November 7

Eric Gill, printer, type designer, engraver, and long-established critic of the machine in the affairs of mankind, wrote to G.K’s Weekly on this date in 1925:

“Sir: With reference to the letter of M.W.S. Roe in your issue of October 17. The matter of machinery is one to which you will be giving your official attention before very long, and I do not wish to anticipate. There is one point, however, which might as well be stated without delay, for it is one which has been missed by all your correspondents hitherto.

“Mr. Roe says, ‘Learn how to control machinery and we shall get a much better result from that we already have, etc. . . .’ Now before we can say How to control anything we must decide who is to control it—this is the fundamental point. Imagine an unruly child. People ask themselves how to control it. Is it not obvious that the problem wears an entirely different aspect directly we put it to ourselves, as we should do in the first place, in terms of who. Thus, is the father to control, or the schoolmaster, or the superintendent of the reformatory? The mere mechanism of control is entirely different according as it proceeds from one or the other.

“I do not propose now to write at length upon the question as to who should control machinery. I merely wish to point out that this question is antecedent to the question of how we should control machinery, and I think it is obvious that when the question of who is decided, the question of how will be much less difficult.

“Mr. Roe’s letter ends with the sentence: ‘To persuade a man to use a spade when he can employ a plough—well, I think it is a hopeless job.’ Mr. Roe implies that the cultivator he envisages is able to choose his tool. Before we can make an implication as delightfully simple as that, let us ask ourselves, for example, whether the Linotype machines used in Fleet Street are chosen by the compositors, or whether it is not possible that those machines are chosen by persons whose trade is money-making rather than ‘comping.’

“P.S.—Mr. Roe quotes Carlyle’s saying that man is ‘a tool-using animal.’ It is at least doubtful whether Lord Beaverbrook can justly be said to use the Linotype machines he controls.”

Gill was concerned with the dehumanization which occurs when the machine becomes so self-regulating that the individual has no responsibility other than that of manipulation, the final product being so homogenized that it has no character. As long as men with Gill’s outlook continue to make their protest against the loss of intellectual responsibility in an increasingly mechanistic society, we can expect that the day of complete subservience to the machine will be, at the very least, delayed.

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