Any understanding of the American development of an industrial society must be rooted in the understanding that the national culture is founded on two paradoxes. The first paradox concerns Thomas Jefferson's ideal of an agricultural gentry combined with improved roads. The second paradox is the strange love-hate relationship which Americans have had with technology, seemingly from the earliest periods. These two paradoxes have consequently produced a culture with bizarre features as society tries to believe one thing while going about another, honestly expecting it to all work out.
If we deal with the first issue, that of the paradox inherent in Jeffersonian thought and the supposed acceptance of that thought in the American context, perhaps we can understand the love-hate relationship with technology and in fact, knowledge itself. Thomas Jefferson was ultimately a man of the Enlightenment, and as a result could not see all of the features that were to mark the Industrial Revolution. In this he is joined by Adam Smith, who supposedly is the justification for our present economic system; though in fact his premises had a much different operative world. Both premised that the relations of men within society were governed by more than sheer economic profit; in modern terms, that the opinions of others would be a negative feedback on excessive self-interest, preventing the reduction of everything to monetary considerations. Influenced by the moderation characteristic of the Scottish Enlightenment, neither, it would seem, understood that society was too unsettled for such ultimately conservative means to provide a stabilizing influence.
The Jeffersonian American ideal is notable for the contradiction of being based on gentry farmers, while requiring the production of specialized technologies, which necessitate cities and transportation between city and country. Jefferson seemed to believe that roads went to agricultural communities, contrary to the actuality of them leading to cities. It is to be noted, however, that he favored keeping the heavy industries far away in England, where they couldn't corrupt Americans by producing a mindless underclass. In this we can see that the paradox goes all the way to the center; the egalitarian society was postulated as being dependent on certain productions by persons not within that perfectible society. That they were to be Europeans who stayed home only hides the serious philosophical problems which are more apparent when considering slavery.
The second paradox underlying America's reaction to industrial culture is the notable love for the new and gadget-y combined with a hate for industrial complexity. This has resulted in a society that widely owns VCRs and never learned to even set the clock; that supposedly values science but thinks understanding ruins wonder. Unlike the Jeffersonian paradox, it would seem that this contradiction is more a historical development, the result of successive unsolved stresses.
We need to recall that the average person is now much more distanced from their daily technology than was even true for rural farmers well into the twentieth century. Before the internal combustion engine, before even the steam engine, agricultural Americans (who were the overwhelming majority) were exposed to a wide range of devices, all of which they had to be able to fix and maintain. These devices were seen as a boon, not as something that reduced people's self-determination.
Technology was, when applied correctly, a way for farmers to increase production and self-sufficiency. By not having to worry as much about the availability of labor or its high cost, farmers who could deploy machines and other devices profited in several ways. During the Civil War, when large numbers of men were taken out of the labor pool of production, and great quantities of food and other supplies were needed for the troops, those farmers that bought mechanized harvesters were not only able to pay off the new tools and stay even, but turned a heavy "extra" profit.
Yet these same farmers could become very agitated against technology when it harmed their interests. While railroads did provide an improved connection to distant markets, they also unsettled life around the tracks. Tales of eggs laid scrambled and milk turned to cream inside the cow entered the oral tradition. More serious were the deaths of livestock and people, and the break-up of convenient fields by a line of track going through.
This conception of technology as a double-edged blade, good when I wield it, bad when wielded against me, is the starting point for Americans' consideration of technology. But how did this change to the modern paradox with technology? I would suggest that Fordism and the complex surrounding it managed to split reality such that it became difficult (if not impossible) to distinguish when technology enhanced and when technology compromised personal power.
In my attempt to locate journal articles concerning popular and/or material culture in relation to industry, I found an article about a dance movement during the thirties. "Machine Dance: An Intellectual Sidelight to Busby Berkeley's Career" discusses the manner in which choreography mirrored the discussions about Man and Machine during the 20s and 30s.
"Machine-aesthetics" had been bandied about among writers and artists on the cocktail-circuit for some time before W.W.I truly focused the debate. Western Civilization was seen in a possible decline and fall, ‡ la Gibbon's Rome. Inquiring minds wanted to know if the Machine was a guardian or a dark angel.
Some sought, or at least saw, refuge in "the mass-production spirit." The spirit of mass-creation, of mass-consumption; surrender to the pace of the machine. Others prophesied another Fall, a hell on earth; alienation, agitation, assimilation. "Metropolis" (Fritz Lang, 1926) presented a world divided in two; the many labor underground with a furnace like the maw of Moloch, the few live in a futuristic Disney-World on the surface-both are damned. Brave New World (Aldous Huxley, 1932) envisioned the overthrow of Christianity by the deification of Henry Ford and the production of identical human beings, a make for every market.
These issues found themselves expressed in the avant-garde "Ballet Mechanique" which made its way into the mainstream via "Precision Dance" which was a form already found on Broadway. Ultimately, precision dance, which depended on intricate hand and foot work, was unsuited to the Ziegfeld style of production numbers then popular in Hollywood. To translate the genre into a monumental form required the use of mechanized platforms- turning and lifting as massed banks of girls went through their routines.
In 1933, when the first film to use the new form, "Forty-Second Street", came out, the machine debate had turned a corner. The Depression led to a flirtation with "Technocracy", in which the economy was seen as a complex machine requiring experts to "fine-tune" it. The Gold Digger musicals reflect the theme of recovery through "industrial coordination" as out-of-work chorus girls find salvation on the set of a visionary musical. Yet at the same time as a cult of "machine-romanticism" of a most utopian sort was developing, vipers were being seen.
A rather gentle critique of the very problem I refer to can be found in "Modern Times" (Charlie Chaplin, 1936). The Tramp finds himself falling behind, strikes upon a way of catching up until that is also too slow, leading him to adapt and adapt at an ever-increasing pace. But while we find the notion of skating around the workplace floor humorous and even quaint, there is a serious undercurrent, one that threatens to pull the worker out with the tide. The 1934 "Dames" was still blind to the danger of facelessness, but 1935 brought forth the "Lullaby of Broadway" in "Gold Diggers of 1935" in which Busby Berkeley has a crowd of "night-club revelers" press the lead off a balcony. They are dressed in black, with gray jackets for the men, and out-stretched, palms-down, arm movements are employed. Some of the footage was filmed through a plastic floor, presenting the snapping of feet directly to the audience's faces.
"...the most remarkable thing is that even the people impress one as having been standardized. All these clean-shaven men, all these girls, with their doll-like faces... seem to have been produced somewhere in a Ford factory, not by the dozen but by the thousand.", remarked the German writer Richard Muller-Freienfels in 1929, about America. Both audience and observed have been produced, products of and for an interlocked market.
Once a latter-day Procrustes has stretched and cut everything and everyone to size, it is hard to remember whether technology is friend or foe. One is left with a sickly-sweet love and an entranced hate. Such a population is largely incapable of either wielding or parrying the double-edged blade of technology.
Mass-production, or Fordism, is the combination of a moving assembly line with the use of completely standardized parts. Assemblers, not fitters, put together the finished product, each repeating a small task thousands of times a day. Dedicated machines require operators to load, activate, and unload material; not machinists. The worker needs to be aware yet docile, as steady and unthinking as the machine. The worker needs to be manufactured.
The major weakness that Ford found in his form of mass-production was that single purpose machinery could not produce anything other than the exact part it was made to make. If the market became saturated with a given widget, new machines were required to make a new line of widgets. This turned on its ear the whole basis of Fordism economics, which spread the cost of the production machinery over huge numbers of sale units, permitting high wages and low purchase price.
Flexible Mass Production offered a way out, by substituting standard machines for single purpose machines. Unlike a single purpose machine, a standardized machine can be fitted with new parts to produce "cosmetically different" products. Instead of replacing an entire metal press, a new working form is installed on it during the change-over.
We, as a culture, have been consumed en mass by the spirit of mass-consumption, mass-produced by the spirit of mass-production. Sociocultural Planned Obsolescence is the basis of the economy; the continual retooling of personal presentation prevents saturation. Consumers are another product, their tastes subject to the market. Identical, "cosmetically different" objects need standardized, "cosmetically different" subjects.
Jeffersonian democracy is based on an educated citizenry exercising their powers of understanding to improve the nation, directly and indirectly. Yet Thomas Jefferson could not solve the underlying problem; specialized technological production without a class of helots, be they Europeans, be they black slaves. It has been said that no people can long have slaves before becoming slaves themselves. A model for every market, rolling off the line every eight minutes.