Our Mechanistic Age: Helping Us-Or Making Us Helpless?

We dwell in a smaller world, by the scale of clocks; we are more vulnerable to our enemies, more accessible to our friends; we tap previously distant sources of supply. Science has revalued geo­graphical locations, increased the density of populations, and offered its rewards to new knowledges and trades. The houses we own, the meals we eat, the tensions we feel, the skills we teach, differ from those of our forefathers in funda­mental ways. Ideals, wealth, and power are all in a state of flux.

When the art of flying was very young, most of us thought that men on wings would soar over mountains and oceans to bring countries close together in peace­ful understanding. We assumed that easy contact between peoples would simplify diplomacy, and decrease war. Now, at the end of the first half century of engine-driven flight, we are confronted with the stark fact that the historical sig­nificance of aircraft has been pri­marily military and destructive. Our bombs have wiped out, in minutes, an inheritance of life and labor which centuries created. Aviation is having its greatest effect on the force-influence of na­tions and factors of survival, while diplomatic relationships are floun­dering in a strange new frame­work of power, time, and space.

With hindsight we see that our early enthusiasm over the dis­coveries of science and the con­quest of the air blinded us to nat­ural laws which govern the con­duct of men.

Man has always had a tendency to complicate his life with technical knowledge and material de­vices. Since the mechanistic age began, we have allowed ourselves to become increasingly bound to a regime required by its training and encouraged by its products.

Our scientific, economic, and military accomplishments are rooted in the human quality which produces them. In the last analy­sis, all of our knowledge, all of our action, all of our progress, suc­ceeds or fails according to its effect on the human body, mind, and spirit.

The Nature of Man

Man is born with qualities of body, mind, and spirit. No system can maintain the utmost power un­less it gives all his faculties free play. Most of us remember when the requirements of living en­forced a more balanced life. Not many years ago, the efficiency and specialization demanded of us to­day were impossible. As a lawyer, my father harnessed a horse to carry on his business. As a young pilot, I unlashed my wings from fence posts and pulled through my own propeller. But my father and I knew the feel of rain and the smell of ground, and there was time for our thoughts to wander. When night came, our muscles put our brains to sleep.

Now, modern standards require an efficiency which immobilizes the muscles and the senses while it over activates the brain.

Youth must specialize in tech­nical training. Daylight hours of adult years must be spent beside machines, drafting boards, and desks. Here, we meet the basic question of how deeply and how long man can consecrate himself to his machines without losing the human qualities essential even to effective consecration.

American aviation has accepted the responsibility for material power. From the standpoint of short-term survival, the confidence placed in our science and industry has been justified through the per­formance and the numbers of our aircraft. But our very success in the field of material power silhou­ettes problems of human power which confront us. War, strikes, and political unrest have flamed on all our speed-compressed horizons. From the standpoint of long-term survival, what is our regime of life doing to our people?

Problems of Our Age

During decades of industrial de­velopment, western man has taken himself for granted while he con­centrated his attention on his ma­terial creations. He now wakes rather suddenly to find his security dependent on the machine organi­zation he has built, with his civil­ization threatened by its products. He comes to the increasing realiza­tion that he has not kept inward pace with his outward actions.

This mid-century generation we represent stands on amazing ac­complishments, but faces alarming problems. We have wiped out a city with a single bomb, but how can we use this fact to heighten our civilization? We build aircraft by the tens of thousands in our factories, but what will our fac­tories build in the character of their personnel — not only in our generation, but in our children’s, and their children’s? We tie all countries close together, put each doorstep on a universal ocean, but how are we to direct these accom­plishments to improve the basic qualities of life? In emphasizing force, efficiency, and speed, are we losing a humility, simplicity, and tranquility without which we can­not indefinitely hold our own, even in worldly competition?

These are the problems of human power, of long-term sur­vival upon earth. We have shown what man can make of science. Now it is a question of what our scientific environment will make of man, for an environment affects the form and thought of each new generation. To date, the results of science have been primarily materialistic. We have measured suc­cess by our products rather than by ourselves. A materialism which overemphasizes short-term sur­vival detracts from the humanism essential to long-term survival. We must remember that it was not the outer grandeur of the Roman, but the inner simplicity of the Christian that lived on through the ages.

I have stated a problem. You have the right to ask for a solution. I believe the solution lies in each individual, through the standards he holds; that it lies not in political parties or radical movements, but in human values and gradual trends; not in a greater complica­tion, but in a greater simplicity of life. In other words, I believe that the solution lies within ourselves, and that we can find it nowhere else.

But we must have more than an intellectual desire, filed away in the archives of idea. It must enter the roots of our being until it shapes our action instinctively as well as through the conscious mind, until we see the producer as more important than his product, and find it no sacrifice to renounce material standards of success —until we realize in our bones as well as in our brains that the character of man still forms the essential core of a lasting civiliza­tion.

From an address before the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences, New York, January 25, 1954.