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Chariot of Fire, Cloud of Data

Wednesday, 24 February, 2016

Now that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is underway, one wonders how/if contemporary artists will rise to the challenge of depicting the great changes that are coming. These changes might lead to the ending of drudgery or to the ending of privacy; they might lead to the printing of human organs or to mass production of sexbots… The threats and opportunities are bewildering and what makes the concept of Industry 4.0 so exciting is that where we’re going doesn’t have roads yet.

The First Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century saw the development of new manufacturing techniques, including steam power, and this had a huge impact on employment, output and living standards. But it was hugely disruptive and the English artist William Blake portrayed the downside in his poem Jerusalem:

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?

As smoke and ash belched across hill and dale, the Romantic poets railed against what they say as the ruin of Eden, but the same William Blake, who memorably pictured the “dark Satanic mills”, also said: “Nature without man is barren.” In other words, we are responsible for this world and we must embrace change:

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of Fire!

Blake ended his poem on a defiant note. Let’s see if our modern poets can craft anything as inspiring as Jerusalem while the Cloud unfolds:

I will not cease from mental fight;
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

Two hundred years ago, William Blake urged people to join the fight to build a better world. To arm himself and his readers for the spiritual revolution within the Industrial Revolution, he called for bow, arrow, spear, chariot of fire, passion and imagination. These were the tools for the task. Despite the smoke and flames from the mills, nature could be preserved, he said, but only if people had the will and the wit to save it. Today’s Fourth Industrial Revolution promises great benefits, but its agents, robotics and artificial intelligence, could trigger mass unemployment and social chaos. Do we have the will and wit to cope with that?


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