” (Chase, 1929, p.73)
Another subject is the influence of culture, and the other way, the influence on culture. After this historical overview, the author takes on certain subjects, mostly one per chapter. He explores the claims about the effects of machines on these subjects and discusses the ‘evidence’ critically, as a rule from both positive and negative sides.
Chapter 6 discusses the impact of machines on humans, both in their direct encounters, but especially indirectly (through what the machines provide us with). The direct contacts are summed up in seven basic classes, although Chase is reluctant to simplify:
“We touch here the roots of the whole problem of machinery and man. Only to read the above makes it obvious that certain machine contacts are as lethal as others are wholesome and invigorating. To make simple, sweeping conclusions about anything so varied in scope is downright nonsense.” (p.116)
We also get a sneak preview of what will follow some chapters further on,
“…without responsibility, without the possibility of letting something of the power of the machine into one’s veins, the process has the chance of becoming very monotonous, fatiguing, and even mentally dangerous, while the chances for physical accidents markedly increase.” (p.117)
This bleak suggestion continues in Chapter 7, telling about the side-effects of industrialisation, notably about the horrible conditions in England during the first decades of the industrial revolution.
Chapter 8, entitled ‘Robots’, is the chapter with the clearest focus on (occupational) health and safety. But one will find several discussions of safety and health also other places. Here the author discusses as main adverse effects the noise and dust from machines and their negative impact. Also a rise in (industrial) accidents is noted although it is suggested that this may be temporary and that this will disappear after a period of adjustment. Then there is a discussion of mental effects (effects on the worker’s mind), including Taylorism/Fordism. Chase notes a positive development in what he calls the ‘philosophy of fatigue’ but what we today would call ergonomics. Interestingly, Chase presents these not as humanitarian efforts, but rather because they make sense from a business perspective. One of the still actual quotes from this chapter:
“The new safety movement will have to meet, not static conditions, but the increasingly difficult conditions of an industry that is continuously growing more intense” (p.153)
Chapter 9 discusses skills of workers; the disappearance of some, the coming of new ones and the effect on the worker’s satisfaction. A logical follow-up is the next chapter. This discusses the labour saving effects of the introduction and a critical view whether machines all costs and effects considered really save as much work as is commonly believed and claimed. Some amazing reflections here.
“The machine, by centralizing production in the factory, for these articles, when the costs of salesmanship and distribution are counted in, wasted labour rather than saved it. This sounds incredible and absurd. What we do not fully realize is the incredible and absurd degree to which the costs of distribution have expanded under competitive economy.” (p.192/193)
From here it is a logical step to ‘Jobs’, the title of Chapter 11. New inventions always caused some people to lose their jobs, while new jobs were created. However, this process has been amplified by the arrival of machines and unemployment has become a major problem for society. Chase regarded this one of the main problems of machinery - and the lack of using them wisely.
Chapter 12 deals with the flood of ‘stuff’ that the arrival of machines have brought. “We are, in fact, all cluttered up with progress.” (p.222) Chase claims. Besides quantity, there are also effects on quality. Not because machines always produce inferior stuff - on the contrary. But a machine does just as its told and when it is told to produce cheap crap, it does so, and it is able to do so in great volume. Interestingly, Chase enters kind of a “MABA-MABA” discussion in this chapter.
From quality, there is a natural progression towards the subject of ‘art’ in the next chapter. Machinery initially had a negative effect on beauty, but on the other side machines also have brought new forms of style, art and beauty - on a personal note, I think the industrial, black and white illustrations throughout the book are a great example of this.
Chapter 14 follows a natural progression, from work to product to art to recreation and play. Machines have made much of the off-time what Chase calls ‘second hand’. Recreation has been commercialised, and the author finds much of it rather decreation.
Then comes an important and lengthier chapter, dealing with standardization. Many people feel that machines are standardizing human life. Interestingly, the author argues that previously there was greater standardization through the effects of culture,
“The fact of culture, of group living, implies standardization. It always has; it always will. Human beings submit well to the process. Standards change, but standardization remains a perpetual element of all societies.” (p.270)
And standardization is not necessarily bad, it does have positive and functional sides, the author argues, drawing on Whitney:
“Standardization is thus a liberator, relegating the problems already solved to their proper place, namely in the field of routine, and leaving the creative faculties free for problems still unsolved. “Standardization from this point of view is this an indispensable ally of the creative genius”…” (p.273)
Besides, with the coming of machines, and continuous change, Chase sees that there is theoretically a greater potential for choices and thus less standardization. Paradoxically, this is not the experienced practice and perception. Maybe because especially work has become much more regimented.
The next two chapters deal with three of the main dangers of machine. All the other subjects had both positive and negative effects, the subjects of chapters 16 and 17 are entirely negative. These are mechanical warfare and the destructive capacity of modern war machines (keep in mind this was written even before there was a nuclear bomb!), the exhaustion of natural sources needed to drive the Power Age (none of the things discussed in the book has become reality yet, but the basic principle is still relevant today - maybe even more than in 1929). The third danger is that of over-specialization, of what Chase calls “technological tenuousness”. People are more and more dependent on things they do not understand, that are getting more complex and more connected. In Taleb’s words, things are getting more and more fragile:
“The menace of over-specialization, in the sense that we are increasingly dependent for our food, water and stark necessities upon a complicated mechanical process which only a few technicians understand in detail, and which nobody understands in toto, has rarely been touched upon - let alone registering, however passively, on the public consciousness.” (p.287/288)
This applies most of all to cities and areas that depend on one industry. In this section we find also some interesting reflections how public safety only is a minor consideration when it is left to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”. Even more fascinating is to see that Chase basically proposes a prototypical form of Normal Accident Theory - about 55 years before Perrow would write it down. He includes most of the elements. Tight coupling: “…so interlocked is the whole system that the failing of one nerve is almost sure to result in the rupture of others.” (p.296), complexity: “…the sheer piling up of technical services one upon the other, which nobody understands, or tries to understand in any synthetic way…” (p.300), and the impossibility of centralized control: “When no one man in the Telephone Company understands the latest dial system - it takes about five of them to master it - where is the central intelligence to nurse a great city through a nervous breakdown?” (p.296).
Chapter 18 then presents ‘The Balance Sheet’, summing up the positive and negative effects of machines, along with ambiguous and potential effects. Machines bring dangers and benefits. The latter possibly outweigh the former, but only when the dangers can be controlled. Chase asks himself, and the reader, whether the human mind is capable of such a task. This question is then explored in the final chapter where Chase proposes a hypothetical total dictatorship to control the problem, including some social reforms (including the proposal of prototypical Corporate Social Responsibility) and the exclusion from power of functions like lawyers, bankers or politicians - because “Machines, like horses, can tamed only by men who understand them.” (p.343). The author offers no conclusive solution, but some suggestions of which that of careful experimentation appears to be the most promising, but possibly hardest.
Chase, S. (1929) Men And Machines. New York: The MacMillan Company.
Find the book online: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000953295
Or get the real thing, some copies are around on Amazon and eBay.