Between the Lines: A Conversation with Matthew Dickerson – Part II

We recently got a chance to talk with Brazos author Matthew Dickerson about his book The Mind and the Machine (2011). Here is Part 2 of that interview:

What do Lewis and Tolkien have to say about the heart of human nature and why are their insights important in an increasingly technological age?

C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien dealt with timeless issues. Issues that transcended geographical and cultural bounds as well as temporal ones. That is one reason that their works were so powerful. Though they did not live in the age of the internet, or even of household computers, they did see the unfolding of the 20th century and the explosion of technologies that began in that century, from nuclear power to (in Tolkien’s case, at least) space travel.

In our day, I think the biggest technologies that have changed our lives have to do with computers and communications. Certainly it would have been difficult before 1990 to have foreseen the way that the internet would change our lives, or to have predicted the emergence of Google, FaceBook, or YouTube. Still, it is worth pointing out that modern digital computers were already emerging in the 1930s, 40s and 50s (when Lewis and Tolkien were having their most productive years as mythopoets). The principles and ideas behind them were getting attention. And so by the middle of the 20th century, many of the biggest philosophical questions pertaining to computers and humans were already being asked and explored by great thinkers, writers, and philosophers. As for the role of technology in society, that question has been around for as long as humans have lived and used tools.

Tolkien and Lewis certainly explored those issues in their writing. Tolkien commented, more than once, that central to his fantasy novels was an exploration of the use and role of technology—what he called “the machine”—and that “magic” in his writings offered a metaphorical representation of technology. (I explored this in great depth in my book From Homer to Harry Potter, co-authored with David O’Hara.)

Of course all that their works suggest, imaginatively, about technology, would take a long time to explore. Some agree with their ideas. Many disagree. If you think that their writings ring true, and offer a picture of the good life, then you have to take seriously their thoughts about technology. But my only point here is that both of these men were both brilliant thinkers and brilliant writers, and so whether you ultimately agree with them, or disagree with them, what they had to say mythopoetically deserves attention; it is a thoughtful treatment of an important topic: the human use of technology.