Book Reviews

Are we going backwards going forwards?

Rebecca Solnit’s beautiful book River of Shadows documents the transformation of time, space and work that happened with the advent of the transcontinental railway and the invention of high-speed photography.

The confluence of these events was something I wasn’t particularly aware of, but the beauty of her book is to extract and examine their precise intersection — in the persons of Eadweard Muybridge and Leland Stanford — and to hold the moment up to the light and let it dazzle us.


Her thesis is probably too poetic to reduce to a governing thought, but her contention is essentially that the modern world began when both photography and transcontinental rail travel radically altered our perceptions of time and space.  As she says:

In the course of the nineteenth century, time ceased to be a phenomenon that linked humans to the cosmos and became one administered by technicians to link industrial activities to each other.

…First the railroads, then the networks for distributing energy, food, and basic goods drew people further and further into the system; and more and more of them became employees of such systems.  The independence of the frontier and the subsistence farmer retreated further and further.  This was the moment in which many Americans first began to feel like cogs in the machine.

What I find arresting in her discussion is how it is related to my own investigations into the possibilities of not just a post-industrial future, but a future in which work is no longer the measure of human identity.

Should the new technologies of 3D printing, robotics and artificial intelligence actually bring about the workless future that threatens us with either extinction or liberation, wouldn’t this be tantamount to falling back through time and finding ourselves arse-up in a universe once more linked to the cosmos?

Wouldn’t we have got back to the garden, or at least to Karl Marx’s wish to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner…without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic”?

The technological dream is ultimately to transcend the technology, to be freed from the demands of drudgery and repetitiveness and realise, instead, something intrinsically human.

The question that arises is less whether such a world is possible but whether we could actually live in it.  In a workless future, isn’t there the chance that we, born and bred of the machine age, will become just as discombobulated without our schedules and our second hands and division of labor as the Indians of the plains or the Aborigines of the bush were when Europe and all it stood for landed on their heads?


Categories: Book Reviews, Solnit, Transportation, Work

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