As an industrial engineer, the industry aspects of both “Modern Times” and One-Dimensional Man interested me greatly. I’m especially interested in how humans play into systems, and again, both the movie and the book played into this interest. Together, they make a point about how humans interact with the industrial machine. Marcuse makes the argument that the machine has become the absolute unit of production, instead of just an individual unit (Marcuse 28). In “Modern Times”, the controlling entity is the machine in both the industrial factory and in the rest of the character’s lives. Through examples in the movie and ideas in One-Dimensional Man, we can see how this automation and encapsulation will affect the lives of people in industrial society.
Machines are the only things, living or nonliving, which have a voice in “Modern Times”. Except for the singing scene, the only time we hear a human voice is through a machine (e.g. the boss over the intercom, the ad on the radio). In addition, there are no natural noises, but the machines sometimes make noise when they are being operated. The people in the movie need no voice, because they have become part of the machine. Marcuse argues that industrialization has created a machine that is a system of tools and relations, and thus extends beyond the individual work process (Marcuse 27). The machine has encapsulated the humans, and therefore is the only thing that needs a voice. People may have a voice, but only through and controlled by a technological entity.
Both administration and workers rely on and are controlled by technology. The set speed of production is controlled by the moving belt, in combination with what the manager tells his workers. Since the boss is just twiddling his thumbs in the office, some sort of technology must tell him that the workers are moving too slowly. The machine informs the boss that it needs to be sped up. Once the speed is changed, it is controlling the workers once again. Marcuse calls this a vicious circle, in which the struggle between the “Master and the Servant” has become nonexistent, and this struggle has now only become part of the system that is the machine (Marcuse 33). The technology in the plant has become the absolute unit, controlling everything inside.
“Modern Times” begins with the Little Tramp working at the factory. It focuses on him and two other workers on the same line. They’re each doing their part in time with the moving belt, so that once the work piece reaches the end, it is finished. Staying in time with a repetitive motion, the workers have essentially become part of the machine in a physical sense. Marcuse implies that this kind of rhythmic system can be mesmerizing and almost sexual (Marcuse27). In many other ways, Marcuse also discusses how being part of an industrial setting is desirable. There are a number of ways in which industrial society can be made extremely livable, and sometimes enjoyable. In this way, it is easy to become part of the absolute unit.
The workers at the industrial factory in “Modern Times” have surrendered to what Marcuse calls pure servitude. Humans are in pure servitude if they exist as an instrument; they do not exist as a person, but instead a thing (Marcuse 33). In the movie, this existence is demonstrated in many ways. The most apparent example is when the feeding machine is tested out on the Little Tramp. The manager decides to use him as a testing subject, and even when the contraption is clearly malfunctioning and hurting the Little Tramp, the boss is only concerned with the practicality of it. In this situation, the Little Tramp is treated as an object, not a human being. In addition, the Little Tramp is considered to be disposable by employers throughout the entire movie. He can easily be thrown out to the street if he does not do his job extremely well. The dispensable quality of workers is another way in which the characters in “Modern Times” are not treated how a human deserves to be treated.
Together, Marcuse and “Modern Times” show us that the machine has become the absolute unit of production, as well as the lives of the people living in industrial society. Every character in the movie is controlled by technology, and their lives are affected. This power that the machine now has over the lives of the people is evident in “Modern Times” in both positive and negative ways. Marcuse suggests that this absolute control is a cycle that will continue to happen, unless we break it. “Modern Times” demonstrates in many ways that this is indeed what we want to do.