The Dull Embers of Technology

A future free from technology? This edition published by Quartet Books Limited 1975. Cover illustration by Ron Kirby.

A society which turns its back on technology is going down a dangerous road.  There are many who believe that such a route could lead to a far more peaceful, almost idyllic way of life, free from the risks of technological innovation, but the downside might well be severe.  And not just through the absence of the technical gadgetry that makes our life in the West today so relatively easy.

A fear of technology, and the dangers it can bring, can lie at the heart of such an aversion.  A century ago, it would hardly have been surprising.  In his 2008 book First Blitz: The Secret German Plan to Raze London to the Ground in 1918, Neil Hanson describes a city in turmoil as German airships, and later giant aeroplanes as big as anything that flew in the Second World War, rained destruction down through sustained bombing campaigns .  The population was even thought to be on the verge of nervous collapse, and it was only the high cost and relative frailty of the German bomber fleet, along with escalating losses as British air defences improved, that resulted in the failure of the plan.

The poet and novelist Robert Graves is probably best known for Goodbye to All That, his superb memoir of his experiences during the First World War, first published in 1929.  One reminiscence relates to an occasion when he was on leave back in London and was describing to friends how a bomb had dropped on the house next door while he was asleep, killing three soldiers, a woman and a child.  They were horrified until they realized he was describing an event in France – that wasn’t really of much interest to them, whereas the Zeppelin air-raids a few streets away from them were close to home and really worrying.  This was modern technology bringing terror to your doorstep.

Graves also wrote a novel which is exceptional in the annals of science fiction – Seven Days in New Crete from 1949, where the main protagonist is transported in time from our present world to a seemingly peaceful and prosperous future society.  One of the first things he notices is that they heat their houses by burning wood in grates – surely atomic energy would have superseded all that?  He is informed that that turned out to be “a very temporary future and…not at all a happy one.”  He later finds that their archives have nothing “about the motivation of any machine more complicated than the water-wheel, pulley or carpenter’s lathe.”  This is a contented, but pre-industrial, society.

In due course, the time-traveller discovers that there had been an increasing discontent with the way civilization had been developing, and the “scientific obsession, so strong at the beginning of the third millennium AD” had waned.  Humanity found the need to either retrace its steps or perish, and the use of all “mechanical contrivances” became severely limited.  The inhabitants of this society are sophisticated but apparently aimless; one is reminded to some extent of the Eternals in John Boorman’s 1974 film Zardoz – powerful and comfortable, but ultimately pointless and unproductive.

The analogy goes further.  In the movie, the artificial intelligence which provides the Eternals with all they need must find a way to create a superman who will free humanity from its unending stagnant existence.  Similarly, Graves’ hero finds that there is a very unpleasant underside to the beautiful and sensitive culture of the future, and that the Goddess who is worshipped in the strange religion of the period – a supreme being who is all too real to the inhabitants – is using him to create the chaos that will teach the New Cretans how to break free from their insipid and fruitless lives.  The concept follows the idea of a deity lying behind the mythologies and poetry of Europe, as Graves described in his highly influential 1948 non-fiction mythological study The White Goddess.

Rejecting technology as the way forward may have surface attractions, but may also lead to a sterile society with little prospects.  And without some omnipotent entity who can set it all right again.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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