Automation in 2000, via 1927
Last evening I sat and watched the television premiere of the latest restoration of the 1927 film Metropolis. Turner Classic Movies broadcast it, and it is also being distributed on DVD in mid-November. This film was made by Fritz Lang, and was the first big-budget science fiction film. Indeed, it was the most expensive film ever made up to that time. It’s a 1920s picture of what life would be like in 2000. Long story (about 150 minutes) short, it’s basically technology from that time made bigger. The world still runs on steam, light bulbs, knife switches, big sledge hammers, and armies of worker drones in drab uniforms in the bowels of the city.
Operators, if they can be called that, must perform mindless tasks. The photo illustrates one device where the poor guy has to stand in front of what looks like a large clock face. Around the perimeter are 50 lights that go on and off randomly. The man has to move the hands of the clock so they point to the lit bulbs. Another operator stands at a board with switches and valves and tries to keep some sort of manometer at the right level. As the mercury rises to the alarm point, he panics while his coworkers nearby are scalded by escaping steam.
The plot centers around the conflict between the leisure class (the head) that enjoys life at the expense of the underclass underground (the hands). The story is about the search for the heart that can unite the two. If all you want to see is the technology, most of it happens within the first half hour or so. The movie does drag a bit after that, but there is an interesting android in the second half. Apparently Lang didn’t seem to think that advances in technology would be beneficial to society as a whole. If you think about the time, it was after WWI but before the onset of the Great Depression.
Prior to the Great War, the mindset was more optimistic. There was concern that growing industrial employment would create a society of wage slaves, but if that could be managed, the world would become a better place. There was a sense that human beings were somehow getting better. That kind of thinking largely ended with the war. The utter brutality of that conflict and the fact that industrial developments only made killing all the more efficient showed that changing human nature isn’t all that easy. It’s not hard to understand Lang’s cynicism.
I suppose the reality of life today is somewhat the opposite of the film’s picture. Technology hasn’t made workers into drones as much as made them superfluous. However, that makes for a much different story.
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