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Technics and Civilization

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Lewis MumfordEdit

[1895 – 1990] was an American historian, philosopher of technology and science, and literary critic. Mumford was influenced by the work of Scottish theorist Sir Patrick Geddes, and was a friend and contemporary of Vannevar Bush and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Mumford was born in Queens and attended CUNY New School, although never graduated. He worked as a radio electrician in WWI. After his discharge from the Navy, he wrote literary criticism at various magazines, including The New Yorker.

Technics and Civilization [1934]Edit

In this book, Mumford aims to answer the following questions:

  • How did it come about over the past 1000 years that the material basis and the cultural forms of Western Civilization were profoundly modified by the machine?
  • Where did this transformation take place?
  • What were its chief motives, and what unexpected values have arisen in the process?

The expansiveness of Mumford's vision is unique; we hear his echo in the vast sensory-epistemic ruptures McLuhan tracks across thousands of years. Mumford denies that the "Machine Age" is something especially new or discretely linked to modernity, industrialization, or early modern capitalism. Rather, he argues:

"the fact is that in Western Europe the machine had been developing steadily for at least seven centuries before the [Industrial Revolution of the 1700s] [...] Men had become mechanical before they perfected complicated machines to express their new bent and interest; and the will-to-order had appeared once more in the monastery and the army and the counting-house before it finally manifested itself in the factory" (3).

The technics of these earlier periods shifted the ideas and habits of civilization, allowing for a reorientation toward mechanical processes on a grand scale. Mumford notes that other societies had great technology, but never developed "the Machine". The machine was not new: "what is new is the fact that these functions have been projected and emobided in organized forms which dominate every aspect of our existence" (4). Western Europe's history in this regard is especially unique to the development of the machine over centuries, not just the rupture of an Industrial so-called-Revolution.

There are 3 waves in Mumford's chronology:

  1. First Wave, Eotechnic 1000-1750: Begun around the 10th century. dispersed sciences were brought together, climaxing with experimental science. While its later moments are characterized by the degradation of the industrial worker, it also was the period of cities, landscapes, arts, advances in practical life. The Renaissance was a twilight for humanity, an advance in mechanics will a death to humane arts. The power source for this period was the machine, to diminish the use of human beings as prime workers (horsepower, wind and water!). Wood was a universal material and glass was an important commodity. The clock was a primary mechanic. One of its weaknesses was the irregularity of its labor, as well as the introduction of the first capitalist businesses outside trade guilds (glass, mining) and the degradation of other industries (textiles). But overall, the goals were intensification of life, not of power.
  1. Second Wave, Paleotechnic: 1700-1900 This is the era of blood and iron, the growth of industry at the expense of man. Science is to be applied to specific problems of business and industry, while generally scientific exploration is frowned on. Life was to be quantified. England, as a typical "late adopter" barely went through the eotechnic age and went right into the paleotechnic, an age of New Barbarism. Industry was to accumulate wealth, not provide a livelihood. This is the era of the indigent English proletariat with no hopes and no advantage. Machines drove down wages. An upthurst into barbarism by the same forces that sought to perfect human culture. The high point of this period is perhaps the Crystal Palace at the 1st World Exhibition in 1851. Coal becomes the new source of power, making industry no longer beholden to weather; the mine was a center of interest and the Doctrine of Progress ruled. Tremendous environmental destruction. With no other spirit, the human senses took refuge in print. However, color and light, inspired by fog and decay, took the attention of painters. Speed and power come to attention, and this was also the era of amazing coordinations of labor (bridges, steamships)
  1. Third Wave, neotechnic: 1832-present. the potential of machine's here is to relieve man of paleotechnic abuse at the hands of machines and strike a true synergy of art and science. Biological sciences take over mechanic, and the scientific method becomes thematized. Here are the origins of sociology, psychology, and animal behavior. Images of solid matter gave way to flowing energy. Establishing general law becomes more important than inventing a new machine. Science becomes a deliberate and systematic invetion. Administration becomes the effective way of organizing power, and all that comes with administration: record keeping, charting, communication. Information becomes a new currency. Flexibility wins over size. Devices tend toward automation. Synthetics, elastic and plastic are new materials, and aluminum is the power metal. Mumford warns, however, of the tendency to use gadgets even if the occassion does not demand it (that we will take advantage of distancing ourselves from one another). As there are less restrictions on close human intercourse, it increases areas of friction with superfluous operations. It can also trouble mass war and mass hysteria. Yet, instant communication offers an ideal of world-wide cooperation. The neotechnic is concerned with the invisible, the rare, the atomic level of innovation. There is also the creation of a new permanent record.

In regards to the 3rd wave, "the machine ceases to be a substitute for God or for an orderly society; and instead of its success being measured by the mechanication of life, its worth becomes more and more measurable in terms of its own approach to the organic and the living" (6). In this chronology, Mumford shares something with Flusser, who thought of man's relationship to technology in humanist (man-centered) terms--although it ends up in a man-machine hybrid (hand--tool--machine--robot). Similarly, McLuhan develops a chronology based in sense ratios, of the audio-tactile primitive world, to the visual, linear world of literacy and perspective, to the return of audio-tactile mosaic modernity.

Machines, while based in science, is not independent, but rather held to the demands of the human spirit, which may operate for good or error. We have made mistakes in letting in conquer us, but so too, Mumford claims, are we mistaken in rejecting it, failing to assimilate it. As a product of human ingenuity, to know the machine is to learn about human civilization and society. Of particular note is the influence of organic life upon machines, as our interest in human physiology of eyes and ears has produced telephones, phonographs and films (6).

Mumford makes a useful distinction between tool and machine in his first chapter: "the tool lends itself to manipulation, the machine to automatic action [...] between the tool and the machine there stands another class of objects, the machine-tool [something like a drill or a lathe which requires automation as well as finesse]" (10). Machines tend to be dedicate to specific tasks, while tools lend themselves to multiple uses. In Mumford's parlance, there are specific machines, but also "the machine" which envelopes the whole technical network of apparatus, instrument, skills, arts, and the machines themselves.

The first machine is the clock, which brought order to the monastery, which "helped to give human enterprise the regular collective beat and rhythm of the machine" (13-4). Time evolved "not into a sequence of experiences, but as a collection of hours, minutes, and seconds, the habits of adding time and saving time come into existence [...] it could even by expanded by the invetion of labor-saving instruments" (17). The time period of the clock's emergence, the first wave, was also a time of symbols and relationships all pointing toward God.

clocks--->interest in increments, digits, amounts and linear spacial and temporal organization---> counting drives science, military, economics; systems of hierarchy give way to systems of magnitudes, scientific discovery moves from fable to fact, allegory to realism --->rise of capitalism --->all life become convertable into units of money/exchange--->to speed up production was to speed up turnover, and hence, more money-->

Advances in technics in the end of the 1st wave relied on a dissociation of the animate and the mechanical (or perhaps, to think of the animate as mechanical?-->tree and wheel example-->the obstacle of animism, thinking things must relate to nature or carry a natural spirit impedes technics) (31). This dissociation has a certain understanding of enframing to it. Technics denies a pleasure in the human image, and here the Church triumphed in its contempt of the body. Thus, technics took longest to get to the field (which is life affirming) and quickest to get to the monestary and the battlefield (31-36). Magic resulted in experimentation. --->Social regimentation.

By the earlt 17th century, the world becomes understood as a mechanized universe. The physical sciences had a few basic principles, according to Mumford: 1. eliminate significance of all things that can't be weighed or measured, and reduce all complexity to simplicity. 2. concentrate on outer world and neutralize the observer 3. isolate and specialize labor. The world, then "is not the total object of common human experience: it is just those aspects of this experience that lend themselves to accurate factual observation and to generalized statements [...] To fix attention upon a mechanical system was the first step toward creating a system: an important victory for rational thought" (46-7). There is a privileging of information that is indesputable, nonsubjective (non-sensory). Mumford writes:

"In short, the accuracy and simplicity of science, through they were responsible for its colossal practical achievements, were not an approach to objective reality but a departure from it. In their desire to achieve exact results the physical sciences scorned true objectivity [...] To substitute mechanical or two-way time for history [...] or in general the mechanically measurable or reproducible for the inaccessible and the complicated and the organically whole, is to achieve a limited practical mastery at the expense of truth and of the larger efficiency that depends" (51). This thinking confines our interests to that which has market value, "by isolating and dismembering the corpus of experience" (51). Thus, we built a wasteland only machines could populate. "Mechanical invention, even more than science, was the answer to a dwindling faith and a faltering life-impulse" (53).

Technics owe twin debt to capitalism and war--money was the primary motive behind much technological investment (as such investment required fast economic means (the trade skills were much better entrenched, after all). Thus the machine was "conditioned, at the outset, by these foreign institutions and took on characteristics that had nothing essentially to do with the technical processes or the forms of work" (27). The machine, which is for Mumford nuetral, was blamed for the evils capitalism perpetrated. In arguing this, he breaks with any notion of an essentialism between technics and capitalism.

In the second wave

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