Yesterday, I watched Metropolis, one of the most influential German silent films of all times. To be honest, I had hardly ever heard about it until recently, when an almost original version of the 1927 film was discovered in Argentina. Having seen it now, I can now understand why there’s been so much fuzz about it. With its special effects and high production cost, it must have been the equivalent of today’s Hollywood blockbusters. But more importantly, it’s a historical artifact that reflects an aspect of the modern Zeitgeist that is still with us today – the paradox of technology as progress and technology as enslavement.
Welcome to the machine
Technology – in particular large industrial machines – is one of the dominant themes in the film. Armies of workers are forced to operate these machines deep underneath the city of Metropolis, where the ruling class is living.
When the workers revolt, they destroy the machines as the material embodiment of their suppression (much like the Luddites in Britain). However, they quickly realize that by destroying the machines they’re also destroying the world they’re living in. Most dramatically, a flood in the underground factories is threatening to kill the workers’ children.
There you have it. In 1927. People are dependent on technology. They are controlled via technology. They come to see technology as the root of all evil in their lives.
And yet, once they destroy this technology, they end up in chaos. They cannot go back to a world without technology. Once we put it in such abstract terms, we can easily apply this description to today’s discourse on technology, as I’ve done in my previous post on privacy versus innovation.
The heart as the mediator
So what solution does the film Metropolis suggest? A very neat one, I think. It clearly says, it’s wrong that humans are enslaved by machines to the extent that they become objects, or part of the machine.
But it also says, just as clear, abolishing these machines is not the right way out. In my interpretation, the film calls for a humane and social relationship between technology and man (it’s 1927, remember, so no need to say “…and woman”).
In and of themselves, machines are not necessarily meant to dominate. They don’t have a nature of control and surveillance. They introduce a few constraints into our lives but they also offer a set of new opportunities.
In practical terms, this means that we should find regulation and legislation, but also social practices and norms for dealing with any innovation. We should be aware of the risks (data protection) but not get lost in dystopian scenarios.
Metropolis is trying to say, it’s entirely up to us how we integrate technology into our lives. Hence its moral message that “the heart must be the mediator between the mind and the hands”.