Humans are not machines
By touchedspace /

The tragedy of the mechanized individual

The apparent guidance and control of individuals by established institutions has often concealed from recognition the vital existence of a deep seated individualism (McDermott, 1973 p.609). This has resulted to the bewilderment of individuals, whose subordination to institutions does not afford them an experience, leave alone an expression of their spontaneity (McDermott, 1973 p.599).

Our ignorance even as to numbers is slight compared to our inability to grasp the psychological and moral consequences of the precarious condition within which vast multitudes live (McDermott, 1973 p.600).

The tragedy of the mechanized individual is due to the fact that while individuals are now caught up in a vast complex of associations, there is no harmonious and coherent reflection of the import of these connections into the imaginative and emotional outlook on life (McDermott, 1973 p. 612).

Human Vs Machines

What is a human?

“If I knew the answer to that, I might be able to program an artificial person in a computer. But I can’t. Being a person is not a pat formula, but a quest, a mystery, a leap of faith” (Lanier, 2010 p. 5).

Human beings are meaning-making, understanding, and feeling creatures; they have a unique biologically rooted, intangible mental life which in some limited respects can be simulated by a machine but can never be duplicated (Postmann, 1992 p.113). In addition, they are complex,  ambiguous, and have something ineffable about them (Postmann, 1992 p.93, Lanier, 2010).

..Humans are as wholes in process; they have a capacity to see things whole in all their psychic, emotional and moral dimensions (Postmann, 1992 p.118, Postmann, 2009). Their ‘minding’ processes are simultaneous functions, not discrete compartments. You have never met anyone who was thinking, who was not at the same time also emotioning, spiritualizing, and for that matter, livering (Postmann, 2009).

I can’t describe what it is that a mind does, because no one can. We don’t understand how brains work. We understand a lot about how parts of brains work, but there are fundamental questions that have not even been fully articulated yet, much less answered. seems pointless to insist that what we already understand must suffice to explain what we don’t understand – Lanier 2010

What is a machine?

A machine is something outside of us, something that is clearly our creation, something modifiable, even discardable by us (Postmann, 1992 p.125). A machine does not have the merest trace of its own spontaneity or vitality and can thus only be driven by energy originating from outside itself (Carse, 1986 p. 120).

A machine must be designed, constructed and fueled. A machine depends on its designer and its operator both for the supply of fuel and its consumption’ (Carse, 1986). A machines therefore, having being built for a specific purpose is standardized, and eliminates complexity, doubt and ambiguity (Postmann, 1992 p.93). 

The assumption guiding our struggle against nature is deep within itself nature contains a structure, an order, that is ultimately intelligible to the human understanding. (Carse, 1986 p. 99)

Humanistic Vs Mechanistic perspectives

A humanistic view understands and respects that humans are intrinsically driven. This implies that all attempts to extrinsically drive their spontaneity simply interferes with their being.

On the contrary, a mechanistic view is an assumption that humans are not intrinsically driven and thus can only be driven extrinsicallySuch a view represents a dangerous reductionism because it is disordered and destroys the delicate interconnectedness of the special human qualities of independent mental and moral structure of the individual, the patterns of their desires and purposes (Postmann, 1992 p73, McDermott, 1973 p. 612).

In addition, a mechanistic view implies a static and segmented entity coddled in a system of polarized categories that hardly seem to represent what really happens when a human thinks or acts… we find ourselves making statements as: the school will deal with the child’s intellect, the home with his emotions, the church with his spirit, the hospital with his liver.. (Postmann, 2009).

Humanistic vs mechanistic views:

Humanistic vs mechanistic views

It is only in one respect that a humanistic perspective is identical to a mechanistic one: Of humans, if they engage in either, they should do so freely; if they must,  they are dehumanized (mechanized) (Carse, 1986 p. 6). For a student, if they engage in self-guided or teacher-guided learning, they should do so freely. When forced, he suffers the tragedy of the mechanized individual.

The mechanistic view is fundamentally flawed

The desire for absolute order usually leads to tears in human affairs – Lanier

Social institutions of all kinds function as control mechanisms and are of little use value without something (mostly humans) to control. They function by denying people access to information, but principally by directing how much weight, and therefore, value one must give to information (Postmann, 1992 p.73). At the base of their foundation is the mechanistic view.

They follow suit by partitioning a human to play various roles for the benefit of the respective institutions. To a school, the human is a student, to a company a worker, to a military a soldier, to law enforcement a suspect, to a banker a borrower, to a religious establishment a sinner, to a country a citizen and so on. This is at best frustrating and at worst tragic due to the following fundamental problems just to mention a few;

1. The mechanistic view’s idea of a perfect individual is an illusion

In Gatto’s (1992) words, ‘Successful children do the thinking I assign them with a minimum of resistance and a decent show of enthusiasm. Of the millions of things of value to study, I decide what few we have time for’. Such an education makes the student intellectual and emotional dependent, inevitably making him maladjusted. So in effect, is this what an education system may refer to as a perfect student?

To be human is to be a mystery; there are no perfect humans when it comes to matters that involve the human purpose. There can be no experts in a child-rearing, and love making and friend-making. Such notions are a figment made plausible by the use of mechanistic perspective without which institutions would be totally disarmed and exposed as intruder and ignoramus (Postmann, 1992 p. 88).

For what would be the ideal individual for the various institutions? For a bank – an endless borrower? For a hospital – a healthy patient? For a school – an obedient student who gets high grades? For a government – a citizen who votes and adheres to laws? For a company – an obedient, productive worker? For the market – a buyer who spends to their last dime? For a religious institution – a sinner who can never be holy? Better yet, will man be happy with himself once he has created the ‘ideal human’ in/from a computer? If God created man in his own image and likeness, and we are that creation, and if we can create computers in our own image and likeness, then it is obvious what kind of an outcome we may expect from ourselves.

2. The mechanistic view’s goals conflict with the human purpose.

The mechanistic view affords us objectivity. We become experts who are concerned not with the well being of others and their environment but only with the efficiency of the reduced individual to the interests of our institutions (Neil, 1992 p. 86-90).

..Adolff Eichmann, [a train engineer] when faced with the charge of crimes against humanity argued that he had no part in the formulation of Nazi political or sociological theory; he dealt only with technical problems of moving vast numbers of people from one place to another. Why they were being moved and, especially, what would happen to them when they arrived at their destination were not relevant to his job (Neil, 1992 p.87).

3. The mechanistic view’s goals & the roles it assigns individuals are in conflict

It is also possible that one may be engaged in charity work while his judicial/military/economic/political institutional role demands that he be ignorant of the conditions causing the need for charity.

It is fair to say that most institutions are either engaged in double think or cognitive dissonance. In most cases, it is truer to say that they are engaged in both. To say of an individual caught up in such a situation is in a precarious state is an understatement.

4. The mechanistic view mistakes technical development for human progress

Economic institution mistakes GDP/GNP growth for human progress. The business institution: the time it takes for a car to go from 0 – 100 km. The technological institution: the number of bits a computer system can transmit, store, process or display. The education institution: the grade of test scores that can be harangued out of students. The advertising institution: the number of objects one has. In any case there is no relation and little if any, between what is measured and human progress (Postmann, 1992 p. 117-122).

…’we’re especially obsessed with measuring our children’s education. Children have become pawns in contests that pit parent against parent, teacher against teacher, school against school, and nation against nation in the struggle to see who can squeeze the highest test scores out of their kids.  We are depriving our children of sleep, depriving them of freedom to play and explore; childhood—in order to increase their test scores’  (Gray, 2012)

Need for a humanistic society

The biggest problem of modern society is that of remaking society to nurture the originality and spontaneity of individuals (McDermott, 1973 p.612).

Traditions imposed upon individuals by institutions are eroding faster than perhaps any other time in human history. As of the moment, the notions of the family unit, sexual relations, debt economies, infinite growth paradigm, spirituality, and many others are all under crisis or undergoing a transition. It is no doubt that technology has played a huge role in undoing the meanings that once dominated society. However, what is of importance to note is that free transition from traditions to new values has been suppressed by respective institutions in most cases.

Needless to say, religious and state institutions have opposed new forms of personal relations. Here we see clearly the instilling of conformity and limitation of self and cultural expression. It is possible that the various institutions are wary of becoming irrelevant in the society. But rather than take a pro-active approach to accommodate cultural progress, the institutions also oppose and thereby limit their own progress and continued relevance. This is confusing and distracting because the institutions have been content to stay in the bounds of traditional aims and values: harnessing human creativity to the dollar rather than to the enrichment of human life (DcDermott, 1973 p. 618)

When a method of doing things becomes so deeply associated with an institution that we no longer know which came first – the method or the institution – then it is difficult to change the institution or even to imagine alternatives for achieving the underlying purpose (Postmann, 1992 p.143). Now when we need to more than most, we are unable to imagine:

  • Learning beyond education institutions.
  • Social and economic transactions beyond monetary institutions.
  • Spirituality beyond religious institutions.
  • Relations beyond the traditional ‘religious-defined’ male-female partnership.
  • Access to/provision for material needs beyond economically-instilled scarcity/ownership.
  • Community harmony beyond law enforcement institutions.
  • Sustainability beyond growth-isms institutions: capitalism, fascism, socialism, …
  • A potential for fulfilled life beyond the need for life-time enslavement to a business institution.
  • Freedom beyond the need to control others through economic/military/… institutions.
  • and so on.

A co-existence of the humanistic and mechanistic views

Institutions function by standardizing areas of focus to improve efficiency in problem solving (Postmann, 1992 p.88). This process works fairly well for technical problems, it works less well in situations where technical requirements may conflict with human purposes, as in medicine or architecture and is disastrous when applied to situations that cannot be solved by technical means and where efficiency is usually irrelevant, such as in education, law, family life, and problems of personal maladjustment (Postmann, 1992 p. 88).

‘The contradiction in our relation to nature is that the more vigorous we attempt to force its agreement with our own designs the more subject we are to its indifference, the more vulnerable to its unseeing forces’ (Carse, 1986 p. 121). The more individuals are subordinated, guided and controlled by institutions, the more powerless the institutions become at dealing with the inevitable gloominess and the waste persons created in the process. Waste persons are those whose genius (self actualization) does not fit into the (mechanistic) resource  that society wants for whatever reason (Carse, 1986 p.133); either the narrow, bigoted man who is obstinate and irresponsible save in the line of his own preconceived aims and beliefs; else a character dull, mechanical, unalert, because the vital spontaneous interest has been squeezed out of him  (DcDermott, 1973 p. 484)

The mechanical and humanistic perspective are not absolutely opposed to each other; the mechanical perspective can exist in the humanistic (Carse, 1986 p. 118-119). The question is not one of restricting the mechanical view but asking whether it serves the interest of humans, or humans the interest of the machine. The mechanized perspective has the appearance of high productivity, but it than encourage human spontaneity and ingenuity, it harnesses it (Carse, 1986 p. 118-119).

Most human problems require us to make choices (select one possibility among several) and to find solutions. This is a much more complicated and rigorous process than making a decision. We have to include more, recognize more, consider more, and provide for more – of everything. A solution is an answer we come up with as a result of seeing about as openly as a human being can (Postmann, 2009).

Ideally, a co-existence between the humanistic and mechanistic views maybe realized by allowing the concerned individuals to play not within the rules of whatever it is that they are doing but to play with the rules. Design for voluntary participation may be one alternative for nurturing human progress and self actualization.


  • Postmann, N. (1992). Technopoly: the surrender of culture to technology.
  • Postman, N. (2009). Teaching as a subversive activity. Random House LLC.
  • Lanier, J. (2010). You are not a gadget. Random House Digital, Inc..
  • Carse, J. P. (1986). Finite and infinite games. New York: Ballantine.
  • McDermott, J. (Ed.) (1973). The philosophy of John Dewey. Chicago and London. Chicago Press.

  • Gatto, T. J. (1992) Dumbing us down
  • Gray, P. (2012). Can you measure an education? Can you define life’s meaning? Available from:
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Humans are not machines