The Man and the Machine in “Erewhon”

From The Lecture Series: Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature

By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut

The big difference between Europe and Erewhon is laid out in the famous Erewhonian Book of the Machines, a large chunk of which is included verbatim in Samuel Butler’s novel, Erewhon. Is it true that Butler provides two opposing models for thinking about the relationship between man and machine?

Hand drawn illustration of parts of a machine.
Through the Erewhonian Book of Machines Samuel Butler shares his concern about the future of technology and humans. (Image: Vera Petruk/Shutterstock)

Erewhon isn’t the first time Butler speculated about the future of machines. He actually wrote several essays for the Christchurch Press—published in the town of Christchurch, New Zealand, not a religious newspaper—on this topic in the 1860s, the most relevant being “Darwin and the Machines”.

His presentation in his essays and especially in Book of the Machines of two very different perspectives on technological progress has influenced all kinds of philosophers, especially future utopians.

This is a transcript from the video series
Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Technology in Erewhon

The question of machines in Erewhon starts immediately when Higgs arrives in the hidden society, and the very first people he meets bristle at his having in his pocket a watch.

When he learns the language, which he does with Gulliver-like adeptness, he is told by his first interlocutor that he is being kept prisoner in large part because of the watch. But why are the Erewhonians so upset about his watch?

Well, it turns out that they have had some experience with watches, and with technology in general, since at one time they were several centuries ahead of Europeans in their technological development.

Once Higgs reads their most important philosophical tome, Book of the Machines, he learns exactly why the Erewhonians have ceased to use most mechanical tools, and have instead preserved them as a cautionary tale in a kind of tech museum.

Learn more about Voltaire’s Candide.

Erewhon and Machine Consciousness

The Erewhonians believe in the possibility of machine consciousness. In 1872, Samuel Butler, wrote about machine consciousness and tied it to the recent work so brilliantly articulated by Charles Darwin. Book of the Machines provides two possible arguments about the future of machines, and both of them are still completely relevant today.

Young man is controlling robotic hand with virtual reality headset.
In the present day and age, we are still concerned about the penetration of machines and technology in our lives. (Image: vchal/Shutterstock)

The first argument is that machines will eventually become an extension of the humans that have built them, a kind of appendage, like an extra limb that increases efficiency.

The second is that the humans will eventually become an extension or appendage of the machines they have built, nothing but a pet to the far superior machine race.

The Rapid Development of Technology

Book of the Machines argues that machine consciousness will come far more quickly than expected. After all, living things have developed intelligence and consciousness very slowly over time, while machines have existed but a fraction of that time and have already made enormous strides.

Butler’s intuition for how quickly technology would evolve was actually dead on. Is he showing us the results of studying the subjects Unreason and Inconsistency? Or is he actually putting forward an argument for readers to consider? That’s a complicated question because this is a utopia, so it’s far too invested in balancing optimism and satire to provide a clear directive.

Timeless Concerns with Technology in Erewhon

Certainly, Higgs provides much of Book of the Machines unfiltered, allowing the reader to interact with the philosophy directly:

We must choose between the alternative of undergoing much present suffering, or seeing ourselves gradually superseded by our own creatures, till we rank no higher in comparison with them, than the beasts of the field with ourselves.

If that analogy sounds familiar, it may be because we’re still having this conversation today, and perhaps having it more urgently than ever before in the growing presence of smartphone technology in every part of our lives.

Two Perspectives about the Use of Technology

For some people, computers have the possibility of changing our brains, changing the way we think, the very essence of what it means to be human, to the point that humans in the current form won’t even recognize humans in their future form. For these people that’s an exciting thought. For people more aligned with the writer of Butler’s Book of the Machines, it is not such an exciting thought.

Butler wasn’t personally anti-machine, since he invested the money he earned in New Zealand in machine tool production. But he clearly thought it was worth thinking about the future of technology in conceptualizing human futures more broadly, in undertaking utopian projects.

Learn more about the Industrial Revolution: 1750-1830.

Is Evolution only about Genetics?

A portrait of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.
Jean-Baptiste Lamarck argued that acquired traits could be passed on from one generation to the next. (Image: Charles Thévenin/Public domain)

Butler’s use of Darwinian arguments in predicting an extremely rapid evolution of machine intelligence seemed ludicrous to 20th-century readers because of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who argued that acquired traits could be passed on.

Anna Neill, the Victorian literature scholar, suggests that part of why Book of the Machines still feels resonant is that we know in the 21st century that evolution isn’t always only about genetics.

It can be about print culture, information culture. And traits acquired through culture? Well, those traits can be passed on to offspring. Actually, they almost certainly will be.

European Fears about Technology

So, what were Europeans in 1872 to do about the prospect that although machines were at that time analogous to extra limbs that increased efficiency, they might one day become the dominant species, relegating humans to the role of appendage?

They were to read about a fantastic utopian society that acted upon a fear of technology, a society whose members chose to turn their backs on machines, and who also celebrated Inconsistency and Evasion, who were utterly illogical and perhaps even immoral.

Common Questions about the Man and the Machine in Erewhon

Q: What does the Book of Machines say about machine consciousness?

Book of the Machines argues that machine consciousness will come far more quickly than expected.

Q: Why is Higgs imprisoned in Erewhon?

Higgs is imprisoned in Erewhon because he has a watch in his pocket, and the Erewhonians are wary of technology.

Q: What is the name of the most important philosophical tome of the Erewhonians?

Book of the Machines is the most important philosophical tome of the Erewhonians.

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