There’s no line between machines and tools. Today we may refer to our machine device (say a computer) as an information gathering tool. To this extent, we’re not the only species who uses objects to manipulate things. Here is a wonderful video of a crow using intelligence and tools to manipulate objects. Beware calling people bird brains! Birds are very, very clever.

And like crows, humans sused sticks – for basic things then the stylus or pen came along and they started inscribing characters on tablets (not the iPad ones!), from which came our alphabet and the written word. Sticks were spears. Sticks became logs, planks, material for houses, boats, machines. Here are some Roman war machines:

The film The Matrix suggests that we all live in a universe which is part of a machine, a computer-like program…

Quite a thought! And maybe not so ridiculous according to some scientists:

A popular argument for the simulation hypothesis came from University of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrum in 2003, when he suggested that members of an advanced civilization with enormous computing power might decide to run simulations of their ancestors.  They would probably have the ability to run many, many such simulations, to the point where the vast majority of minds would actually be artificial ones within such simulations, rather than the original ancestral minds. So simple statistics suggest it is much more likely that we are among the simulated minds.

(Read the article here). Not that it would make much difference to us. We may be very primitive life forms but in the simulation we’d go on behaving as if we aren’t.

Machine technologies can change the world immensely. The invention of steam powered machines, the Industrial Revolution, petrol engines, aeroplanes, rockets. Computers. The biggest revolutionary machine before computers was the printing press. Here’s William Caxton showing off his machine:

The spread of books and pamphlets spread knowledge, ideas and revolution. Literacy brought learning to the humblest person who had access to the printed word. There are many examples of authorities trying to limit the printed word’s circulation. Some ruling classes and governments thought it would breed revolution and disturbance – the peasants would be ‘getting above themselves’ as it were, or ‘not knowing their place’ (which was to remain ignorant). Yet without the printing machines very few of us would have received an education. There is a vast history about the power of literacy and how it was resisted or encouraged, of literacy’s role in the spread of democracy and, potentially, a decent education for everybody. It’s a huge subject on its own and full of historical controversy. (One of the most intense controversies arose around the birth of Protestant Christianity which encouraged each person to read the Bible for themselves – something the established Church saw as a great heresy for they believed the Bible should be read only by priests to people, and this was the will of God.)

These days books are as popular as ever, but many people don’t read much at all unless it’s from a digital device. Some express a worry that young people will lose the book reading habit. Some think that the modern world is so fast and frenetic that it’s changing the way we think. On the other hand, optimists point out that we are progressing and developing as a society (provided, of course, we live in the rich western world), and that pessimists are just uhappy with change.

Pessimism about the impact of machines on humanity is not new. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein can be read as an early warning about how new technologies could badly affect humanity. In an extreme form, fear of technology and machines is called technophobia and there are various strands in culture which oppose new technologies.

The fear of being ‘taken over’by robots or other machines is exploited in science fiction. There’s a more immediate fear of old fashioned machines, such as when we express we feel just like ‘a cog in a machine’. Here is Charlie Chaplin in the 1936 classic Modern Times: