Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Does machinery inhibit artistic culture?

In 1927, at a time when new media like the radio, telephone and motion pictures were still novel and the television was just being invented, Aldous Huxley wrote an article in Harper’s magazine on ‘the machine age.’ In it he says:
In the days before machinery men and women who wanted to amuse themselves were compelled, in their humble way, to be artists. Now they sit still and permit professionals to entertain them by the aid of machinery. It is difficult to believe that general artistic culture can flourish in this atmosphere of passivity (Huxley, 1927).
The argument is essentially suggesting that people prior to the machine age were creative because they were idle and needed to amuse themselves. If you had nothing to do, you were likely to pick up a musical instrument, or a paintbrush or a pen. In this understanding of human behaviour, we create not because we have talents or a need for self-expression, but because we need to amuse ourselves – to fill time.

The argument is flawed – primarily because it dismisses the fundamental reason why one creates. People have an innate need to express themselves and people will express themselves in a way that fits their talents within the means they have available. For some, that expression may come from a creative pursuit – an artistry – for others it may be through oral story telling, invention, craftsmanship, human relations or productivity. People are inclined to tap into their strengths and use them to the best of their ability. Artists are a certain subset of people that generally express themselves well through a specific set of creative media: music, theatre, dance, visual art or writing (including prose and poetry). But these artistic people would likely find a way to exercise their talents regardless of the media available to them.

Justin Bieber, YouTube music sensation.
CC: Kevin Aranibar of Kerosene Photography
For instance, in the times before musical instruments the musician might have sung or banged out rhythms with sticks or rocks. Yet at another time in history, they might have played an instrument or conducted an orchestra. And again in more recent history, they might have been part of a rock band or a deejay or record producer. Finally, in today’s very digital age, they might be a digital composer, an artist who remixes found audio or a young man singing in their bedroom and posting their songs on YouTube. The artist does not seek to create as a means to amuse themselves or pass time; the artist creates because they need to express themselves and want to send a message. To that end, they will use whatever technology suites their talents and allows their audience to sense the message. As Marshall McLuhan says, “the serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity, just because he is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception” (McLuhan, 1964, p. 208).

Marshall McLuhan at the CBC.
(c) -
McLuhan also says, “we shape our tools and soon after they shape us” (McLuhan, 1964). In that statement he is suggesting that technologies form such a significant role in our society that people adapt behaviours as they become more prolific users. This notion might support Huxley’s assertion that people become passive because of the passive nature of consuming content that is enabled through machinery. This would be true, but technology does not seem to fundamentally change the character of the user. Technology may change the way that one behaves or engages, but it will not substantially adjust the character of the person. Someone who has artistic talent will find a way to use the technology available to them to express themselves, and those who have less artistic inclination will not suddenly become artistic because a new medium is available. There is likely to always be a segment of people who are performers and a segment of the population that will be part of the audience. This is not to suggest that being creative is a trait that is binary, but rather that people might sit on a continuum related to their level of creativity, exhibitionism or artistic talent.

Transliteracy? A One man band (circa 1865).
Photo by Knox, O.C.
The interesting thing about artistic talent is that those who are strong in one art tend to be strong in others as well. A musician will play multiple instruments; a visual artist is likely to create using collage, sculpture and different paints on different platforms; a writer might write fiction, poetry and essays as well as plays. Similarly, it would be very common for a musician to excel in dance, for an actor to take up writing or for a sculptor to dabble in architecture. People who use multiple mediums and platforms for creativity would have done so in the time before machines, in the time of Huxley and they continue to do so in today’s very digital age.

The ability to communicate in more than one medium is not exclusive to artists. In fact, it is a set of skills of growing importance in our increasingly digital world, accurately described using the term transliteracy. According to Sue Thomas, transliteracy scholar and author of, “transliteracy is the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks” (Thomas et al, 2007). As more technologies emerge, humans are not becoming more passive, rather they are becoming more active. Howard Rheingold is quoted as saying, “[w]hat we are witnessing today is [thus] the acceleration of a trend that has been building for thousands of years. When technologies like alphabets and Internets amplify the right cognitive or social capabilities, old trends take new twists and people build things that never could be built before” (in Thomas et al, 2007).

The advent and expansion of machinery, as Huxley calls it, has not inhibited artistry in any way. Some people still pick up the guitar for amusement, others don ballet slippers and now some people open their laptop and create stories using the full power of the tools available to them. Andy Campbell is a digital writer and author of the website Dreaming Methods. As a new media author he publishes stories that take full use of the digital technology and incorporate multiple media into a single cohesive narrative. The “reader” will read printed words on a screen that might be written overtop of a static image while music plays. When a hyperlink is clicked, the screen transforms, words fade or emerge and a video begins to play. These digital narratives effectively incorporate text, sound, music, visual arts, graphic arts, animation and video into one piece that creates a rich narrative experience. Campbell is a prime example of a transliterate creator. Rather than sitting still and allowing professionals to entertain him, he is using the tools available to him in complex, integrated and creative ways to express himself.

Aldous Huxley was perhaps limited in his perspective in 1927 about the power of machines for creative purposes, but nonetheless his assertion of machines by their nature affecting passivity amongst the creative class is simply incorrect. But, perhaps Huxley’s message needs to be heeded as a warning. There is a risk that in a society with pervasive content where creativity is not nurtured and where skills of transliteracy are not developed, we could end up with more and more citizens who are lulled by entertainers into an atmosphere of passivity. Combating this risk would require ensuring that citizens are taught a set of skills that encourage activity using digital technologies.

In his essay, Participative Pedagogy for a Literacy of Literacies, Howard Rheingold writes, “if the humans currently alive are to take advantage of digital technologies to address the most severe problems that face our species and the biosphere, computers, telephones and digital networks are not enough. We need new literacies around participatory media, the dynamics of cooperation and collective action, the effective deployment of attention and the relatively rational and critical discourse necessary for a healthy public sphere (Rheingold, 2007).” Rheingold provides a compelling case for a new pedagogy that helps ensure the full participation of young people. In talking about important participatory literacies, he does not speak specifically about the need for creative but others do. “Expanding literacies for learning include criticality, metacognition, reflection, and skills for creating and publishing content” (Asselin & Maoyeri, 2011, p. 1).

In conclusion, let us not take Huxley’s doubt “that general artistic culture can flourish in this atmosphere of passivity” as a fait accomplis, instead let us take it as a call to action to ensure that our artists, and citizens in general, may maintain a creative edge in this new age of machinery.


Asselin, M. & Moayeri, M. (2011). The Participatory Classroom: Web 2.0 in the Classroom. Practical Strategies – Literacy Learning: the Middle Years: 19(2).

Huxley, A. (1927). The Outlook for
American Culture: Some Reflections in a Machine Age. Harper’s Magazine, August, 1927.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw Hill.

Rheingold, H. (2007). Participative Pedagogy for a Literacy of Literacies. Retrieved April 3, 2011, from:

Thomas, S., Joseph, C., Laccetti, J. Mason, B., Mills, S., Perril, S., & Pullinger, K. (2007).  Transliteracy: Crossing Divides. First Monday, Volume 12 Number 12 - 3 December 2007. Retrieved March 23, 2011, from:

1 comment:

  1. just wanna comment on this one that its really well written and I like your sharing, thanks
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