A trained engineer, Ross celebrates impartial objectivity, yet struggles with questions of metaphysical relativity.
Colin Ross was the son of an engineer. His father, Friedrich Ross (1850-1918), had moved to Vienna, hired by mayor Karl Lueger, to build an electric power station as part of an overall project to modernize the city’s infrastructure. Coming of age in this environment, Colin shared his father’s interest in energy production and, after completing a year of military service, he headed to Germany to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering and metallurgy. In 1910, he earned his doctorate with a dissertation titled Die Produktionsbedingungen der Seewerke und ihre Entwicklung, in which he investigated the new practice of smelting iron ore in facilities located near trade harbors.
Throughout his writing career, Ross would often remind readers and audiences that he was a trained scientist. This identity suggested an ability to observe the world with an objective eye, unswayed by political pressures or (in his view seriously misguided) ethical humanism. Ross’s grounded, matter-of-fact approach, which aligned him with the aesthetics of the New Objectivity, was a quality that his readers found appealing.
Yet Ross’s relationship with the material world of the scientist and engineer became strained over time by his obsession with the metaphysical—and highly relativistic—realm of Weltanschauung (world view). What truth could technology hold when it was subject to interpretation through a given world view? One day, he argued, a new Weltanschauung could render all of our technological advancements meaningless, or even repulsive. The larger questions of the time could not be solved by science and technology, but were instead to be found in metaphysics.
Ross celebrates technology, yet also sees it leading to the alienation of Western man from nature, which he associates with the decline of the West.
Being a trained engineer affects Colin Ross’s geopolitics in unexpected ways. On the one hand, he celebrates the modern use of technology to dominate nature and expand living space through large-scale engineering projects such as dams with the ability to bring water into the desert, control flooding, and generate energy. Likewise, he is fascinated by the power of machines to change the way that we experience the world we live in: both airplanes and icebreakers have not only changed the ways in which we move through the world, but have also profoundly altered our mental image of the world itself. Other branches of science and technology are similarly endorsed by Ross: medicine, and the ability to improve and prolong life; geology, and the ability to better exploit natural resources; etc.
But, on the other hand, Ross also sees the negative side to the relationship between Westerners and technology. Drawing on dominant tropes of modernist primitivism, Ross sees Western man as alienated from nature, no longer able to engage with it “magically” as can primitive peoples (able, according to Ross, to kill their enemies by magical curse). At the root of this set of somewhat esoteric concerns is the question of Weltanschauung (world view): has technology and the reliance on the material world of machines to solve its problems left the West unable to generate a new metaphysical belief system that will allow it to act purposefully in the world? In his vision of an impending “decline of the West” Ross only finds salvation in the possibility that Westerners will come to see not just utilitarian purpose, but “magic in the machine.”
With more investments in engineering, Ross suggests, Australia’s rich resources could be exploited to support a much bigger population.
Again and again, Ross finds the machinery at mining sites lacking (see: Australia’s barely tapped resources). This inadequacy is thrown into sharper relief by the engineering feats of visiting German geophysicists (see: German engineering prowess in Australia).
Crucially, Ross acknowledges that the lack of investment in engineering is not a matter of know-how, but rather of interest. As Australia is rich with coal, tin, and other minerals, primitive mining operations make enough of a profit to sustain the sparse national population, even to compete in international trade.1 Contentious labor relations deter potential investors (see: The “tiresome labor question”). German envy of Australia’s vast expanses of underused land thus mingles in Ross’s writing with a technocrat’s frustration about pesky workers and a leisured urban population not willing to take big risks in land development.
1 See: Colin Ross. Im australischen Ruhrgebiet. In: Der unvollendete Kontinent. 1. Aufl. Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus; 1930; 174–7. See Library.