chapter  36
Technics and Civilization (Lewis Mumford, 1895–1990)
Pages 6

Mumford was a prolific author for over 70 years, architectural critic and urban theorist, historian of technology and cities, intellectual generalist in a half dozen fields, biographer and man of letters, social activist and moral philosopher, and long-term watchdog over the condition and prospects of Western civilization. He authored 30 books (most still in print and translated into multiple languages), and some 700 articles. The City in History won the American National Book Award. His last book was published at age 84. All of his writing is infused with moral intensity. Although awarded the three American national medals for art,

freedom, and literature, he never graduated from college (too much “tick-tock,” he said). For many years he wrote an influential column on architecture for the New Yorker. He knew just about everyone of intellectual distinction in and out of the country. For some five decades, he lived with his family (his son was lost in the war) in a humble wood frame house in rural Amenia, New York, carried on a voluminous correspondence, and was an activist against nuclear weapons, urban sprawl, self-indulgent architecture, environmental disruption, and other excesses of modern civilization. Writing about the history and meaning of technology was an

innovative choice that expanded historical inquiry. It was also a virtuoso performance, since Mumford never claimed to be a specialist in anything. As a generalist who used the work of specialists, he had no qualms about taking a subject by storm. Historical perspective is the foundation, for emergence of the modern machine age is

unintelligible without plunging into history. Readers are cautioned to take deep breaths. The influence of mechanistic values over life and its choices began in medieval times, not with James Watt and the steam engine or the Industrial Revolution. Only a long view can adjust our vision enough to understand conditions under which the machine might better serve wider human interests than power and mastery of nature. Technics and Civilization is divided into eight chapters that address

90 different topics, one of which, “The Monastery and the Clock,” is especially notable and widely cited. The clock and not the steamengine was the key machine of the modern industrial age. Benedictine monasteries measured time to structure hours of prayer and work and thereby “helped to give human enterprise the regular collective beat and rhythm of the machine; for the clock is not merely a means of keeping track of the hours but of synchronizing the actions of men.” In due course, “time-keeping passed into timeserving and time-accounting and time-reckoning … Eternity ceased gradually to serve as the measure and focus of human actions” (14). Organic time keeping, modulated by the sun, moon, and alternation of the seasons, gave way to mechanical time keeping, which marks the onset of modern man’s infatuation with machines and their powers. There are numerous carefully chosen illustrations accompanied by

explanatory captions, from “The Genesis of the Machine” to “The New Environment.” The page on “Aesthetic Assimilation” (XIV) comments on how machine aesthetics moved practical structures like a grain elevator toward “elementary forms” and art toward “impersonality.” Nine pages list a host of inventions from the tenth century (water clock) to 1933 (aerodynamic motor car). Twenty-seven pages of annotated bibliography indicate his sources. There are no footnotes, which he regarded as baggage of academic pedantry, infallible signs of narrow specialization directed at the few. Declaring himself “anti-professor,” he wished to address the many. His method was to develop a frame of reference, ask the right questions, read widely, assimilate knowledge, and serve it up in readable prose. In short, scholarship was integrated with the text to convey an impression of spontaneous thought. His procedure is historical exposition and analysis with frequent

applications to the present: “To understand the dominating role played by technics in modern civilization, one must explore in detail the preliminary period of ideological and social preparation. Not merely must one explain the existence of the new mechanical

instruments: one must explain the culture that was ready to use them and profit by them so extensively” (4). The relations of humanity with the machine are a “result of human choices and aptitudes and strivings, deliberate as well as unconscious, often irrational when they are most objective and scientific” (6). Throughout Mumford expresses moral unease for the effects of technology on society and the individual. “Technics” refers broadly to artifacts and tools useful to humans

since their emergence as a species. Processes like basket making, distilling, brewing, and tanning (all likely developed by women) are technics as well as more familiar instruments like microscope, telescope, printing press, clock, sailing ship, steam engine, and telephone. The machine he defines more narrowly as “ … knowledge and skills and arts derived from industry or implicated in the new technics, and will include various forms of tool, instrument, apparatus and utility as well as machines proper” (12). Modern technology he calls “megatechnics” because the machine’s status in human life has become exaggerated and domineering. The difference between traditional and modern technics is that the

former served life purposes without usurping them. Modern technology has far more dramatic effects on human and natural environments with a potential for corrupting human well being. For Mumford, the machine is good if humans control them, bad if they do not. They can enrich human life with significance or diminish it. In modern times, enrichment has gotten the short end of the stick. Technics in the wide sense is less fundamental to understanding human nature than myth, art, and language, though all are essential to a balanced life. In effect, humans are more symbol-using than toolusing creatures. Mastery of self came before mastery of physical nature. Homo symbolicus rather than homo faber is the foundation of human development and fulfillment. The transformation of consciousness that revolutionized technics

and society was a shift from qualitative to quantitative judgment in most departments of life, a preference for numerical order modeled on measurements of time and space: “The new attitude toward time and space infected the workshop and the countinghouse, the army and the city. The tempo became faster: the magnitude became greater … In time-keeping, in trading, in fighting men counted numbers; and finally, as the habit grew, only numbers counted” (22). This quantification of human life arose during the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and accelerated thereafter. But technological determinism is rejected. The machine is

not independent of human will and purpose. Mechanistic, quantitative tendencies of the modern age came from a change of mind. Organic values of informality, autonomy, intuition, and feeling gave way to mechanical values of organization, regularity, control, and standardization. That change can be reversed or revised by another act of human will: “Technics and civilization as a whole are the result of human choices and aptitudes and strivings, deliberate as well as unconscious, often irrational when apparently they are most objective and scientific … The machine itself makes no demands and holds out no promises: it is the human spirit that makes demands and keeps promises” (6). While technics has altered nature and transformed the material basis

of life in the West, Mumford places its origin, growth, and influence in human wishes, desires, beliefs, and ideals: “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 army and the counting house before it finally manifested itself in the factory” (3). Over the past thousand years, he identifies three waves of technology-eotechnic, paleotechnic, neotechnic-that still exist, overlap, and interpenetrate. The anticipated next stage is a biotechnic society that serves a vital standard for balanced human development in a life economy at peace with the environment. The successive waves are distinguished by sources of energy, materials exploited, types of artifacts produced, kinds of labor demanded, and values implied for society and the individual. From medieval times to about 1750, the eotechnic wave relied on

wind and water, used wood and glass, and was marked by the clock, the printing press, mining, and textile manufacture. Craftsmanship had a place despite invention of the factory, human dignity mattered, and the organic integrity of nature and life were not seriously violated: “The goal of eotechnic civilization as a whole until it reached the decadence of the eighteenth century was not more power alone but a greater intensification of life: color, perfume, images, music, sexual ecstasy, as well as daring exploits in arms and thought and exploration” (149). This eotechnic age is much underrated compared to nineteenth century industrial Europe, which thought itself in the vanguard of progress. In truth, medieval cities were “far brighter and cleaner and better ordered than the new Victorian towns,” and “in many parts of Europe the medieval worker had demonstrably a far higher standard of living than the paleotechnic drudge” (183).