Lewis Mumford on Authoritarian vs Democratic Technics

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Nitasha Kaul:

"Mumford (1964, p. 2, 5) presented the coexisting natures of two technologies—the authoritarian technics (being system-centered, immensely powerful, but inherently unstable) and the democratic technics (being human centered, relatively weak, but resourceful and durable). The authoritarian technics in the modern era, he argued, were restored at the same time as the regimes of absolute governments were overthrown so that military coercions were reproduced in the organizations of factories and with scientific ideologies that liberated them from theological restrictions or humanistic purposes.

“Through mechanization, automation, cybernetic direction, this authoritarian technics has at last successfully overcome its most serious weakness: its original dependence upon resistant, sometimes actively disobedient servo-mechanisms, still human enough to harbor purposes that do not always coincide with those of the system” (Mumford, 1964, p. 5). He referred to the lack of visible personality as the center of authority [in a manner reminiscent of the philosopher of totalitarianism, Arendt (1969), who referred to the “rule by nobody”]. The success of human surrender to authoritarian technics is paradoxically owed to the fact that “if one surrenders one's life at source, authoritarian technics will give back as much of it as can be mechanically graded, quantitatively multiplied, collectively manipulated and magnified” (Mumford, 1964, p. 6).

Technical systems are persuasively interwoven with the conditions of modern politics and technical arrangements are forms of order (Winner, 1980); the histories of architecture, city planning, and public works testify to this. Technologies are inherently political, “the things we call ‘technologies’ are ways of building order in our world” (Winner, 1980, p. 127). A particular point of historical relevance to AI is the range of choices that have to do with “specific features in the design or arrangement of the technical system after the decision to go ahead with it has already been made” (Winner, 1980, p. 127). The link between technologies and politics is important, and yet far from straightforward, especially if we consider that people are often “willing to make drastic changes in the way they live to accord with technological innovation at the same time they would resist similar kinds of changes justified on political grounds” (135). This is resonant with the contemporary present where AI is altering the landscape of our lives."