Creatures are not Machines

Wendell Berry, in an essay within his book Life is a Miracle (53ff), writes about the persistent problem of some analogizing humans with machines. You don’t have to look far for examples or remarks about the human mind being like a computer chip, or people being talked about as complex machines. Just watch a recent Droid commercial and you get the point. Berry points out that this is a serious problem, not because analogies are somehow bad to make, but that analogies have certain limits which need to be respected. In this case, the analogy seems to get carries away to the point of actually becoming an identification with, rather than an explanatory metaphor.

When a metaphor is construed as an equation, it is out of control; when it is construed as an identity, it is preposterous. If we are to assume that our language means anything at all, then the world is not a machine, and neither is an organism. A machine, to state only the greatest and most obvious difference, is a human artifact, and a world or an organism is not (Berry, 46).

Berry argues that the mind being an organism, rather than a machine, is incomplete without a home (a place, a community, dependance on culture, environment, etc.): “without familiar associations and points of reference outside itself, then it is becomes possible to argue that the longer the mind of an individual or a community is at home the better it may become. But this ‘better’ implies the willingness and the ability to practice the virtues of domestic economy: frugality, continuous household maintenance and repair, neighborliness, good husbandry of soil and water, eco-system and watershed” (49-50). Machines do not need this kind of connection, this work or practice. And yet, if we begin to think that we are machines, does it not follow that we will begin to feel as though we too are independent on these (now unnecessary) traditional forms of living and growing? This may in fact help to explain why it is that we do in fact live as though we are not “dependent rational animals.” ((affiliate links included in this post)) And after all, as Berry points out, machines are strictly scientific (and not organism) and have no use for religious tradition, or  tradition at all for that matter.

Governments and the Economy

Berry also suggests that we all know by now that “modern totalitarian governments become more mechanical as they become more total. Under any political system there is always a tendency to expect the government to work with mechanical “efficiency” – that is, with speed and no redundancy” (51). Currently, our system has any number of human elements still retarding the efficiency process (and this is in fact a good thing). These human elements, trial by jury, etc., all help to keep our system more human and unmechanical.  The bureaucratization of government and business in the modern era is exactly the process that makes our systems more mechanical and less human, just read Gidden’s Consequences of Modernity a blow-by-blow cultural history of this point. If humans really are machines, and this were to be fully implemented in policy, our fundamental rights would be undermined.”If people are machines, what is wrong, for example, with slavery? Why should a machine wish to be free? Why should a large machine honor a small machine’s quaint protestations that it has thoughts or feelings or affections or aspirations” (52)?

There have been times in our own society where policy has actually worked hard to protect the humanity of our society and undermine its mechanical efficiency. Even to the point of “Seeing the prosperity of small producers and manufacturers as a political and economic good, and [because of this] has placed appropriate restraints upon the mechanical efficiences of monopolists and foreign competitors. It is not mechanically efficient to recognize that unrestrained competition between an individual farmer or storekeeper and a great corporation is neither democratic or fair” (52). But to challenge this way of life, this ideology, would be to also challenge materialism and consumerism. This would be to challenge the numbness that goes hand in hand with what Walter Brueggemann calls the “royal consciousness.” Berry writes, “If we are machines, we can only do as we are bidden to do by the mechanical laws of our mechanical nature. By what determinism we regret our involvement in our mechanical devastations of the natural world has not been explained…by anybody” (53).

What is the Response?

So do we then go for a creatures against machines co-op? What is the response? Obviously most of us will stop here and go no further. I am after all writing this on a “beautiful” iMac sitting in my living, it’s glow ever present and captivating. But the “creature as machine” mantra makes it increasingly difficult to be against machines. Think about all the campaigns to delete your facebook account, turn of your computers, etc., digital detox days, and how little response they typically get. This has become the norm, anyone who is without a cell phone, an internet connection, or a facebook profile is stuck in yesteryear (again tradition, the past, old, all marking something negative within this framework). “To confuse or conflate creatures with machines not only makes it impossible to see the differences between them; it also masks the conflict between creatures and machines that under industrialism has resulted so far in an almost continuous sequence of victories of machines over creatures” (54).

For Berry then, the real problem can be summed up this way:

“What I am against – and without a minute’s hesitation or apology – is our slovenly willingness to allow machines and the idea of the machine to prescribe the terms and conditions of the lives of creatures, which we have allowed increasingly for the last two centuries, and are still allowing, at an incalculable cost to other creatures and to ourselves. If we state the problem that way, then we can see that the way to correct our error, and so deliver ourselves from our own destructiveness, is to quit using our technological capability as the reference point and standard of our economic life. We will instead have to measure our economy by the health of the ecosystems and human communities where we do our work.”

Our technology is changing our practices and patterns of daily life. It is affecting our understanding, practice and shape of faith. It rejects church time for it’s own kind of time. It prefers efficiency and speed over organic material. And it forms our ethics, what we value and what we do not value. There are many things this reading evokes within me, such as challenges to carefully consider how I use my machines and how they shape me, and to continue to work at taking technology sabbaths. But beyond this it’s helped me think through economics as well as politics, and gives a good lens for understanding some of the problems behind the big box surge (of stores, churches, etc) in recent history. Finally, it illuminates further some of my own problems with companies such as Amazon which destroy the smaller businesses in the name of efficiency, where begin more like a machine is praised in our society, even at the expense of human persons. We can see this all through society, and I would like to see the church, and theology, start to consider this far more seriously.

5 responses to “Creatures are not Machines”

  1. Wess,

    Hey man, great post! One of the downsides of all this technological efficiency I fear is that few may read your post because it’s actually a long, in depth, thoughtful post, which doesn’t work well in our bite sized information delivery system we have created. And that is unfortunate, because I think few people are thinking through this stuff….people like you and John Dyer are which I am thankful for, and which actually helped me change my tune over the last year. I have become a big advocate of boundaries, sabbaths, etc, when it comes to technology. I realize that I will use technology and do love and appreciate many things about it….but it also does shape me, because it is not neutral. And what I have decided is that I don’t want technology to dictate how I am supposed to live, or who I am supposed to be.

    As a marriage and family therapist now, I am saddened to see how many of the relationships I work with have had technology come in between them. The technology has in some dictated the terms of how they interact as a spouse, friend, parent, child, etc.

    To choose to not be dictated by technology is like swimming upstream in today’s current ethos, and will take a lot of work for someone to live counter-culturally.


    • Rhett, it’s shocking to hear about the impact of technology on relationships and really sad. It makes me think about what I need to do to make sure I do not fall prey to those same temptations. It’s good work you’re doing. Keep it up.

  2. Thanks for the fun post. I’m starting some studies down this same line and quite interested. Ok, since I’m a newbie, I’m wondering if you can help me out…

    I may be totally off base here, but isn’t a central tennet (to use a faith term) of cyberculture theory the idea that cybercultures augment and extend real-live material conditions? So wouldn’t some in the guild push back against Berry’s initial claims that machines are some wholly other or separate?

    Also, Berry’s definition of human’s home seems limiting and out of touch with how online communities function. Don’t get me wrong, I love prophet Berry, but it’s just a lot to connect.

    • Hey Adam, thanks for the questions. I’m no Berry expert so I am not sure how he’d answer, but maybe I can take some guess?

      I agree with you on the extension thing, but I’m not sure whether WB would or not? I think the point would be that that the extension isn’t itself a bad thing, a car is the extension of feet, etc., but it is when we begin to identify with the car, when we begin to be reshaped that extension that red flags should be raised. I think this is his point about analogies above.

      I think his idea of “home” doesn’t connect exactly with current culture, but I’m not sure it’s a bad thing. I do have lots of friends in various places through blogging, FB, twitter, etc. But I have come to realize also that I often use that as an excuse to not be more present in my actual local community. A critique may be in order?

      What do you think?

      What of Berry’s have you read and liked? This is my first book.


  3. I’ve just read Berry here and there. I love his poetry, and have enjoyed a novel or two. He’s brilliant, but so far out there that sometimes difficult to translate the “so what?” question.

    Btw, re “Life is a Miracle,” (which I read in seminary in a Creation and Ecology class). We treated the book as, quite likely, Berry intended which is a theological response to an athethist’s similar but different work, “The Creation: An Appeal To Save Life on Earth” by E. O. Wilson.

    I’ll keep thinking about the “home” question. To be honest, I don’t have a very solid notion of “home” in my life at all. I don’t really treat my current town/apartment home, nor the town in which I pastor. Many of the relationships which feed me most are with folks who I befriended in person, but keep up with online. So, I guess I’m willing to extend the definition of home to include a community with which one interacts online. The problem with this is that, by extension, one day perhaps all our “home” community could be online and we could interact only in cyberspace. I give more credence to embodiment than that, but not all cybertheorists agree with me.