Effects of Technology and Industrialization Through the Lens of Film and Literature
Industrialization and the innovative, transformative technology it had brought forth are extensively highlighted in films such as Dziga Vertov's film The Man with a Movie Camera, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis,Walter Ruttman’s Symphony of a Great City,and Aleksandr Medvedkin’s The New Moscow, although the consequences of this emerging technology are depicted from different perspectives, ranging from a celebration of its power to an indictment of its dominance. The films The Man with a Movie Camera and Metropolis, while both oriented toward similar subjects and portray the urban landscape that is shaped by technological advances, offer vastly different interpretations of the consequences of new technology. Moreover, the ubiquity of technology is embodied by the highly efficient city of Boston set in the future, depicted by Edward Bellamy in his novel Looking Backward, 2000-1887, yet Bellamy’s treatment of the repercussions of this proliferation of technology is highly ambivalent, just like the aforementioned films. Traversing the new Boston proves to be a thoroughly strange and alienating experience for the narrator of the novel because although Boston has become highly efficient, it is deprived of authenticity and idiosyncrasies that make it so unique.
The Man with a Movie Camera contains many innovative cinematic techniques—such as double exposure, superimposition, extreme close-ups, tracking shots, jump cuts, split screens, and more. By highlight these techniques, the film director Dziga Vertov is indirectly celebrating the advances in film technology that enabled him to create these fantastic effects and produce a film that is avant-garde and dazzling, a feat of cinematic virtuosity. Even the background music that accompanies these scenes is boisterous, with the rapid melodies contributing to the joyous, celebratory mood of the movie as it extols the virtues of technology in improving the society and making people’s lives more efficient and exciting. The power of technology is also demonstrated by the actual creation and production of the film because it utilizes the aforementioned cinematic techniques in various ways to warp reality. The rapid transitions almost mirror the frenetic pace at which industrialization is transforming the urban environment of Russia. By speeding up and zooming in and out of certain scenes, Vertov is able to alter the viewer’s perception of time as he and his camera provide a singular experience of traversing different cities in Russia. Vertov’s camera functions as a human eye in examining the city, yet it is greater and more powerful than the human eye in perceiving the city because it overcomes boundaries of human perception and transcends beyond the limits of the human eye. For example, it offers multiple perspectives juxtaposed next to each other, accomplished through split screens, thereby enabling the audience to simultaneously see two views of the city, an impossible feat for the human eye. Another important shot occurs at 19:14 that captures the unique perspective, otherwise inaccessible, rendered possible to the audience with a camera, which is nestled between two moving railway cars. It is evident that Vertov is aware of his film’s extensive use and celebration of technology because 26:07, he designs an extremely self-conscious shot—one in which the camera that is capturing the city is directly pointed toward the audience, reminding them that this film offers a biased view of the city and that what they have seen is not actual reality, but a constructed reality. However, this film can also be interpreted as somewhat subversive, inadvertently gesturing at the less savory aspects of technology since the combination of these effects can feel at times overwhelming and overpowering. The shots move at alarmingly quick speeds, and frequently, there are abrupt transitions when different shots are spliced together. Moreover, some of the quirky elements featured in the film—like a shot of a store display of a doll attached to a pair of adult legs riding a bike—whether intentional or not, suggest something quite disorienting about industrialization and technological progress because the shots of these hybrid products seem quite alien yet oddly familiar.
Yet, the sinister side of industrialization and technology need to be acknowledged, and the films New Moscow and Metropolis gesture toward the dehumanizing and brutal nature of technology and industrialization, forces that seem to efface human will and individuality. These films offer more ambivalent interpretations of the influence of technology and industrialization on society. Fritz Lang’s film contains several long, panning shots of the city but in them, there are no humans, just cars and other transportation infrastructure, with the buildings dwarfing the steadily moving vehicles that appear as worker ants milling about, making the film feel soulless and highlighting the overpowering force of technology and industrialization in suppressing human presence. Lang also utilizes many shots of machines churning and gears spinning; yet, the showcasing of these movements contributes to a depiction of a city that is utterly consumed by technology. Progressing in a steady rhythm, the film features a city that appears monolithic, and the movements seem orchestrated, with the city panorama offering a glimpse of not human activity and daily life but rather imposing, soaring skyscrapers. While these panoramic shots of the city are made possible by technology, the urban sequences seem slightly sinister with people with intense, strained expressions and often framed as helpless and confused next to machines that billow smoke and emit strange and harsh sounds, infusing the film with an eerie atmosphere. Moreover, the machines are humanized with the text accompanying the film, with lines such as “Nothing in the world is more vengeful than the jealousy of a machine” and “That the people are consumed by the machines does not prove that the machines are greedy,” augmenting the unsettling nature of technology and the role it plays in influencing society. Man-machine hybrids are also depicted in the film, and the rhetorical question, “Who is the life force of the machines of Metropolis?” forces the audience to question the pernicious penetration of technology into the psychology of humans. People are often depicted in groups or in some kind of formation, emphasizing the dehumanization and deindividuation occurring with the advent of industrialization as the workers become stripped of their identities as they engage in work that is portrayed as mindless and demeaning. Even the soundtrack creates a heavy and foreboding mood, with the ominous sounds of somber strings and heavy percussion foreshadowing impending doom.
In my blog post of “Moscow as a City of Contradictions,” I argued the film The New Moscow offers a contradictory of the ever-evolving Moscow, with the changes enabled by technology and expedited by industrialization and modernization. Moments of ambiguity undermine the celebratory nature of this film of Moscow’s rapid urbanization—one scene is when the audience erupts into high-pitched child-like laughter when viewing old buildings being demolished and the clouds of dust and smoke that accompany this destruction. This film also features a moving train at the end as the grandmother bids farewell to her grandson. Thus, the constantly moving train featured in many of these movies can perhaps be regarded as a symbol of industrialization and technology as the engine of inevitable change. The relentless pace at which these forces are transforming the society is tempered by serious negative consequences, such as the exacerbation of the class struggle and antagonism, along with enslavement to the machines and the dangerous drudgery of factory work, as highlighted by Metropolis.
As engines of both positive and negative changes, industrialization and technology need to be examined from not only a scientific and economic perspective but also a social and human perspective because the changes they bring forth have consequential changes on people’s lives and the various ways in which they interact with the urban environment around them. In my Moscow Omeka assignment, I discuss the various educational institutions of higher learning in Moscow, arguing that they represent the products of changing regimes because they have evolved in significant ways since their establishments, with these changes mirroring the ebbs and flows of different political and social climates. For example, many of these institutions reflect the legacy of the Soviet regime because they are state-sponsored institutions that are controlled by the Russian government, with a prominent one being Moscow State University, which is the quintessential Russian institution. Many of these institutions have a heavy emphasis on the sciences, reflecting the importance of these disciplines in spearheading new technology and influencing the economy; the scientific thinking espoused by them has also shaped the Russian society in more profound ways by helping usher in an era of democratization and liberalization following the death of Stalin. By contextualizing the changes that have occurred to these educational institutions within their specific historical time periods, I have gained a deeper appreciation for the complexities of seemingly generic places. Furthermore, in the Omeka assignment that utilizes maps as a method to illuminate the importance of a city during a critical historical time period, I explore the pervasive influence of British rule on the Indian state of Bombay, which can be seen in its name Bombay, which many Indians argued was a “corrupted version English of ‘Mumbai’ and an unwanted legacy of British colonial rule.” One can perhaps view this as a bastardized form of globalization, in the sense that colonialism has facilitated the exchange of different ideas all over the world although it resembles more of an imposition of a specific system of control by the mother country on its colonies. For Mumbai, the pendulum of time has swung back and forth between Indian and British domination, for it originated as a place with pure Indian culture yet now contains heavy traces of British heritage.
Other exhibits that reflect the ambiguities of the effects of technology on societies are my Boston and Istanbul exhibits, which capture the power of technology to present important historical and cultural sites in innovative ways. My Boston exhibit examines the historic South End Burying Ground, which is a public space shrouded in privacy due to the configuration actual site, with imposing concrete walls and iron gates that obscure the public view of the space and prevent easy access to it. Yet this site becomes accessible through Google Maps, which provides an unrestricted and unobstructed aerial view of the graveyard. This privileged perspective of the space demonstrates the power of technology in altering people’s perceptions of common spaces they interact with. For my Istanbul exhibit, I study how a famous cultural, religious, and historical site, the Zeyrek Camii, has been transformed over the centuries due to the changing religions. My efforts at deciphering its fast were facilitated by easy access to archives that contain photographs of the mosque at different periods of time, and one of the most illuminating articles discusses the importance of new preservation technologies in helping restore the Zeyrek Camii to its former glory without sacrificing accuracy and authenticity.