What Gandhi and Black Mirror can teach us about the latest Industrial Revolution

When thinking about Gandhi’s political philosophy the temptation is to dive straight into his theory of non-violent resistance. Although Gandhi’s rejection of violence as a tool in politics is central in differentiating him from the vast majority of other political thinkers, a component of his political thought that is often overlooked by contrast is his critique of the impact of mechanisation upon the human experience. In this Gandhi identified the dangers of technological change before the breakneck developments of World Wars I and II, and developed a theory that has stood the test of time well enough to invite application to our own technological revolution. Although his suggested remedies for the dangers of technology were flawed at best, there is a great deal to be taken from his argument that the changes technology makes to our lives are not entirely welcome.

Gandhi’s main concerns in 1909 were developments that would strike a modern audience as harmless, chief among which was the spread of railways and telephone lines through India. In fact, his insistence that his family would not take modern medicine was considered dangerous even by his contemporaries. As with most areas of his philosophy, his solution to the issues of mechanisation tended towards the extreme. His concerns certainly pale into insignificance when compared to today’s world of social media, CCTV, and job automation. However, they still dealt with a sense of alienation from one’s lived bodily experience that is deeply relevant to our own historical moment. Just as Gandhi argued that it was unnatural to be able to close hundreds of miles of distance through the use of railways and telephones, so programmes like Black Mirror today highlight a world in which human interaction is distorted by technology.

Today’s revolution is the greatest technological change since the Industrial Revolution, which Gandhi argued had created a “factory civilisation” in which nature was treated as a force to be mastered. By contrast to Western civilisation, Indian civilisation for Gandhi would be rooted within nature and the human experience. Jobs would be saved from mechanisation by the revival of cottage industries, which would re-establish the village as the central focus of political activity. Gandhi’s assertion that “It is machinery that has impoverished India” stands in stark contrast to the thinking of most anti-colonial thinkers, who mostly sought to mechanise their nations after independence. It also contrasts against the Marxist project to capture machinery for use by the proletariat.

The fact that India today looks nothing like Gandhi’s vision is reflective of the reality of neo-colonialism, which has allowed Britain to continue to exert influence over the economies of its former territories. However, it also reflects the abandonment of this element of Gandhi’s philosophy by subsequent Indian leaders, who have driven India down a path of rapid technological development. As a result only last year the number of internet users in India increased to five hundred million people.

Central to Gandhi’s philosophy was his rejection of the split experience of modern life that forms the central tenet of Charlie Brooker’s idea of a separate world contained within a ‘black mirror’. For Gandhi this meant splits between the private and the public self and between peaceful ends and violent means, but for Brooker this split is one between our lives online and offline. In publicising details of his private life and rejecting the use of violence in politics Gandhi sought to escape from the duality of modern life and modern politics, which has a deep resonance with our own attempts to guard our lives against the incursions of our social media profiles.

The criticism of technology within Black Mirror does not necessarily advocate a retreat into a mythical past. Like the majority of Gandhi’s philosophy on modernity, it is an attempt to form a modern response to a modern problem. In looking for a radical solution to the issues arising from the West’s industrial revolutions it may be helpful to look to thinkers outside of the West with the ability to imagine a completely different way of life. Although Gandhi’s suggestion of a village society based on cottage industry would not be practical, it is still possible to use his philosophy as a starting point in searching for solutions to our own technological malaise.

The whole text of Hind Swaraj, in which Gandhi developed his theory of modernity alongside his argument for Indian self-rule, is available online.