Appearing on pages 60-62 of Know-How

Self-hating irony when pressing a long tale - mrb.

gladiron ad









How much more Know-How is needed to make human life obsolete?


Is there any known gadget for controlling a rampant Know-How?


The lady in the ad has found a mechanical substitute for moral choice?


King Midas knew how to change everything into gold. Where did all that popcorn come from?

As the ad implies, know-how is at once a technical and a moral sphere. It is a duty for a woman to love her husband and also to love that soap that will make her husband love her. It is a duty to be glamorous, cheerful, efficient, and, so far as possible, to run the home like an automatic factory. This ad also draws attention to the tendency of the modern housewife, after a premarital spell in the business world, to embrace marriage and children but not housework. Emotionally, she repudi­ates physical tasks with the same conviction that she pursues hygiene. And so the ad promises her a means of doing physical work without hating the husband who has trapped her into household drudgery.

To purchase gadgets that relieve this drudgery and thus promote domestic affection is, therefore, a duty, too. And so it is that not only labor-saving appliances but food and nylons ("your legs owe it to their audi­ence") are consumed and promoted with moral fervor.

But gadgets and gimmicks did not begin as physical objects, nor are they only to be understood as such today. Benjamin Franklin, protean prototype and pro­fessor of know-how, is equally celebrated for both his material and psychological technology. In his Autobiog­raphy, still a central feature of Yankee moral structure, he tells, for example, how he hit upon a system of moral bookkeeping which would enable any man to achieve perfection in several months. The trick is to select only one fault at a time for deletion, and by concentration and persistence the moral slate will soon be clean. Re­lated to this system was his discovery of various tech­niques for winning friends and influencing people which are still as serviceable as ever.

Some of the contents of the summer issue of Woman's Life, 1947, which are listed on the back cover as fol­lows, illustrate Ben Franklin's know-how mentality very well: "How To Hold a Man," "Eight Ways To Ruin a Compliment," "How Are Your Home Manners?" "Ways To Meet New Men." "Plan Your Charm," "If You Want To Be in Movies," and so on through the know-how hall of mirrors. On the other side of the cover is advertised a book by Louis E. Bisch, How To Get Kid of "Nerves," which lists such chapters as "How To Avoid Nerves When Married," "How To Avoid Boredom," "How To Make Your Wishes Come True."

Books on how to relax would seem just about to cancel out books on how to build up nervous tension for success drive.

A recent book by Ira Wallach, entitled How To Be Deliriously Happy, provides know-how for the whole range of success drives, recommending that if you are in debt, go deeper. If you think you are inferior, look at yourself in a mirror bordered with eagles. Say to yourself you are taller than Napoleon. Which all adds up to the simple formula implicit in all formulas for living and success philosophy: "Love that strait jacket."

Locked in one of these mechanical strait jackets, a man may feel safe and strong, but he can exercise very little of his human character or dignity. And it is pos­sible to understand this passion for mechanical strait jackets today by considering it in relation to similar human behavior in totally diverse circumstances. In his Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell com­pares our modern dilemma with that of primitive men:


For the primitive hunting peoples of those remotest human milleniums when the sabertooth tiger, the mammoth and the lesser presences of the animal kingdom were the primary manifestations of what was alien—the source at once of danger and of sus­tenance—the great human problem was to become linked psychologically to the task of sharing the wil­derness with these beings. An unconscious identifica­tion took place, and this was finally rendered con­scious in the half-human, half-animal, figures of the totem-ancestors . . . through acts of literal imita­tion ... an effective annihilation of the human ego was accomplished and society achieved a cohesive organization.

It is precisely the same annihilation of the human ego that we are witnessing today. Only, whereas men in those ages of terror got into animal strait jackets, we are un­consciously doing the same vis a vis the machine. And our ads and entertainment provide insight into the totem images we are daily contriving in order to ex­press this process. But technology is an abstract tyrant that carries its ravages into deeper recesses of the psyche than did the sabertooth tiger or the grizzly bear.

Concentration on technique and abstract system be­gan for the Western world, says Werner Sombart in his Quintessence of Capitalism, with the rise of scholastic method in theology in the twelfth century. The monks were also the first begetters of methods of abstract finance, and the clockwork order of their communal lives gave to the tradesmen of the growing towns the great example of systematic time economy. The puritan both retained the scholastic method in theology and gave it expression in the precision and austerity of his secular existence. So that it is scarcely fantastic to say that a great modern business is a secular adaptation of some of the most striking features of medieval scholastic culture. Confronted with the clockwork precision of scholastic method, Lewis Mumford could think only of the mechanical parallel of a smoothly working textile plant. The object of this systematic process is now pro­duction and finance rather than God. And evangelical zeal is now centered in the department of sales and dis­tribution rather than in preaching. But the scientific structure and moral patterns of the monastic discipline are still intact, so that anybody seeking to understand or modify the religious intensity of modern technology and business has to look closely into these antecedents.

The know-how of the twelfth century was dedicated to an all-inclusive knowledge of human and divine ends. The secularizing of this system has meant the adaptation of techniques not for knowledge but for use. Instead of an intelligible map of man and creation, modern tech­nology offers immediate comfort and profit. But it is still paradoxically permeated with a medieval spirit of religious intensity and moral duty, which causes much conflict of mind and confusion of purpose in producers and consumers alike. So that the Marxists urge that tech­nology be finally cut loose from religion as a means of resolving these conflicts; but this is merely to repudiate the parent while idolizing the offspring. More common and hopeful is the effort to modify the social and individ­ual effects of technology by stressing concepts of social biology, as Lewis Mumford and others do. But in this conception there is the dubious assumption that the organic is the opposite of the mechanical. Professor Nor-bert Wiener, maker of mechanical brains, asserts that, since all organic characteristics can now be mechanically produced, the old rivalry between mechanism and vital­ism is finished. After all, the Greek word "organic" meant "machine" to them. And Samuel Butler in Erewhon pointed out how very biological modern machines had become: "The stoker is almost as much a cook for his engine as our own cooks for ourselves." And as a result of our obsessional care for these objects, he goes on, they daily acquire "more of that self-regulating, self-acting power which will be better than any intellect." Consequently we have now arrived near the day of the automatic factory, when we shall find it as natural for an unaided factory to produce cars as for the liver to secrete bile or the plant to put forth leaves.

Fortune (November, 1949) offers "A Key to the Automatic Factory" in pointing out that "the com­puters that direct guns might also direct machines." How persistently the face of murderous violence asso­ciates itself with know-how! It is hard to say why the public target of such a factory should be any happier than the recipient of a bomb or shell. And it has long been plain that the executives of production and selling have been thinking in military terms, smashing public resistance with carefully planned barrages followed by shock troops of salesmen to mop up the pockets. It will take more than a change of vocabulary to eradicate this lethal aspect of know-how, for it is not easily separated from its origins or its uses. The public may smile at the suggestion that it need be perturbed at being the target for a barrage of corn flakes or light bulbs. But this industrial ammunition has the character of exploding in the brain cortex and making its impact on the emo­tional structure of all society.

The symbolist esthetic theory of the late nineteenth century seems to offer an even better conception than social biology for resolving the human problems created by technology. This theory leads to a conception of orchestrating human arts, interests, and pursuits rather than fusing them in a functional biological unit, as even with Giedion and Mumford. Orchestration permits dis­continuity and endless variety without the universal imposition of any one social or economic system. It is a conception inherent not only in symbolist art but in quantum and relativity physics. Unlike Newtonian physics, it can entertain a harmony that is not unilateral, monistic, or tyrannical. It is neither progressive nor reactionary but embraces all previous actualizations of human excellence while welcoming the new in a simul­taneous present.

This conception is suggested, particularly in "Front Page," as effectively present in several features of in­dustrial folklore. But it is especially evident in the best modern art, poetry, and music, to which the merely technological man finds himself so poorly attuned.
Standing on the threshold of the technological era, Jonathan Swift wrote a prophetic account of its human dangers in the third book of Gulliver's Travels. At the same time, John Locke, godfather of the American Constitution, pointed out that the dangers of know-how lie in the ease with which it distracts us from the obvi­ous : "He that was sharp-sighted enough to see the con­figuration of the minute particles of the spring of a clock, and observe on what its elasticity depends, would discover something very admirable; but if eyes so framed could not at a distance see what o'clock it was, their owner would not be benefited by their acuteness."

Anybody who turns his scrutiny on the typical be­havior of men absorbed in the dream of technology will find himself making that point over and over again. Know-how is so eager and powerful an ally of human needs that it is not easily controlled or kept in a sub­ordinate role, even when directed by spectacular wis­dom. Harnessed merely to a variety of blind appetites for power and success, it draws us swiftly into that labyrinth at the end of which waits the minotaur. So it is in this period of passionate acceleration that the world of the machines begins to assume the threatening and unfriendly countenance of an inhuman wilderness even less manageable than that which once confronted prehistoric man. Reason is then swiftly subdued by panic desires to acquire protective coloration. As terri­fied men once got ritually and psychologically into animal skins, so we already have gone far to assume and to propagate the behavior mechanisms of the machines that frighten and overpower us.

Much hope, however, still emerges from those parts of the scene where rational self-awareness and reasonable programs of self-restraint can be cultivated. Combatants merely infect one another. But the friendly dialogue of rational beings can also be as catching as it is civilizing.

(c) 1951 The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (Vanguard Press)