seemingly paranoid neuroses is it's obsession with machines and their replacement of humanity. Beginning in the Victorian era, shortly after the onset of the Industrial Revolution, Western civilization began to visualize the coming competition between man and machine. Machines, instead of becoming man's saving grace, were, because of their ability to replace human labor, seen as a threat to man's existence. This view of machines and technology has only become more acute with the advent of computers and the virtually complete integration and dependence modern society has on these machines. One need only look at some of the most popular movies in the last few years to see a number of man vs. machine themes; with man not always the victor. If the modern world enjoys action-packed fantasies about a bleak future under the tyranny of the machines, this has not always been the case. American literature is also replete with stories of real people suffering real losses at the hands of compassionless machines. While there are numerous examples of the destruction of humanity at the hands of technology, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath presents a vivid account of the human toll that machinery can take on people. Not only does Steinbeck's account of tenant farmers being evicted contain the real experiences of numerous real-life tenant farmers who were actually evicted and replaced by large-scale, machine-driven, commercial farms, but it also contains a metaphorical machine, in the form of the bank, replacing humanity. In the 21st century, the modern world has developed a large-scale, commercial-based society which many claim is consuming the planet's natural resources and causing irreparable ecological damage. Others believe that the development of the world's resources is beneficial, not only to those in the developed world, but to those in undeveloped regions of the globe. The ever-constant conflict between man's desire to produce things more efficiently, necessitating the replacement of human labor with machine labor, and the subsequent consumer-based society that has arisen because of it, has led to one of the most pressing social questions a society has ever faced. Is the modern world's rapid development of the planet leading to the destruction of civilization?
Is the modern world's consumer economy destined to collapse? This is the question posed by Ronald White in his book A Short History of Progress, which examines several ancient civilizations and questions the cause of their collapse. From this examination, White has identified three main problems faced by previous civilizations which he calls the "runaway train," the "dinosaur" and the "house of cards." (White, p. 107) The "runaway train" refers to a problem where an advancement in technology or knowledge leads to more serious problems caused by the advancement. For instance, an ancient civilization's development of agriculture which led to a population explosion and an even greater food problem. The second problem, the "dinosaur," refers to the central authority's inability to change and adapt to the times. Because of the accumulation of wealth and resources in the upper classes of society, these people resist changing society and upsetting their beneficial situation. Finally, White discusses the last problem that civilizations face which he calls the "house of cards," but can be defined as their superficial construction upon a faulty foundation. In other words, societies can appear to be stable but in reality are fragile and easily destroyed.
With the development of modern society, a society that is based on consumerism and the rapid depletion of the world's natural resources, an important question is whether modern society can maintain its current level of production and growth, or whether it will collapse under one, or a combination, of White's three main civilization-ending problems. This is the issue that White discusses in his book by following the development of four societies: "Sumer, Rome, the Maya, Easter Island." (White, p. 107) Many who claim that modern society is a benefit to all point to their belief that modern society evolved out of the development of the Americas by European colonists. They claim that modern society is the result of the struggle and conquest of the continent by Americans, and that this victory over the native inhabitants is evidence that the American way of life is superior to others. Just as the industrialized, commercial society was good enough for the entire continent of North America, it is also good enough for the rest of the world. And with this belief that modern society has somehow justified its existence through its conquest of the Americas, the idea of a Westernized industrialized consumer society has spread around the globe.
White rightfully points out that this justification of modern society is not grounded in fact, but in a romanticized perception of the past. Europeans did not really conquer the civilizations of the Aztecs and Incas, but it was the introduction of European diseases which devastated the native populations and their civilizations. Settlers of the Americas did not tame a wilderness, as is commonly believed, but actually settled on the abandoned farmland the Native Americans cleared and worked prior to being killed by European diseases. Useful crops such as the potato, squash, or pumpkin were not developed by the European settlers, but simply poached by them after the Native Americans spent centuries developing and domesticating these crops. To sum things up, the claim that modern society is superior because it is derived from the European colonists who bravely settled the Americas is erroneous, and, as White stated, "Europe received the greatest subsidy of all when half a planet, fully developed but almost unprotected, fell suddenly into its hands." (White, p. 111)
Chapter 5 of Ronald White's A Short History of Progress is entitled "The Rebellion of the Tools," and is named after a Native American myth in which the tools made by man rise up and destroy him. As White points out, the fear of man losing control to the tools which he builds is not limited to the modern world, but it is modern society's development and dependence on machines which many claim is the route to its destruction. And the fear of machines taking control of society, transforming society into a large machine made up of people, has been the subject of many of Western literature's most enduring classics. Writers, particularly in the Victorian Era, dreaded the possibility that the rise of machines would commercialize society to such an extent that the individual person would be nothing more than a cog in a giant inhumane system based on commerce and operated like a cold, unfeeling machine. And the fact that the Industrial Revolution, which was unfolding before their very eyes, was based on the use of machines to replace human labor and increase efficiency and production, and was developing a machine-like social structure, only fed their fears.
Modern society has been transformed by the Industrialized Revolution and the machine; not only has production increased, but an entirely new way of life has come into being. In order to succeed in modern industrialized society, individuals can no longer operate outside the system, as independent workers or craftsmen, but must become part of the industrial machine. John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath provides an excellent example of this type of transition from independent operator into a part of the industrialized machine complex. Chapter five of The Grapes of Wrath details the eviction of a number of tenant farmers from their farms and the development of several independent farms into a single large-scale commercial farm. (Steinbeck, p. 32) By replacing human labor with machines, like tractors and mechanical plows, Steinbeck is able to demonstrate the human cost of industrialization through the plight of his tenant farmers and their families. Hard-working, independent men are reduced to homelessness, wives and children lose the only life they ever knew and must venture into the unknown without hope. This is the real impact of machinery over man, specifically the tractor over human labor.
Steinbeck's novel also presents the way machines have infiltrated social and business structures by using a metaphorical machine: the bank. Like a machine, the bank is not human, but it is operated by human beings, and like a machine, the human operators of an institution like a bank are limited to what the machine allows them to do. In a way, the people become slaves to the machine, which allows them the freedom of performing horrendous acts without the guilt of being human. It is the faceless machine called the "bank" which is making the bank officers evict the poor farmers. When Steinbeck states "…We've got a bad thing made by men…" (Steinbeck, p. 40), he demonstrates how social institutions have become cold, faceless, remorseless machines to which humanity has become enslaved.
Finally The Grapes of Wrath provides a clear example of how individuals in the modern world have adapted to the complexity of the industrialized world. Soon after being notified of eviction, the tenant farmers witness the arrival of a tractor and driver, who promptly begins to plow over…