Chapter One: Rotwang the Inventor
Fritz Lang's classic film Metropolis was released in Berlin in January 1927. Computers existed only as primitive Hollerith cards, but electricity, automobiles, airplanes, and telephones had entered the scene by the time Lang created the first science fiction movie. Lang's film presents an extraordinary and prescient vision of the seductive appeal and sheer beauty of technology, along with the potentially dehumanizing effects on those who are slaves to its operation and those who would claim to be its masters. Though the movie's plot and characters are idealized and simplistic, the complex and beautifully composed images of Lang's future world are unforgettable. The film's themes form a backdrop for our reflections on people and technology [ 1].
Here is the city of Metropolis in the twenty-first century. Above ground, the city's immense buildings create breathtaking patterns of light, shadow, and geometric form. Crowded roadways are suspended high above the ground, crisscrossing the vast spaces between buildings. The cityscape is visually stunning, built by human hands on a scale that transcends ordinary human activities.
Whose hands? Not those of the masters of Metropolis - the masters provide only the minds that direct the city from above. The hands belong to the people who live and work in the depths below ground, slaves to the machines that run the city. We first see the workers through the eyes of the film's hero, the son of one of the masters, who is curious to see what life is like for his brothers and sisters underground.
He descends and enters a huge space swirling with steam from the machines. He sees a wall many stories high covered with an array of dials, wheels, gears, and levers, with platforms where individual workers stand, desperately focused on the controls facing them. From afar, the workers appear to be engaged in a compelling mechanical dance, as if each is a moving part within a single gigantic machine. The human machine interfaces are just beyond the size of the human body. A worker must extend to the limits of his reach to carry out his tasks, stretching, crouching, and twisting in jerky reaction to the blinking lights and moving gauges before him. From a distance there appears to be a collaborative harmony in the workers' choreographed motions. But closer up it is clear that each worker is alone, unable to glance at his companions working nearby because of the incessant demands of the machines.
A worker's exhaustion leads to a fatal explosion, witnessed by the impressionable visitor from above. "Such accidents are unavoidable," the Master tells his son - but only if you rely on human workers. Enter Rotwang the inventor, a scientist who lives apart from the society of the masters but places himself and his talents at their service. Rotwang announces to the Master that he has made a machine in the image of Man, though interestingly, the gleaming robot is certainly female. Rotwang only needs a human model to imbue his creation with a fully lifelike appearance, which will later occur in a Frankensteinlike transfer of energy that is the first fullscreen example of morphing.
The Master finds the perfect candidate in Maria, a lovely, pure daughter of the lower class who preaches hope to the groups of tired workers who assemble secretly in the catacombs to hear her. Someday, she tells them, a mediator will come to bridge the distance between mind and hands with heart. The Master now sees a way of killing two birds with one stone. He asks Rotwang to capture Maria, form the robot in her image, and send it below to impersonate her and incite violence among the workers. Their self-destruction will leave the way clear to replace vulnerable human workers with robots who will never grow tired or make mistakes.
Rotwang, an eccentric, distant character, is disturbingly indifferent to the uses of his inventions and the consequences of his actions. He agrees to the Master's request and pursues Maria in the catacombs in a terrifying scene of indirect but menacing violence. Rotwang's only weapon is light - a flashlight that inexorably follows Maria as she dashes from one dark corner to another. She is pinned by the light and carried up to Rotwang's laboratory. Light is used continually throughout the film to represent technology, from the elegant sculptures of light on the Master's desk to the dangerous rings of electrical current that animate the robot.
The robot Maria is astonishingly sexy. She acknowledges her instructions with a slow, heavy wink, and slinks down to begin her work of starting a riot. Lang's layers of meaning here are mindboggling - a robot is sent to preach the destruction of technology, using human sexuality as a persuasive force.
As the workers begin their attack on the machines, Lang gives us yet another glancing reference to the pervasive use of technology - the Master watches the chaos over a video monitoring system and holds a video conference with his panicking foreman. (In moments like these it is hard to remember that this film was completed in 1926.) As the machinery fails, the walls of an underground reservoir break and the waters begin to rise, spreading silently across the workers' own city in a horrifying and claustrophobic sequence. Disastrous forces of nature are now joined to those of the machines gone awry. The city above is still beautiful, even as it begins to crack and fall.
As the Master's son is rejoined with the real Maria, the workers understand that they have destroyed their own homes and risked their children's lives. They burn the robot at the stake as a witch. Rotwang, maddened by the loss of his invention, struggles with the hero and falls from the roof of a cathedral.
The Master's son entreats his father to reach out and clasp the hand of his own foreman, suggesting a new future in which the minds that plan and the hands that work do not live in separate worlds, but are mediated by the human heart.
About the Authors
Bonnie Nardi is a researcher at AT&T Labs-Research and is the author of A Small Matter of Programming (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993) and editor of Context and Consciousness (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996).
Vicki O'Day, formerly a researcher at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, is a graduate student of anthropology at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
1. The version of the film we use as the basis for this chapter is the 1989 video by Kino International Corporation.
This text originally appeared in Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart published in 1999 by MIT Press. The text is copyrighted by Bonnie Nardi and Vicki O'Day and the book is copyrighted by MIT Press. The book is available from MIT Press directly, fine bookstores everywhere, and Amazon.com. The authors manage a Web site for the book at http://www.calterra.com/infoecologies/.
Copyright © 1999, First Monday