Peanuts, brass, cheese. It doesn’t quite matter what you throw into the title slide of “Modern Marvels,” you’re getting the same show in the end. That’s not a fault of the show, in fact, it’s a deeper theme that the show reveals about our modern world. Here’s how it goes.
See, there’s something useful that was discovered some time ago. The precise time doesn’t matter much once you realize that human progress has been on an exponential scale for some time. If it happened more than a hundred years ago, it may as well as happened a thousand years ago for all the relation it has to the present day. In any case, some clever trick of nature was discovered by us enterprising naked apes, be it a tasty nut, a pliable but shiny metal or even the way that particular forms of rotting actually taste pretty good. Centuries of hand crafting and refinement are compressed into a few minutes before the first commercial break.
In the nineteenth or twentieth century one of this endless line of tradesmen (usually an American, but occasionally the odd European) realizes that if they rigged a machine just so, they could make ten times as much of the commodity for essentially the same amount of effort on their part. Kraft or Hershey, the innovator’s name doesn’t matter much, though it’s always familiar and the story is always the same. There’s the explosive growth of sales, the expansion into bigger and bigger factories, a bustling montage of graying pictures and old footage revealing the frenetic worming outwards. Finally, the familiar is shown. In the case of products, we see the first ones that really look like what we use today, the first brand names that we still have in our homes.
The climax of the individual episode is inevitably the same, the walk through of the enormous streamlined modern factory. Great machines that put Rube Goldberg to shame are shown in action. The raw ore is poured into this smelter which melts it to exactly 1012 degrees so that the whey separates from the curd and can be scooped off by this paddle device which then mixes the batter for seventeen minutes while sulfuric acid is added by computer. After eleven days soaking in brine the pickles are shot off a conveyer belt and a shape recognition program tells precise air jets which French fries to knock off course into the discards which can be ground up for animal feed or resmelted into water pipes. Once the copper content of the twinkies reaches 99%, this machine wraps, boxes, and shakes the cans at 3000 RPM to ensure separation doesn’t occur. Then the pallets are loaded onto the truck. And that’s how everything in the modern world is made. The Aristocrats!
If you watch a marathon of “Modern Marvels” episodes this is what you pick up on, the way that most of the episodes seem to blur together into exactly the same story that leads to the exact same place. Essentially everything material we have, every shelf of the grocery store, every part that goes into every manufactured good, follows a familiar path. Raw materials are dumped into one end of a hundred foot long metal and plastic beast, fed by pipes and trucks and wires, and the things we use come belching out the other end, complete with packaging and labels. A few people scurry among the machines, monitoring the endless rows of computer screens and dials, but they’re mostly just watchmen. The engineers design the leviathan and its handlers merely keep it fed day and night so its work never ceases.
It’s easy to watch that and have a knee jerk reaction about mechanization ruining craftsmanship, about machines replacing workers. That’s luddite nostalgia. We can build machines to do every mindless task imaginable, freeing human beings, the only thinking machines we’ve got, for the tasks that require the use of those brains. What “Modern Marvels” demonstrates is just how magnificently ingenious the human mind has been these last couple of centuries to harness machinery the way our ancestors harnessed the first horses and oxen to plow their fields instead of breaking their own backs.
No, the real shuddering realization is that all those brilliant humming machines churning out everything around us, our own little cornucopia machines, all will stop the instant the plug is pulled. Energy policy invariably ends up talking about cars, or in parts of the world with real winters, the power to heat, but it rarely stops to reflect on what energy really means in the modern world. Electricity is modern civilization. The juice in the outlets is all that really separates us from the nineteenth century and the long void before it of a world lit only by fire.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.