As time passes, the phrase “technological wonder” becomes a stale cliché. Eventually, our technological wonders no longer win over our admiration. So wrote G. K. Chesterton in his essay, “About the Telephone.” Thus, he asks, what really is the aim of our technological advances, if we lose our awe?
Man is born for trouble as the electric sparks fly upward, or wherever the electric sparks may fly; it is even hinted, though perhaps mystically and indirectly, that a life of peace, perfect peace, would be one in which the telephone ceased from troubling and the subscribers were at rest. But the truth goes deeper than any incidental irritations that might arise from the mismanagement of the instrument; it implies some degree of indifference even in the management of it.
We are incessantly told, indeed, that the modern scientific appliances, even those like the telephone, which are now universally applied, are the miracles of man, and the marvels of science, and the wonders of the new world. But though the inventions are talked of in this way, they are not treated in this way.
Or, rather, if they are so talked of in theory, they are not so talked of in practice.
There has certainly been a rush of discovery, a rapid series of inventions; and, in one sense, the activity is marvelous and the rapidity might well look like magic. But it has been a rapidity in things going stale; a rush downhill to the flat and dreary world of the prosaic; a haste of marvelous things to lose their marvelous character; a deluge of wonders to destroy wonder. This may be the improvement of machinery, but it cannot possibly be the improvement of man.
And since it is not the improvement of man, it cannot possibly be progress. Man is the creature that progress professes to improve; it is not a race of wheels against wheels, or a wrestling match of engines against engines. Improvement implies all that is commonly called education; and education implies enlargement; and especially enlargement of the imagination. It implies exactly that imaginative intensity of appreciation which does not permit anything that might be vivid or significant to become trivial or vulgar. If we have vulgarized electricity on the earth, it is no answer to boast that, in a few years more, we can vulgarize the stars in the sky.
Tell me that the bustling business man is struck rigid in prayer at the mere sound of the telephone-bell, like the peasants of Millet at the Angelus; tell me that he bows in reverence as he approaches the shrine of the telephone-box; tell me even that he hails it with Pagan rather than with Christian ritual, that he gives his ear to the receiver as to an Oracle of Delphi, or thinks of the young lady on an office-stool at the Exchange [the operator] as of a priestess seated upon a tripod in a distant temple; tell me even that he has an ordinary poetical appreciation of the idea of that human voice coming across hills and valleys — as much appreciation as men had about the horn of Roland or the shout of Achilles — tell me that these scenes of adoration or agitation are common in the commercial office on the receipt of a telephone call, and then (upon the preliminary presumption that I believe a word you say), then indeed I will follow your bustling business man and your bold, scientific inventor to the conquest of new worlds and to the scaling of the stars.
For then I shall know that they really do find what they want and understand what they find; I shall know that they do add new experiences to our life and new powers and passions to our souls; that they are like men finding new languages, or new arts, or new schools of architecture. But all they can say, in the sort of passage I quoted, is that they can invent things which are generally commonplace conveniences, but very often commonplace inconveniences. And all that they can boast, in answer to any intelligent criticism, is that they may yet learn how to make the sun and moon and the everlasting heavens equally commonplace, and probably equally inconvenient.
Let it be noted that this is not, as is always loosely imagined, a reaction against material science; or a regret for mechanical invention; or a depreciation of telephones or telescopes or anything else. It is exactly the other way. I am not depreciating telephones; I am complaining that they are not appreciated. I am not attacking inventions; I am attacking indifference to inventions. I only remark that it is the same people who brag about them who are really indifferent to them. I am not objecting to the statement that the science of the modern world is wonderful; I am only objecting to the modern world because it does not wonder at it.