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New de Young Show Proves We’ve Been Angsty Over Technology Forever

Cult of the Machine focuses on the timelessness of tech dread.


Fageol Ventilators (1934)

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Watch (1925)

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Wall Street, New York (1915)

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January Full Moon (1941)

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Think techno-angst over the impending robo-AI apocalypse is unique to 21st-century San Francisco? The latest exhibition at the de Young, Cult of the Machine, underscores just how similar our responses to seismic tech breakthroughs are to those of the machine age bookended by the First and Second World Wars—which gave rise to the precisionist style in American art. Here, some reactions that ring familiar.
Mar. 24–Aug. 12

Tech As Godhead
Charles Sheeler, a precisionist painter and corporate photographer, once said that “our factories are our substitutes for religious expression”—words that ring true in Imogen Cunningham’s photograph of the church-organ-like pipes above Oakland’s Fageol Motors assembly plant, Fageol Ventilators (1934). Which reminds us of: The blind faith in the potential of autonomous tech like the self-driving car, as espoused by former Waymo/Uber guru Anthony Levandowski and his Way of the Future church.

Tech As Abstraction
Painter Gerald Murphy’s Watch (1925) is both precise and abstract—a look at the inner workings of a machine which teaches you nothing about how it works. Which reminds us of: A cryptocurrency expert explaining how blockchain works—precise to the point of abstraction.

Tech As Monolith
Immense and indifferent, the Morgan Trust Company building stands sentinel as a parade of ant-like financiers creeps by in Paul Strand’s photograph Wall Street, New York (1915). Which reminds us of: The new Apple Park campus, right down to the grayscale interiors and the weirdly iPhone-like windows.

Tech As American Carnage
While the world gets more technologically complex, George Copeland Ault’s January Full Moon (1941) embodies a growing nostalgia for a simpler age. Which reminds us of: Donald Trump, channeling an idealized bygone era riding on the broad shoulders of West Virginia coal miners and powered by “goddamned steam”— a real quote!


Originally published in the March issue of San Francisco 

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