Steam-Power and Venting

From my article, “The Power of Complaining,”

The notion that people need to vent in order to feel better was influenced by the age of steam power in the 19th and early 20th century. At this time, people began to assume an erroneous similarity between human beings and steam-powered machines like early locomotives, steam-powered sailing vessels, and factory generators. To prevent these steam-powered devices from building up too much heat, excess waste heat had to be disposed of via venting. A similar mechanism is used today in household driers.

We’ve always used analogies from our machines to help us understand ourselves. For example, today the computer has become the primary metaphor for understanding the human brain. The problem is that sometimes our analogies distort our understanding of ourselves and lead us into mechanistic assumptions about ethics and anthropology. For example, one nineteenth-century people began thinking of human beings analogously with steam powered machines, it became easy to assume that human beings also need to vent when there is a build up of negative emotions. This gives us an implicit bias in favor of criticism over complaining and moves us away from the type of Biblical advice we read find in verses like Proverbs 16:32 (“he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city”).

The ancients also used technology as a guide for understanding ourselves. Plato pictured the human reason as a charioteer being driven by two winged horses. One horse represents the soul’s search for truth and the other the soul’s concupiscent impulses. It is the job of the charioteer to direct the horses in the search for truth and make sure the chariot is not driven off course.

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I’ll take the charioteer image any day over the steam-engine.

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