Before the Industrial Revolution, few people had the opportunity to consider the impact of technology on their lives. However, a few decades ago, certain sections of society thought otherwise. That, at any rate, is the impression created by the debate over what the early nineteenth-century English press called the “March of Intellect,” a label for the seemingly polarizing discourse that arose not just from the development of industrial technology but the spread of “useful knowledge.” which followed him. Was this kind of education an engine of progress, or simply disorder?
The most vivid legacy of the March of Intellect consists of a series of newspaper cartoons published in the 1820s. They depict a world, as Hunter Dukes writes in the Public Domain Review, where “extravagantly dressed ladies shop for pastel gems and abandon staircases in favor of belt-driven slides” while “child it’s just moments from paving the road. carriage at full gallop”; where “men gobble pineapples and chug bottles in the Champagne depot” and “postmen fly with winged capes”; where “even the convicts have it better: they board a zeppelin spout for New South Wales, but still have panoramic views”.
So far so Victorian. One could more or less argue in favor of the world described above as depicted by artist William Heath. But in the future, as imagined in the cartoon at the top of the post by Robert Seymour (now best known as the original illustrator of Charles Dickens The Pickwick Papers), The march of the intellect takes on a spectacularly malevolent aspect.
In it, “a merry automaton stomps across society,” writes Dukes. “His head is a literal pile of knowledge—volumes of history, philosophy, and mechanical manuals powering two eyes of gas lamps.” He wears the secular London University as a crown.” He sweeps away “pleadings, entreaties, late parliamentary bills and antiquated laws. Vicars, rectors and quack doctors are turned upside down.”
Nearly two centuries later, most instinctively sided with the participants in the March of Intellect debate, who saw the provision of technical and scientific knowledge to the less educated groups of the day—women, children, the working class—as a definite good. Yet we can also feel anxieties about technology emerging in our time, where, to cite a current example, “artificially intelligent chatbots have fueled ongoing fears about the mechanization of intellectual work.” Every day brings new apocalyptic speculations about the rise of powerful thinking machines to wrestle humanity. If no artist today illustrates them as entertainingly as Heath and Seymour, so much the worse for our times.
via Public Domain Review
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based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcastson cities, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books about cities, book The Stateless City: A Walking Tour of 21st Century Los Angeles and video series City in cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.