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.
To Serve Man, with Software
6 months ago