Autism World

The Greatest Gift

Behold the astronaut, fully equipped for duty: a scaly creature, more like an oversized ant than a primate – certainly not a naked god. To survive on the moon he must be encased in an even more heavily insulated garment and become a kind of faceless ambulatory mummy. While he is hurtling through space, the astronaut’s physical existence is purely a function of mass and motion, narrowed down to the pinpoint of acute sentient intelligence demanded by the necessity for coordinating his reactions with the mechanical and electronic apparatus upon which his survival depends. Here is the archetypal protomodel of Post-Historic Man, whose existence from birth to death would be conditioned by the megamachine and made to conform, as in a space capsule, to the minimal functional requirements by an equally minimal environment – all under remote control.

Dr. Bruno Bettelheim reports the behavior of a nine-year old autistic patient, a boy called Joey, who conceived that he was run by machines. “So controlling was this belief that Joey carried with him an elaborate life-support system made up of radio tubes, light bulbs, and a ‘breathing machine.’ At meals he ran imaginary wires from a wall socket to himself, so his food could be digested. His bed was rigged up with batteries, a loudspeaker, and other improvised equipment to keep him alive while he slept.”

But is this just the autistic fantasy of a pathetic little boy? Is it not rather the state that the mass of mankind is fast approaching in actual life, without realizing how pathological it is to be cut off from their own resources for living, and to feel no tie with the outer world unless they are connected with the Power Complex and constantly receive information, direction, stimulation, and sedation from a central external source, via radio, discs, and television, with the minimal opportunity for reciprocal face-to-face contact? The stringent limitations of the space capsule have already been extended to other areas. Technocratic designers proudly exhibit furniture planned solely to fit rooms as painfully constricted as a rocket chamber. Even more ingenious minds, equally subservient to the Power Complex, have already conceived a hospital bed in which every function –  from the taking of temperature to intravenous feeding – will be automatically performed within the limits of the bed. Solitary confinement thus becomes the last word in “tender and loving care.”

Except for meeting emergencies, as with an iron lung or a space rocket, such mechanical attachment and encapsulation presents a definitely pathological syndrome. Increasingly, the astronaut’s spacesuit will be, figuratively speaking, the only garment that machine-processed and machine-conditioned man will wear in comfort, for only in that suit will he, like little Joey, feel alive.

Lewis Mumford
The Myth of the Machine (1970)

Cartoon by Buttersafe: The Greatest Gift (2011)

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