The quaint era when our trust in technology was universal

By Jayson Jacoby April 20, 2012 09:15 am

The recent commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Titanic tragedy, besides being a fascinating historical remembrance, was for me also a preview of sorts.

Two years from now marks the centennial of another epochal episode from the previous century: The outbreak of World War One.

These two events, due in part to their proximity in time, have come to represent a glaring, and disastrous, plunge from what had been a steady rise in the belief that technology would inevitably enrich the lives of most people.

The sinking of the Titanic could at least be dismissed as a terrible anomaly.

Certainly it proved that engineers were fallible. They could indeed build machines with a magnificence never before seen. But they hadn’t yet rendered nature impotent.

Not icebergs, anyway.

World War One, by contrast, was a cataclysm without precedent in human history.

And yet, a century on, it doesn’t resonate with people as the fate of the Titanic does.

It’s significant, I think, that one of the most popular movies ever is about a ship capsizing that killed 1,500 people, not a war in which 10 million were slain.

Or maybe it’s just that James Cameron hasn’t taken a fancy to World War One.

Of course there is a singularity to the Titanic story that distinguishes it.

World War One, by contrast, was the first act in the bloodletting which defined the first half of the 20th century.

And the second act, although I disdain such comparisons, was worse still — especially for the tens of millions of civilians who joined the military as casualties.

The Titanic might not be the best-known ship in history had its demise been followed, 20 years later, by a six-year period in which a couple of ocean liners went down, with comparable death tolls, every week or so.

Still and all, the similarities between the Titanic and World War One in how humanity looked at technology seem to me striking.

The former illustrated the dangers of hubris when applied to what was, ostensibly, an effort to make the world a better place (and unless you were in steerage, a more luxurious one).

The latter showed, to vastly more horrible effect, how vulnerable humans can be when our ingenuity is, in effect, turned against us.

This was demonstrated most trenchantly, during World War One, by the machine gun.

This weapon, despite what’s often implied by sloppy historical work, wasn’t the most lethal implement deployed in the trenches of the Western Front from 1914-18.

Artillery killed far more men.

But the machine gun’s effectiveness as a defensive weapon was largely responsible for creating the nearly stationary war — advances during World War One were often measured, pathetically, in meters rather than in miles — that made millions of men such ripe targets for the indiscriminate lethality of howitzers and trench mortars and field guns.

Perhaps the best-known line ever written about the machine gun was penned in 1898, during the weapon’s infancy, by the British writer Hilaire Belloc.

At that time the British, who were to suffer so greatly due to the machine gun’s brutal efficiency less than a generation later, were using the rapid-firing gun designed by an American inventor, Hiram Maxim, to mow down thousands of Africans during various colonial campaigns.

Belloc wrote this little couplet:

 

“Whatever happens we have got

The Maxim gun, and they have not.”

This sentiment was indeed reassuring when the “they” in question were tribesmen brandishing spears.

But the situation in August 1914, when the British Army confronted the Germans in Belgium and Northern France, was quite different.

No longer was there a “we” and a “they” in the sense Belloc described.

There prevailed instead on the battlefield a sort of murderous equality that would persist for the next four years.

Everyone had the Maxim gun.

And the soldiers ordered to attack trenches which bristled with these guns, each one sending 600 bullets every minute on an inexorable, supersonic flight, had about as much chance as the Africans did.

And so it was that within the span of little more than two years — from the Titanic’s lone voyage in April 1912 to the assassin Gavrilo Princip killing Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 — the world came to see that the marvels of technology could, like a faithful dog driven mad by rabies, become malignant.

Not so long afterward, Maxim’s successors, in spirit if not in education, would start to tinker with things infinitely smaller yet vastly more dangerous than high-velocity bullets.

Atoms.

 

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.