Our Mechanistic Minds

Machine thinking makes us less human. 

As some of my children have gone off to college, I have thought more about their generation, which demographers call the Millennials. A young man in our church graciously asked me to lead his Life Group once per month, and that has given me more occasion to discover this fascinating generation. We also have a young woman from Persia living with us, and she is wonderful at explaining much about how non-American millennials think.

Some examples stand out in my mind. Though earnestly seeking a wife, one 25 year old man agonized over dating a woman he met on Christian Mingle, concerned that it might be risky. A woman in her mid-twenties wanted to meet a man but wasn’t willing to do much to attract one. The very idea of attracting a man was offensive. A 24 year old college graduate hoped to be dating and knew many eligible men her age but did nothing to encourage their overtures. Another man was afraid of yet another rebuff. In one incident, a young man teaching a coed Sunday School class facetiously suggested that the women in the class, who were going to pick blueberries together after church, could make some blueberry pies for the men. For their part, the men could bring back wild game. His tongue in cheek suggestion was met with incredulity and derision. On hearing the story a few hours later, my mother in law said “If they wanted a blueberry pie, I would bake one.”

When asked what they think the problem is, some observe that men and women no longer have socially acceptable roles to play and don’t know the historic rituals by which men and women relate. Such sex roles have not only been forgotten, among many they are scorned. Movies like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, in which Millie sings about how to woo a girl in the song “Goin Courtin”, are non grata. Another issue is that a culture of fear – fear of rejection, fear of accusation, fear of pain – permeates American culture. Millennials seem afraid to start and hesitant to commit to relationships. Men, who traditionally lead, fear leading, while women, who traditionally follow, fear following. Yet few people, religious or secular, are comfortable with the roles reversed.

Interpersonal relationships, especially intimate ones, have always been difficult. In the Sound of Music, Kurt opines that “Only grown men are scared of women.” Misunderstandings between the sexes is one reason gender roles were created in the first place. But another issue has complicated matters in the modern world, our mechanistic mindset.

Since the Industrial Revolution, man has shaped machines and he has been shaped by them. With a machine, a given amount of input produces a given amount of output. If I put one gallon of gasoline in my Prius I can expect to drive 40-50 miles. Henry Ford could reliably produce 1000 Model Ts per day on his assembly lines. Machines produce reliable results.

The same is true of services. If you enter a phone number into your cell phone, you expect it to connect your call (or text). McDonald’s and other chain restaurants became big not because they make the best food or had the best prices but because they produced reliable food at reliable prices. Hamburgers at McDonald’s are predictable anywhere in world, while those at some restaurants may not be. McDougal’s (a fictitious name) might consistently have wonderful burgers at good prices while McDonough’s (another fictitious name), in the next town, might have terrible burgers at awful prices. Without trying them, people would not know.

People’s work and financial lives are little different. If my daughter spends $80,000 and four years studying at college, or actually if I spend it for her, she should get a bachelor’s degree. That degree, in turn, should provide a predictable benefit in terms of job opportunities, salary, and other perks. If my brother works for 40 hours at his job, he should get a reasonable and reliable amount of money and other benefits. Our experience with money has taught us that our return on investment should always be predictable. As a result we buy bonds instead of stocks, receiving a steady, albeit low, rate of return, rather than lying awake at night wondering if we will lose or make money the following day.

We like machines so much that we try to make men into machines. Frederick Taylor’s (1856-1915) Scientific Management taught us that there was one right way to do everything, no matter how trivial and no matter the characteristics of the individual worker. Clinical practice guidelines based on medical algorithms regulate medical practice and insurance companies can be loath to pay the doctor who deviates. Structure, policies and standard operating procedures try to make organizations mirror images, “cookie cutters”, of each other, sometimes regardless of local conditions. Whenever we can we replace a man with a machine, such as using robots on the assembly lines and developing driverless vehicles. Such standardization can be very good; medical guidelines can improve care and robots can save money and improve quality. But it can also be very bad, removing part of the essence of what it is to be human.

Mankind has always wanted something for his efforts, and our mechanistic mindset has taught us how to get a predictable return for almost all of our investments. It also allows us to quantitatively justify our actions to ourselves and others.

In the most important parts of life, however, mechanistic thinking doesn’t work. One hour and $300 spent with a woman does not mean that a man will accomplish his goal, unless all he wants is sex and she is a prostitute. Time together doesn’t necessarily lead to marriage or even a meaningful relationship, although time apart certainly won’t lead to either. Gifts, even expensive ones, do not guarantee that the recipient will love, like or even appreciate the giver. Sex is not security that a boyfriend will remain faithful, or even stay, with the woman who provides it. Marriage doesn’t promise that a couple will stay together “till death do us part”, although people who do not get married are much more likely to be alone. Is the time we spend in failed relationships all “Wasted Time” as the Eagles sang? We can easily justify 24 months and $20,000 spent on a graduate degree, but can we justify the same investment in a failed relationship? Or even a successful one?

This mechanistic, transactional mindset doesn’t work with other people either. The employee with the best attitude, most skills, and longest hours often doesn’t get the promotion. A near-perfect upbringing is no promise that children will succeed, or even appreciate their parents. People are unpredictable, and no matter how much we use technology, psychology, sociology, and coercion to make them predictable, they are not. This is one of the curses, and blessings, of being human.

Is it any wonder that a young 20-something focuses on education and work instead of people? By emphasizing his career, a man can work, plan and expect something tangible and predictable for his efforts. With many more options than ever before, a woman can do the same. These priorities make them busy, and as a result neither has time for relationships. The man and the woman can enjoy material success and professional acclaim without the danger of “wasted time.” However, with those goals consuming the moments of their lives, they can’t enjoy each other.

Mechanistic thinking has brought great improvements to the lives of men and women. We are safer, richer, and healthier as a result. However, it cannot be our only way of thinking. The most important parts of our lives, our relationships to others and even to God, cannot be mechanical. Perhaps by identifying this problem, we can consciously move to fix it.

We love constructive feedback! Please leave a reply.