Almost from its inception, the idea of the relationship between the individual and technology has been part of an evolving paradigm. While this new technology brought entertainment to the masses, technology itself as often the subject of early films which explored the idea of whether technology was a tool for humans to use, or a foreboding tyrant that both dehumanized and attempted to control both the individual and society. The idea of dehumanization by technology was, of course, nothing new and was part of the Marxist view that industry actually prevented humans from actualizing as humans while paying them a wage that resulted in a kind of self-slavery. Technology could both save and awe humans, it could expand boundaries, but it could also warn of impending doom.
In the 1902 film A Trip to the Moon, for instance, space travel was introduced to the public by using special effects. In this film, technology is the servant of humanity and allows for exploration. In 1903 Porter shot the first movie Western, The Great Train Robbery, in which the mechanical nature of technology was the focus of the plot development. Ironically, technology as represented by simple tools, mechanization and even advanced machinery underwent a drastic change within the period of the early 1900s when The Lonedale Operator (Griffith, 1911), The General (Keaton, 1926), and Modern Times (Chaplin, 1936) were produced. Over this relatively short period in film history technology moved from being an inspirational tool to inspire and almost take a heroic role, to a transitional period in which technology as mechanization was both positive and negative, to an iconic version of technology gone haywire. This paradox appears in Griffith, Keaton and Chaplin's overall attitude towards technology, and within these films the manner in which technology was used within the film as a locus of control. More importantly, we see the evolution of a paradigm that redefines technology and mechanization in juxtaposition between technology engendering a greater sense of humanity or a renewal of tyrannical subjugation.
In one of D.W. Griffith's earliest films, a 1911 short film written by Mack Sennett, The Lonedale Operator, technology actually aids the distressed damsel in her quest for a moral duty. The movie is important because it has separate locations using technology (the telegraph wire) as a way to understand the setting and plot. Technology shows the audience there is movement in time, space, and distance and contributes to the overall feeling of realism within the film. The Lonedale Operator was also important in that another aspect of technology - a wrench (tool) was used by the heroine to foil the robbers by pretending it was a gun. At the end of the film, the wrench is shown as one of the reasons for the overall success of "good" against evil, or tools against crime.
Buster Keaton's The General (1926), which was inspired by the 1862 Great Locomotive Chase, depicts Keaton's reactions to machinery interfering with the individual nature of humans and, in fact, how it hinders rather than helps the "cause" of heroism and humanity .The title of the film is also the main icon of how technology is represented in the film -- a train called The General. Johnnie Gray (Keaton) loves only two things -- The General and Annabelle, and is seen as far more valuable to the Confederate cause because of his technological expertise as an engineer than a field soldier. Johnnie's rejection creates a rift with Annabelle, which in turn causes Johnnie to initially reject society. In fact, Johnnie has an almost symbiotic relationship with The General which, as the plot thickens, becomes the raison d'etre of his eventual triumph. This is one of the first examples of technology interfering with human emotion. This theme of disenfranchisement continues when the Union captures The General, with Annabelle as an unwilling passenger. Johnnie immediately tries to harness technology in the guise of another train engine and is off in pursuit of his two loves. After a number of trials and tribulations, through the use of technology, Johnnie and Annabelle recapture the General and flee back into the Confederacy. Johnnie, in fact, uses The General to help Confederate forces defend a strategic bridge, using a combination of technologies -- the train and arms. As a reward, Johnnie is commissioned a Lieutenant in the Confederate Army, but as he tries to kiss Annabelle, he must salute passing soldiers. As the film ends, while sitting on the wheel of The General, Johnnie uses one hand to indiscriminately salute, the other to hold Annabelle, symbolizing that technology is ever vigilant in its attempt to control human emotion while, at the same time, allowing victory in battle. This human hand vs. mechanization is an important theme in that the real hero of the film is The General, operated by a human, but capable because of its level of technology and mechanization.
In Modern Times (1936), Chaplin is a factory worker on an assembly line that is visually set up to be iconic of the entire process of industrialization. Technology is immediately the anti-hero when Chaplin is "force fed" and then summarily sent to an assembly line for menial work. Technology rears its view of humanity as mindless serfs when the machine spews material out faster than Chaplin can keep up, causing him to suffer a breakdown and put the entire "process" into chaos.
Even though Chaplin is sent to a hospital to recover, he is now unemployed and mistakenly arrested as a Communist agitator and thrown in jail -- again showing the power of the governmental machine against humanity. Three themes emerge from this part of the film. First, the hospital uses technology to cure, which becomes ironic in that it was technology that caused the breakdown. Second, the introduction of communism presupposes that there is a dichotomy between industrialization and humanity -- and the mechanized state will have none of that. Third, while in jail, Chaplin swallows what he thinks is salt, but is actually smuggled cocaine. It is the artificial substance that causes Chaplin to prevent a jailbreak, showing the audience that humanity is not powerful enough without artificial means, again the cocaine representing the technological distillation of a natural plant. Outside the jail he again runs amok of technology, causing an auto accident, saving an orphaned girl fleeing the police for stealing a loaf of bread, causes himself to be arrested to be near the girl, and further runs afoul of the law. Ten days later he reads about a new factory and decides to give technology another try. In a host of scenes that are both ironic and comedic, technology continues to thwart any effort Chaplin has of being human. In fact, he is arrested again, and when released he meets up with the mysterious girl, gets a job as a waiter, but cannot tell the difference between the "in" and "out" doors. This seems to be the ultimate in dehumanization -- technology that is simple (on/off, in/out) is still too much for Chaplin, who resorts to improvising a comedic act to save the day. However, the long-arm of technology (the law) reaches out again to arrest the girl and the two escape, shown on film as walking down the road towards an uncertain future. Technology, it seems, needs a segment of humanity to ensure its predominance -- for Chaplin law enforcement is there at every juncture either protecting technology or punishing Chaplin for being unwilling or unable to adapt to technology's tyrannical role. The couple's salvation seems to be moving away from technology as they walk into a natural horizon, ostensibly deciding that every encounter with technology has proven disastrous. The framing of this scene reiterates that the two humans cannot get away from the omnipresent nature of technology fast enough -- and can only really be human once that is accomplished.
Almost as a portent, these three films also illustrate a bit more of the human paradigm of actualization vis-a-vis technology. In 1911 technology was still new and exciting and considered a potential savior of humanity; by 1926 society realized that there was both technologies as a tool and technology as a master; and by 1936 during the later part of the Great Depression, technological innovations had repeatedly stripped the individual's humanity. Too, most of society had a different view of technology pre- and post-World War I. Before "The Great War," technology was seen as more of a benefit to society in general, but through the use of more advanced weapons (poison gas, ammunition) and mechanization (tanks, etc.), technology became something to fear as well as covet.
The Lonedale Operator uses technology as both a character and a prop, both in a positive manner. The heroine saves the town through her expertise with the telegraph and wise use of the wrench. While both are tools, the telegraph is more of a heroic character for, in all her skill, without the telegraph the heroine could not have asked for outside…