Overnight Barbarians

How has modern technology deprived us of more human skills?

We often complain—and hear people, from conservatives to rad-trads, complain—that the world is becoming barbarized, reminiscent of ancient Rome in its decadent decline. Parallels are easily drawn in areas such as the rise of homosexuality, abortion, and increasing division between the rich and poor.

Technology is often invoked as a paradoxical sign of modernity’s barbarism: modern man uses his technical mastery to create and watch films like Gladiator rather than attending gladiatorial games in person; advanced contraceptives replace the “need” for houses of prostitution; fighter jets and bombers annihilate thousands at high speeds and long range rather than via Viking raids.

Ignorance of literature, art, and music despite technologies which make these increasingly “available” is also often commented upon. But how often do we think of skills which technology deprives us of?

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The Catholic writer and activist Carol Jackson Robinson commented on this phenomenon in the 1940s. Having “tended” machines above all other types of “cultivation,” we were “rendered impotent to fend for ourselves” and then

[we] invented the atom bomb, which could, within several hours, destroy the whole, hopelessly interdependent system and put us right back into simple savagery. And it would be savagery. No one would know anything—how to build a house, or weave a garment, or make bread, or fashion shoes, or tell a story. We would become barbarians overnight because we are barbarians already. 

That’s a stark diagnosis. What are we to do?

Surprisingly, I see more hope than Robinson saw some seventy-five years ago. She touches on this topic in “Machine versus Hand Facture,” an essay in the collection This Perverse Generation, recently republished by Arouca Press. “The root economic fight today is not capital versus labor,” she writes. “It is the machine tenders versus the machine smashers. It is not primarily an economic problem…but the economic aspect of a spiritual problem.” 

Robinson emphasizes that it 

is not an argument between the primitive and the man of progress, as it is often represented. Rather, it is the quarrel between culture and the new barbarianism. The machine smasher esteems tools that add to the dexterity of his hand, whether the lathe or the surgeon’s instruments. The machines which replace his intellect and skill are the ones he loathes. 

I think there is a temptation to underestimate the extent to which love of dexterity and skill and intellect have survived, albeit in little pockets and backwaters of the Western world. One of the great cultivators of such pockets was Dr. John Senior, the American educator and author whose philosophical vision inspired the founding of Wyoming Catholic College. I think there is a temptation to underestimate the extent to which love of dexterity and skill and intellect have survived, albeit in little pockets and backwaters of the Western world.Tweet This

Although Senior is not the burden of this essay, I think it is important to point out the fact that Robinson’s comments reinforce John Senior’s “TV smashing” sentiments, which are often easily written off without ever allowing his arguments to register. Robinson’s insights in “Machine versus Hand Facture” date from 1949. Such an “early” assessment of technology surely deserves our attention. Her main conclusions are fourfold:

  1. The independence and freedom of modern man “can be laid at the door of machine facture” to the extent to which technology locks one into an economic system outside the scale of farm and workshop. Once your job as a farmer becomes inseparable from a tractor whose construction, maintenance, and fueling depends on supply chains lost in the mist of the unknown, one’s ability to farm becomes dependent on a thousand men and circumstances outside of your knowledge and control.
  1. Machines contribute to the drudgerization of work: work becomes the careful tending (ever more specialized) of machines which manipulate reality for us, rather than taking the creative and destructive necessities of work upon our own shoulders and hands. One sign of this is that wage becomes the overarching concern because there are no interesting jobs anymore.
  1. “Many a lesson in the spiritual life is learned almost unconsciously by hand work.” Virtue and skill are developed in almost immeasurable ways by handcrafts, allowing an outlet and giving a direction to energies which will otherwise be misdirected. Patience with natural cycles and limitations becomes impossible when machines are the things being waited on.
  1. “The machine age wastes on a prodigious scale.” The “green” and recycling movements have already recognized this on one level. What they haven’t realized is the waste of intelligence machines create: take payroll calculating machines, Robinson says. “Of course, the machine will be doing all the intelligent work. The twenty-seven people will be feeding the machine mechanized information and (mostly) correcting the errors which result from feeding it wrong information because the job is too dull to keep their minds on it.”

“But the machine age is here to stay, and look at what it has brought us,” readers of this and Robinson’s article might object. Robinson points out how contingent most technologies are: radios are useful if you have something worth saying; cars if you have somewhere worth going; others handy, like contraceptives or atom bombs, but not worth the “sacrifice of sanctity, domestic felicity, or political peace.” Along with all of this goes “congestion, commuting, time clocks, advertising, women in industry, ugliness everywhere, the destruction of nature, the loss of the home as an economic unit, materialism, and an incalculable loss of souls.” Robinson cries: “Who can say that all has come to stay and be resigned to it?”

As it turns out, there have been people who were not resigned to it—people like John Senior and his students, who founded establishments like the monastic oasis of Clear Creek and the technology-wary Wyoming Catholic College. It is because of centers like these that Robinson seems unjustified in her pessimistic statement: “The machine smashers have lost their battle long since and are now moth-eaten and nearly extinct.” Well, all it takes is a visit to a traditional religious community or a small liberal arts college to shake the notion of “moth eaten” from the future of a reality loved and served by people and not machines.

And what shall we do about it in our own lives? Let us start examining the extent to which technology has made our own lives “moth eaten.” It’s high time for us to be unashamed of our cultural pockets and let them spread in the midst of the “new barbarism.” It is time to not only rediscover handcrafting skills like sewing and woodworking but to free our minds from service to machines, handheld and otherwise. The “primitive beauty of human things” will not be cultivated in screens and headphones but discovered in minds and hands willing to apply themselves to reality.


  • Julian Kwasniewski

    Julian Kwasniewski is a musician specializing in renaissance Lute and vocal music, an artist and graphic designer, as well as marketing consultant for several Catholic companies. His writings have appeared in National Catholic Register, Latin Mass Magazine, OnePeterFive, and New Liturgical Movement. You can find some of his artwork on Etsy.

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