Sunday, February 21, 2010

Lewis Mumford, "Authoritarian and Democratic Technics," Technology and Culture 5 (1964): 1-9.

For Mumford, democracy consists in giving final authority to the whole, rather than the part, and only living human beings are an expression of that whole.  Associated with this central principle are ideas of communal self-government, free communication, unimpeded access to the common store of knowledge, protection against arbitrary external control and a sense of individual moral responsibility for behavior that affects the entire community.

Democratic technics, then, is characterized by small scale methods of production that rest mostly on human skill and energy and that remains under human control, even when machines are used.  But in society, as in technics, there is a tension between small-scale association and large-scale organization, between personal autonomy and institutional regulation.  The irony of civilization is that as our societies have been moving from authoritarian regimes to democratic ones, our technology has been moving from democratic technics to authoritarian technics.

Mumford traces democratic technics back to the earliest use of tools, claiming that it has been the underlying support of every historic culture, balancing the authoritarian regimes of the day.  Authoritarian technics, on the other hand is a more recent trend (relatively speaking), traced back to the fourth millennium B.C., coinciding with the rise of civilization in the form of centralized political control.  Drawing on inventions and discoveries in mathematics, writing, irrigation, and astronomy it created complex human machines - the work army, the military army, the bureaucracy.  Authoritarian technics was tolerated, despite its potential for destruction, because it also created abundance.

Unfortunately, through mechanization and automation authoritarian technics has overcome its greatest weakness: its dependence upon human beings as its component parts.  And now the center of authority no longer lies with people but with the system itself, even the scientists that created it have become trapped within the organization that they have created.  The ultimate end of this technics is to transfer the attributes of life to the machine and the mechanical collective (we are the Borg, resistance is futile, you will be assimilated).  And the only way to maintain our democratic institutions is to make sure that our constructive efforts include technology.  We must reconstruct our science and our technics so that it includes the human personality and favor variety and ecological complexity over uniformity and standardization.  We must put humanity back at the center of our technology.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (New York: Harper, 1934)

In the Fall of 2001 I did a directed reading with my advisor.  The subject was technology/science and society.  For coursework I wrote summaries of the books that we read.

Mumford wants to know how and why Western Europeans carried the physical sciences to the point where the whole mode of life had been adapted to the pace and capacities of the machine so that, in effect, the society had surrendered to the machine.  He traces this development to the invention of the clock, which allows time to be divided up and measured in the same sense that space is and helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences.

The first wave of the machine was in the 10th century and was characterized by an effort to achieve order and power by purely external means.  The second wave occurred in the 18th century with improvements in mining and iron-working.  Attempts were made by the disciples of Watt and Awkright to universalize the ideological premises of the first effort to create the machine, and to take advantage of the practical consequences.  With the third wave (20th century) the machine ceases to be a substitute for God or for an orderly society and its success is now measured by the mechanization of life.

He also links the emergence of the present-day form of capitalism with the beginning of the machine age and the substitution of money-values for life-values.  In the quest for power by the means of abstractions, one abstraction reinforces another.  Time is money, money is power, and power required the furtherance of trade and production, and increases in production drive increases in mechanization.  This abstraction of capitalism preceded the abstractions of modern science so that the power that was science and the power that was money became the same kind of power - the power of abstraction, measurement and quantification.

Because of this link between technics and capitalism, technics takes on the characteristics of capitalism, which utilized the machine not to further social welfare but to increase private profit.  It was capitalism that destroyed the handicraft industries, even though the machine products were inferior.  It was because of the possibilities of profit that the place of the machine was over-emphasized and the degree of regimentation pushed beyond what was necessary to harmony or efficiency.  It was because of capitalism that the machine (a neutral agent) has been the malicious element in human society, careless of human life, indifferent to human interests.  The machine has suffered the sins of capitalism and capitalism has taken credit for the virtues of the machine.  (Marxism)

The development of the machine civilization is divided into three successive but over-lapping and interpenetrating phases.  The Eotechnic phase is characterized by wood and water with the primary inventions being mechanical clocks, the telescope, cheap paper, print, the printing-press, the magnetic compass and the scientific method.  The Paleotechnic phase is characterized by coal and iron.  After 1750 industry passed into a new phase with different sources of power, different materials and different social objectives that multiplied, vulgarized, and spread the methods and goals of the first wave that were directed towards the quantification of life.  The source of mechanical power in the Paleotechnic phase was coal, and its industry rested on the mine, whose products dominated its life and determined the characteristics of its inventions and improvements.  This period is also marked by environmental degradation and the treatment of the environment as another abstraction along with money, prices, capital and most of human existence.  It also saw the worker as a resource to be exploited, mined, exhausted and discarded.

In the Neotechnic phase the scientific method took possession of the other domains of experience and turned the living organism and human society into objects of systematic investigation.  It is characterized by electricity and alloys and in order to survive it has to organize industry and its polity on a worldwide scale.  This phase is marked by instantaneous personal communication over long distances, and this instantaneous personal communication is the mechanical symbol of the world-wide cooperation of thought and feeling that must emerge if the world is not to sink into ruin.  (Wells’ World State?)