The filmmaker Jean Renoir wrote a beautiful book about his father, the French impressionist painter, simply titled Pierre-Auguste Renoir, my father (Sunrise). The artist, who died in 1919, experienced the start of a gigantic technological transformation at the end of his life. “The great discoveries, those that were going to change the world, were made,” the filmmaker maintains about the moment his father was born, in 1841. He describes a country that was on the verge of total change, but still anchored in the past. “A peasant from the surroundings of Limoges, apart from some details in clothing and tools, worked the land in the same way as his ancestors in the time of Vercingetorix.”
In 1919, the moment of the painter’s death, one year after the end of the First World War —the first conflict marked by new technologies, from machine guns to explosives, tanks or aviation—, everything was completely different. “The countryside had begun to empty towards the cities. The workers worked in the factories. The vegetables consumed in Paris came from the south, even from Algeria. We had a car. Renoir had a telephone. The roads were paved. Our house had heating, hot and cold water, gas, electricity, bathrooms”.
Western movies have told many times how this technological revolution reached the most remote places in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. In wild bunch either The professionals the first cars appear that begin to displace the horses; in The Sisters brothers, French filmmaker Jacques Audiard narrates the bewilderment of two tough gunslingers who have just crossed an immense and wild territory when they arrive in San Francisco and find innovations such as the bathroom and street lighting. now the series 1923 (SkyShowtime), starring Harrison Ford and Hellen Mirren, returns to that old Western theme that Sam Peckinpah summed up in one sentence from Pat Garrett and Billy the Kidpronounced by the teenage bandit: “Times change, but I don’t.”
The series, a prequel to yellowstonetells the story of the Button family in Montana in the early part of the 20th century (an earlier prequel, 1883, counted their arrival in the West as settlers). When the cowboys travel to the nearest town, Bozeman, they find cars, paved streets and all kinds of innovations that were unknown to them until then. In the third chapter, a salesman of electrical appliances appears: refrigerators, washing machines… “All the houses in New York have electricity,” he tells the guys who pass by baffled with their horses, their guns, their jodhpurs in front of the electrical appliances that display on the street. “If they invent machines to do that, then what will we do?” says one of the cowboys. The scene takes place a century ago, when the change was underway, but its protagonists were not able to foresee what was going to happen.
Advances in artificial intelligence seem to be accelerating and herald a drastic transformation of the world. The first time we searched the internet or held a cell phone in our hands, we could hardly guess to what extent technology was going to influence our daily lives and transform our profession. The fact that experts in artificial intelligence recently called for a six-month halt in the “race without control” of ChatGPT shows that something even deeper may be brewing. Jean Renoir thus defined the gigantic change that was coming in the 20th century. “From time to time my father and I tried to determine the moment when the symbolic shift of civilization from the hand to the brain occurred.” Perhaps the next leap will be that of the artificial brain and we will be those baffled cowboys and still incredulous before the power of electricity.
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