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.

1 comment:

  1. Read Mumford years ago. Just found this essay and then your site. Hope you are still active. Here is one of my takes:
    There is the assumption that humans will change their ways and conserve energy and not consume, consume, consume. This is akin to Jevons' paradox (perhaps their is one more Germaine). If the energy is available, what will stop continued consumption of tools and toys? Who will go first with this restraint and restricting? Think of the uproar if legislated.

    It is comforting to prefer the noise of delusional magical thinking and pretending that the system of perpetual growth can work forever; that some variant of business as usual can persist. There is just too much tied up with it and any unraveling would be far too chaotic and unpredictable. Wrapping our heads around the eventualities of global warming; of overshoot; of the desecration of world wildlife; of the acidification of the oceans; of the poisoning of pollinators stymies.

    A world no longer powered by fossil fuels, no matter what incarnation, is almost inconceivable and for many terrifying. . It is indeed traumatic for what it might (probably) means not just for us but also for our love ones, children, grandchildren. Our hearts break. We want to fix it. So we do more technology and more ultimate harm.

    It is like a person diagnosed with lung cancer saying he/she will just smoke these organic, non sprayed cigarettes for a little bit longer instead of facing the reality of the situation, quitting and having the operation.

    We are slowly technogizing ourselves into extinction. Technology is seductive. Is it the power? Is it the comfort? Or is it some internal particularly human attribute that drives it? Technology surrounds us and becomes part of our story and myths. Technology tantalizes the human mind to make, combine, invent. There are always unintended consequences with technology. It effects how we experience the world in time and space. It affects how we feel the world. If all the externalities were included in the prices and cost to nature, we would be very, very wary of technology.

    I think we have moved from technology in the service of religion (pyramids and gothic cathedrals) to religion and culture in the service of technology. It isn't a deity that will save humanity but in the eyes of many - it will be technology.

    We will do more of the same, business as usual until there are no more holes in the ground to dig, no more water above and below to contaminate, no humans to wage slave, no other lifeforms to eliminate. Yes, we are building Trojan horses in our hearts, minds and spirits. It will be elitist and entitlement and hubris - both a bang and a whimper.