As a reflection on one of the very first cinematic explorations on the relationship between technology and mankind, the film Metropolis (considered to be one of the first science fiction films ever created) pondered the delicate balance between man and machine working together to achieve progress.
Metropolis which was originally released in 1927 by German director Fritz Lang, tells the story of a futuristic city full of dreamy skyscrapers and high roads built solely for the comfort of high society. The city below, however—the underground Worker’s City—has a very different story to tell. Trapped in a proletarian underworld of mechanical torture, the working class slaves away, day in and day out, alienated, inside the bellies of demonic machines that keep the city above running smoothly for the upper classes. Without breaks or even an ounce of compassion, the workers toil on for 10-hour stretches at a time until they collapse from exhaustion and are replaced by the next wave of brain-numbed worker bees.
The impending conflict within the storyline is not hard to imagine: the uprising is imminent, threatening the entirety of the city’s social and even infrastructural system.
“There can be no understanding between the hands and the brain unless the heart acts as the mediator.”
This was the basic moral to Lang’s story. The workers represented the hands, tirelessly pulling the levers and turning the knobs underground so the rest of civilized society could live up to their own higher standards, holding that very power in their own hands but unable to fully realize it. Jon Fredersen, the city’s creator and ruler, represents the brain: frivolous and completely rational in his view of lower class exploitation. If it’s efficient, it serves its technological purpose. But, at what price? What perils does it encumber?
It is only his son Freder, who is exposed to the horrors of life in the underworld when he sneaks off one day in search of Maria (the woman he falls in love with), who is able to feel compassion for his subterranean brothers and sisters and who will fight to bring both parts together to a civilized agreement by playing the role of the mediator (the heart that connects the hands and the brain).
The basic myth Metropolis is erected upon is the biblical tale of the Tower of Babel, in which men strived to attain godhood through progress, trying to build the highest tower in existence to reach the realm of the heavens. A project so ambitious and godlike that would end up collapsing on top of them.
So, what should we make of this and what does all of this have to do with the increasing growth of Machine Translation Technology in the translation industry?
Well, first of all, language itself had a major role to play in the collapsing of the Tower of Babel. God, it seems, was offended by mankind’s audacity to try and outdo themselves by striving to reach divinity. So, in punishment for their vanity, The Lord confused their languages so that none of them were able to communicate, unleashing such chaos and confusion upon the city that the tower itself and the entire project collapsed beneath their feet as a direct consequence of their divine wrath. Workers, still unable to communicate amongst themselves, later spread across the earth, founding their own cultures and civilizations. This would explain our cultural and linguistic global diversity. Babel was the beginning, but it could also have been the end.
As we humans strive for perfection through technology we sometimes get lost in the thriving sensation of playing God. For isn’t Machine Translation, or AI for that matter, a simplified simulation of human intelligence at work? Aren’t we striving to achieve, to re-create a sentient being, an automaton of some sort, who could think as a live linguist while being able to process information in mere seconds? A being or humanized contraption who could work for hours on end without any nourishment or salary? Well, that sounds an awful lot like Metropolis to me.
So, are we purposely re-editing the myth of the Tower of Babel yet again?
Has Lang’s story (or the Bible’s for that matter) taught us nothing?
Even if those days still seem far off in the future, we are still living on the very verge of it all.
For we already are today’s mediators, bridging the way between the hard-working linguists and the pampered children of the garden of Eden.
At least for now, we must be the heart between the hands and the brain.