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Shadows of the Coming Race


My friend Trost, who is no optimist as to the state of the universe
hitherto, but is confident that at some future period within the
duration of the solar system, ours will be the best of all possible
worlds--a hope which I always honour as a sign of beneficent
qualities--my friend Trost always tries to keep up my spirits under the
sight of the extremely unpleasant and disfiguring work by which many of
our fellow-creatures have to get their bread, with the assurance that
"all this will soon be done by machinery." But he sometimes neutralises
the consolation by extending it over so large an area of human labour,
and insisting so impressively on the quantity of energy which will thus
be set free for loftier purposes, that I am tempted to desire an
occasional famine of invention in the coming ages, lest the humbler
kinds of work should be entirely nullified while there are still left
some men and women who are not fit for the highest.

Especially, when one considers the perfunctory way in which some of the
most exalted tasks are already executed by those who are understood to
be educated for them, there rises a fearful vision of the human race
evolving machinery which will by-and-by throw itself fatally out of
work. When, in the Bank of England, I see a wondrously delicate machine
for testing sovereigns, a shrewd implacable little steel Rhadamanthus
that, once the coins are delivered up to it, lifts and balances each in
turn for the fraction of an instant, finds it wanting or sufficient, and
dismisses it to right or left with rigorous justice; when I am told of
micrometers and thermopiles and tasimeters which deal physically with
the invisible, the impalpable, and the unimaginable; of cunning wires
and wheels and pointing needles which will register your and my
quickness so as to exclude flattering opinion; of a machine for drawing
the right conclusion, which will doubtless by-and-by be improved into
an automaton for finding true premises; of a microphone which detects
the cadence of the fly's foot on the ceiling, and may be expected
presently to discriminate the noises of our various follies as they
soliloquise or converse in our brains--my mind seeming too small for
these things, I get a little out of it, like an unfortunate savage too
suddenly brought face to face with civilisation, and I exclaim--

"Am I already in the shadow of the Coming Race? and will the creatures
who are to transcend and finally supersede us be steely organisms,
giving out the effluvia of the laboratory, and performing with
infallible exactness more than everything that we have performed with a
slovenly approximativeness and self-defeating inaccuracy?"

"But," says Trost, treating me with cautious mildness on hearing me vent
this raving notion, "you forget that these wonder-workers are the slaves
of our race, need our tendance and regulation, obey the mandates of our
consciousness, and are only deaf and dumb bringers of reports which we
decipher and make use of. They are simply extensions of the human
organism, so to speak, limbs immeasurably more powerful, ever more
subtle finger-tips, ever more mastery over the invisibly great and the
invisibly small. Each new machine needs a new appliance of human skill
to construct it, new devices to feed it with material, and often
keener-edged faculties to note its registrations or performances. How
then can machines supersede us?--they depend upon us. When we cease,
they cease."

"I am not so sure of that," said I, getting back into my mind, and
becoming rather wilful in consequence. "If, as I have heard you contend,
machines as they are more and more perfected will require less and less
of tendance, how do I know that they may not be ultimately made to
carry, or may not in themselves evolve, conditions of self-supply,
self-repair, and reproduction, and not only do all the mighty and subtle
work possible on this planet better than we could do it, but with the
immense advantage of banishing from the earth's atmosphere screaming
consciousnesses which, in our comparatively clumsy race, make an
intolerable noise and fuss to each other about every petty ant-like
performance, looking on at all work only as it were to spring a rattle
here or blow a trumpet there, with a ridiculous sense of being
effective? I for my part cannot see any reason why a sufficiently
penetrating thinker, who can see his way through a thousand years or so,
should not conceive a parliament of machines, in which the manners were
excellent and the motions infallible in logic: one honourable
instrument, a remote descendant of the Voltaic family, might discharge a
powerful current (entirely without animosity) on an honourable
instrument opposite, of more upstart origin, but belonging to the
ancient edge-tool race which we already at Sheffield see paring thick
iron as if it were mellow cheese--by this unerringly directed discharge
operating on movements corresponding to what we call Estimates, and by
necessary mechanical consequence on movements corresponding to what we
call the Funds, which with a vain analogy we sometimes speak of as
"sensitive." For every machine would be perfectly educated, that is to
say, would have the suitable molecular adjustments, which would act not
the less infallibly for being free from the fussy accompaniment of that
consciousness to which our prejudice gives a supreme governing rank,
when in truth it is an idle parasite on the grand sequence of things."

"Nothing of the sort!" returned Trost, getting angry, and judging it
kind to treat me with some severity; "what you have heard me say is,
that our race will and must act as a nervous centre to the utmost
development of mechanical processes: the subtly refined powers of
machines will react in producing more subtly refined thinking processes
which will occupy the minds set free from grosser labour. Say, for
example, that all the scavengers work of London were done, so far as
human attention is concerned, by the occasional pressure of a brass
button (as in the ringing of an electric bell), you will then have a
multitude of brains set free for the exquisite enjoyment of dealing with
the exact sequences and high speculations supplied and prompted by the
delicate machines which yield a response to the fixed stars, and give
readings of the spiral vortices fundamentally concerned in the
production of epic poems or great judicial harangues. So far from
mankind being thrown out of work according to your notion," concluded
Trost, with a peculiar nasal note of scorn, "if it were not for your
incurable dilettanteism in science as in all other things--if you had
once understood the action of any delicate machine--you would perceive
that the sequences it carries throughout the realm of phenomena would
require many generations, perhaps aeons, of understandings considerably
stronger than yours, to exhaust the store of work it lays open."

"Precisely," said I, with a meekness which I felt was praiseworthy; "it
is the feebleness of my capacity, bringing me nearer than you to the
human average, that perhaps enables me to imagine certain results better
than you can. Doubtless the very fishes of our rivers, gullible as they
look, and slow as they are to be rightly convinced in another order of
facts, form fewer false expectations about each other than we should
form about them if we were in a position of somewhat fuller intercourse
with their species; for even as it is we have continually to be
surprised that they do not rise to our carefully selected bait. Take me
then as a sort of reflective and experienced carp; but do not estimate
the justice of my ideas by my facial expression."

"Pooh!" says Trost (We are on very intimate terms.)

"Naturally," I persisted, "it is less easy to you than to me to imagine
our race transcended and superseded, since the more energy a being is
possessed of, the harder it must be for him to conceive his own death.
But I, from the point of view of a reflective carp, can easily imagine
myself and my congeners dispensed with in the frame of things and giving
way not only to a superior but a vastly different kind of Entity. What I
would ask you is, to show me why, since each new invention casts a new
light along the pathway of discovery, and each new combination or
structure brings into play more conditions than its inventor foresaw,
there should not at length be a machine of such high mechanical and
chemical powers that it would find and assimilate the material to supply
its own waste, and then by a further evolution of internal molecular
movements reproduce itself by some process of fission or budding. This
last stage having been reached, either by man's contrivance or as an
unforeseen result, one sees that the process of natural selection must
drive men altogether out of the field; for they will long before have
begun to sink into the miserable condition of those unhappy characters
in fable who, having demons or djinns at their beck, and being obliged
to supply them with work, found too much of everything done in too short
a time. What demons so potent as molecular movements, none the less
tremendously potent for not carrying the futile cargo of a consciousness
screeching irrelevantly, like a fowl tied head downmost to the saddle of
a swift horseman? Under such uncomfortable circumstances our race will
have diminished with the diminishing call on their energies, and by the
time that the self-repairing and reproducing machines arise, all but a
few of the rare inventors, calculators, and speculators will have become
pale, pulpy, and cretinous from fatty or other degeneration, and behold
around them a scanty hydrocephalous offspring. As to the breed of the
ingenious and intellectual, their nervous systems will at last have been
overwrought in following the molecular revelations of the immensely
more powerful unconscious race, and they will naturally, as the less
energetic combinations of movement, subside like the flame of a candle
in the sunlight Thus the feebler race, whose corporeal adjustments
happened to be accompanied with a maniacal consciousness which imagined
itself moving its mover, will have vanished, as all less adapted
existences do before the fittest--i.e., the existence composed of the
most persistent groups of movements and the most capable of
incorporating new groups in harmonious relation. Who--if our
consciousness is, as I have been given to understand, a mere stumbling
of our organisms on their way to unconscious perfection--who shall say
that those fittest existences will not be found along the track of what
we call inorganic combinations, which will carry on the most elaborate
processes as mutely and painlessly as we are now told that the minerals
are metamorphosing themselves continually in the dark laboratory of the
earth's crust? Thus this planet may be filled with beings who will be
blind and deaf as the inmost rock, yet will execute changes as delicate
and complicated as those of human language and all the intricate web of
what we call its effects, without sensitive impression, without
sensitive impulse: there may be, let us say, mute orations, mute
rhapsodies, mute discussions, and no consciousness there even to enjoy
the silence."

"Absurd!" grumbled Trost.

"The supposition is logical," said I. "It is well argued from the
premises."

"Whose premises?" cried Trost, turning on me with some fierceness. "You
don't mean to call them mine, I hope."

"Heaven forbid! They seem to be flying about in the air with other
germs, and have found a sort of nidus among my melancholy fancies.
Nobody really holds them. They bear the same relation to real belief as
walking on the head for a show does to running away from an explosion or
walking fast to catch the train."

George Eliot