Technology on trial

Image from Frans Masereel, The City

Frans Masereel, The City

In 2009, American biologist E. O. Wilson commented that “The real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.” How do we develop and use technology while keeping in check humankind’s destructive impulses? At the same time, can good things that survive from the Stone Age and the Middle Ages—connection to nature, communal resource-sharing, devotion to something larger than ourselves—survive the next new gadget and an economic model built on endless growth?

These are questions that wordless novels consider. Frans Masereel’s The City (1925) is a vision of how technology destabilizes our emotions and institutions. There is no main character, just a noisy mob of nameless individuals trapped in the endless cycle of production and consumption. There is little evidence of healthy family relationships, and sex and alcohol are the main sources of solace. One image depicts a church, but it is unclear whether we should see it as an island of hope and bastion of stability in a world spinning out of control or as an outdated institution doomed to be buried beneath the encroaching chaos.

The book contains several scenes of suicide, not only of workers, but also the rich, raising the question of whether technology, for all its benefits, is ultimately good for our survival. An image of a banker or factory owner selecting a prostitute is followed by a depiction of a man and woman embracing in a cloud, suggesting that love alone will take us “out of the city” and ensure a healthy balance between our emotions, our institutions, and our technology. The final scene shows a person in a house next to a factory looking up out of a window toward the stars—the same silent stars that our ancestors looked up at in amazement eons ago. Technology, in the end, is only bad if we allow it to be bad, but will it ever satisfy our souls as much as the simple act of stargazing?

Masereel and other pictorial novelists illustrated their books with woodcuts (and related printing techniques). Developed in medieval Europe, the art of the woodcut was revived in the late-nineteenth century in reaction to the Industrial Revolution and was used to illustrate some of the most famous books of that period, including English socialist William Morris’s edition of The Canterbury Tales. Though artists gave it a strong contemporary feel, the German writer Thomas Mann, in commenting on Masereel’s work, observed that woodcut “is a conservative art, primitive in material, old-fashioned in technique. Today as five hundred years ago, it requires nothing more than [the artist’s] genius, a piece of pear-tree wood, and a small knife.”