A certain type of flimsy romantic has been too ready with abuse of a mechanical age, just as a certain type of imaginative writer with a smattering of science has been too gross in his adulation. The machine, when mastered and directed by the human spirit, may lead to a noble enlargement of life. Enterprises which make roads across pathless mountains, collect the waters over a hundred thousand miles to set the desert blossoming, build harbours on harbourless coasts, tame the elements to man's uses—these are the equivalent to-day of the great explorations and adventures of the past. So, too, the patient work of research laboratories, where to the student a new and startling truth may leap at any moment from the void. Those who achieve such things are as much imaginative creators as any poet, as much conquerors as any king. If a man so dominates a machine that it becomes part of him he may thereby pass out of a narrow world to an ampler ether. The true airman is one of the freest of God's creatures, for he has used a machine to carry him beyond the pale of the Machine. He is a creator and not a mechanic, a master and not a slave.
But suppose that science has gained all its major victories, and that there remain only little polishings and adjustments. It has wrested from nature a full provision for human life, so that there is no longer need for long spells of monotonous toil and a bitter struggle for bread. Victory having been won, the impulse to construct has gone. The world has become a huge, dapper, smooth-running mechanism. Would that be the perfecting of civilisation? Would it not rather mean de-civilisation, a loss of the supreme values of life?
In my nightmare I could picture such a world. I assumed—no doubt an impossible assumption—that mankind was as amply provided for as the inmates of a well-managed orphanage. New inventions and a perfecting of transport had caused the whole earth to huddle together. There was no corner of the globe left unexplored and unexploited, no geographical mysteries to fire the imagination. Broad highways crowded with automobiles threaded the remotest lands, and overhead great air-liners carried week-end tourists to the wilds of Africa and Asia. Everywhere there were guest-houses and luxury hotels and wayside camps and filling-stations. What once were the savage tribes of Equatoria and Polynesia were now in reserves as an attraction to trippers, who bought from them curios and holiday mementoes. The globe, too, was full of pleasure-cities where people could escape the rigour of their own climate and enjoy perpetual holiday.
In such a world everyone would have leisure. But everyone would be restless, for there would be no spiritual discipline in life. Some kind of mechanical philosophy of politics would have triumphed, and everybody would have his neat little part in the state machine. Everybody would be comfortable, but since there could be no great demand for intellectual exertion everybody would be also slightly idiotic. Their shallow minds would be easily bored, and therefore unstable. Their life would be largely a quest for amusement. The raffish existence led to-day by certain groups would have become the normal existence of large sections of society.
Some kind of intellectual life no doubt would remain, though the old political disputes would have cancelled each other out, and the world would not have the stimulus of a contest of political ideals, which is, after all, a spiritual thing. Scientists and philosophers would still spin theories about the universe. Art would be in the hands of coteries, and literature dominated by petites chapelles. There would be religion, too, of a kind, in glossy upholstered churches with elaborate music. It would be a feverish, bustling world, self-satisfied and yet malcontent, and under the mask of a riotous life there would be death at the heart. The soil of human nature, which in the Dark Ages lay fallow, would now be worked out. Men would go everywhere and live nowhere; know everything and understand nothing. In the perpetual hurry of life there would be no chance of quiet for the soul. In the tumult of a jazz existence what hope would there be for the still small voices of the prophets and philosophers and poets? A world which claimed to be a triumph of the human personality would in truth have killed that personality In such a bagman's paradise, where life would be rationalised and padded with every material comfort, there would be little satisfaction for the immortal part of man. It would be a new Vanity Fair with Mr. Talkative as the chief figure on the town council. The essence of civilisation lies in man's defiance of an impersonal universe. It makes no difference that a mechanised universe may be his own creation if he allows his handiwork to enslave him. Not for the first time in history have the idols that humanity has shaped for its own ends become its master.
An Excerpt from John Buchan's Memory Hold the Door written in 1940.