Levasseur acknowledged that laborers still grumbled about having to operate machinery. “They reproach [the machine] with demanding such continued attention that it enervates,” he wrote, and they accuse it of “degrading man by transforming him into a machine, which knows how to make but one movement, and that always the same.” Yet he dismissed such complaints as blinkered. The workers simply didn’t understand how good they had it.
Some artists and intellectuals, believing the imaginative work of the mind to be inherently superior to the productive labor of the body, saw a technological utopia in the making. Oscar Wilde, in an essay published at about the same time as Levasseur’s, though aimed at a very different audience, foresaw a day when machines would not just alleviate toil but eliminate it. “All unintellectual labour, all monotonous, dull labour, all labour that deals with dreadful things, and involves unpleasant conditions, must be done by machinery,” he wrote. “On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends.”
That machines would assume the role of slaves seemed to Wilde a foregone conclusion: “There is no doubt at all that this is the future of machinery, and just as trees grow while the country gentleman is asleep, so while Humanity will be amusing itself, or enjoying cultivated leisure—which, and not labour, is the aim of man—or making beautiful things, or reading beautiful things, or simply contemplating the world with admiration and delight, machinery will be doing all the necessary and unpleasant work.”
The Great Depression of the 1930s curbed such enthusiasm. The economic collapse prompted a bitter outcry against what had, in the Roaring Twenties, come to be known and celebrated as the Machine Age. Labor unions and religious groups, crusading editorial writers and despairing citizens—all railed against the job-destroying machines and the greedy businessmen who owned them. “Machinery did not inaugurate the phenomenon of unemployment,” wrote the author of a best-selling book called Men and Machines, “but promoted it from a minor irritation to one of the chief plagues of mankind.” It appeared, he went on, that “from now on, the better able we are to produce, the worse we shall be off.”
The mayor of Palo Alto, California, wrote a letter to President Herbert Hoover imploring him to take action against the “Frankenstein monster” of industrial technology, a scourge that was “devouring our civilization.” At times the government itself inflamed the public’s fears. One report issued by a federal agency called the factory machine “as dangerous as a wild animal.” The uncontrolled acceleration of progress, its author wrote, had left society chronically unprepared to deal with the consequences.
But the Depression did not entirely extinguish the Wildean dream of a machine paradise. In some ways, it rendered the utopian vision of progress more vivid, more necessary. The more we saw machines as our foes, the more we yearned for them to be our friends. “We are being afflicted,” wrote the great British economist John Maynard Keynes in 1930, “with a new disease of which some readers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come—namely, technological unemployment.”