Technics and Civilization

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* Book: Lewis Mumford. Technics and Civilization, 1934

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From the Wikipedia:

"Technics and Civilization is a 1934 book by American philosopher and historian of technology Lewis Mumford. The book presents the history of technology and its role in shaping and being shaped by civilizations. According to Mumford, modern technology has its roots in the Middle Ages rather than in the Industrial Revolution. It is the moral, economic, and political choices we make, not the machines we use, Mumford argues, that have produced a capitalist industrialized machine-oriented economy, whose imperfect fruits serve the majority so imperfectly.

Apart from its significance as a monumental work of scholarship in several disciplines, Mumford explicitly positioned the book as a call-to-action for the human race to consider its options in the face of the threats to its survival posed by possible ecological catastrophe or industrialised warfare. Technics and Civilization is the first book in Mumford's four-volume Renewal of Life series, followed by The Culture of Cities (1938), The Condition of Man (1944), and The Conduct of Life (1951)."



From the Wikipedia:

"Mumford divides the development of technology into three overlapping phases: eotechnic (Greek, eos meaning "dawn"), paleotechnic and neotechnic.

The first phase of technically civilized life (AD 1000 to 1800) begins with the clock, to Mumford the most important basis for the development of capitalism because time thereby becomes fungible (thus transferable). The clock is the most important prototype for all other machines. He contrasts the development and use of glass, wood, wind and water with the inhumanly horrific work that goes into mining and smelting metal. The use of all of these materials, and the development of science during the eotechnic phase, is based on the abstraction from life of the elements that could be measured. He approves those people, cities and cultures who strove for a harmonious balance between the senses and the freedom from labor provided by science.

"the goal of eotechnic civilization as a whole ... 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." - Lewis Mumford

The second phase, the paleotechnic (roughly 1700 to 1900), is "an upthrust into barbarism, aided by the very forces and interests which originally had been directed toward the conquest of the environment and the perfection of human nature." Inventions of the paleotechnic are made by men trying to solve specific problems rather than hunting for general scientific principles; in fact, scientific learning is devalued by men of business. The invention of coal-fired steam powered factories and the installation of capital-intensive machinery leads to a necessarily gigantic round-the-clock scale of production supported by unskilled machine tenders. Labour becomes a commodity, rather than an inalienable set of skills, the labourer who tended machines, lived in slums, and was paid starvation wages, became physically stunted and socially and spiritually stultified. Mumford notes that the death rate of urban slums compares unfavorably to the agricultural worker of the same time period, and furthermore that life in the nineteenth century compares unfavorably to cleanliness and standards of living available to workers in thirteenth century cities. He also identifies iron as the primary building material of the paleotechnic, and skyscrapers, bridges and steamships as première accomplishments of the age. War and mass sport he saw as social releases from mechanized life, and the hysteric duties of wartime production (or even the hysteria of a baseball team's victory) is a natural outgrowth of the tensions and structures of such paleotechnic life.

In describing the neotechnic age (from about 1900 to Mumford's present, 1930), he focuses on the invention of electricity, freeing the factory production line from the restrictions of coal through the addition of small electric motors to individual machines, and freeing the laborer to create small but competitive factories. Mumford presciently notes that a small producer can deliver what is needed when it is needed more efficiently than paleotechnic assembly lines. The neotechnic phase he saw was dominated by men of science, rather than mechanically apt machinists. Rather than pursuing accomplishments on the scale of the trains, it is concerned with the invisible, the rare, the atomic level of change and innovation. Compact and lightweight aluminum is the metal of the neotechnic, and communication and information — even inflated amounts — he claimed was the coin."



All excerpts via [1]


Lewis Mumford:

"During the last thousand years the material basis and the cultural forms of Western Civilization have been profoundly modified by the development of the machine.

While people often call our period the "Machine Age," very few have... any clear notion as to its origins. Popular historians usually date the great transformation in modern industry from Watt's supposed invention of the steam engine; and in the conventional economics textbook the application of automatic machinery to spinning and weaving is often treated as an equally critical turning point. But the fact is that in Western Europe the machine had been developing steadily for at least seven centuries before the dramatic changes that accompanied the "industrial revolution" took place. 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 the army and the counting-house before it finally manifested itself in the factory.

To understand the dominating role played by technics in modern civilization, one must explore in detail the preliminary period of... preparation. ...mechanization and regimentation are not new phenomena in history: what is new is the fact that these functions have been projected and embodied in organized forms which dominate every aspect of our existence."

Evolution of the Concept of Time: The Monastery and the Clock

"Where did the machine first take form in modern civilization? There was plainly more than one point of origin. Our mechanical civilization represents the convergence of numerous habits, ideas, and modes of living, as well as technical instruments... . [...] The application of quantitative methods of thought to the study of nature had its first manifestation in the regular measurement of time; and the new mechanical conception of time arose in part out of the routine of the monastery. Alfred Whitehead has emphasized the importance of the scholastic belief in a universe ordered by God as one of the foundations of modern physics: but behind that belief was the presence of order in the institutions of the Church itself.

It was... in the monasteries of the West that the desire for order... first manifested itself after the long uncertainty and bloody confusion that attended the breakdown of the Roman Empire. Within the walls of the monastary was sanctuary: under the rule of the order surprise and doubt and caprice and irregularity were put at bay. Opposed to the erratic fluctuations and pulsations of the worldly life was the iron discipline of the rule.

According to a now discredited legend, the first modern mechanical clock, worked by falling weights, was invented by the monk named Gerbert who afterwards became Pope Sylvester II near the close of the tenth century. [...] But the legend, as so often happens, is accurate in its implications if not in its fact. The monastery was the seat of a regular life, and an instrument for striking the hours at intervals or for reminding the bell-ringer that it was time to strike the bells, was an almost inevitable product of this life. If the mechanical clock did not appear until the cities of the thirteenth century demanded an orderly routine, the habit of order itself and the earnest regulation of time-sequences had become almost second nature in the monastery. Coulton agrees with Sombart in looking upon the Benedictines, the great working order, as perhaps the original founders of modern capitalism.... . is not straining the facts when one suggests that the monasteries-- at one time there were 40,000 under the Benedictine rule-- helped to give human enterprize the regular collective beat and rhythm of the machine... . the thirteenth century there are definite records of mechanical clocks, and by 1370 a well-designed "modern" clock had been built by Heinrich von Wyck at Paris. Meanwhile, bell towers had come into existence, and the new clocks, if they did not have, till the fourteenth century, a dial and a hand that translated the movement of time into a movement through space, at all events struck the hours. [...] The bells of the clock tower almost defined urban existence... [Editors note: i.e., see Huizinga's The Autumn of the Middle Ages].

The clock, not the steam-engine, is the key-machine of the modern industrial age. For every phase of its development the clock is both the outstanding fact and the typical symbol of the machine: even today no other machine is so ubiquitous [Editors note: see Spengler on the clock as the 'prime symbol' of Faustian technics in his Decline of the West].

In its relationship to determinable quantities... , to standardization, to automatic action, and finally to its own special product, accurate timing, the clock has been the foremost machine in modern technics:... it marks a perfection toward which other machines aspire. The clock... served as a model for many other kinds of mechanical works... . [Editors note: Pascal built the first calculator, and thus the first computer, out of gothic clockwork mechanisms]

The clock... is a piece of power-machinary whose "product" is seconds and minutes: by its essential nature it dissociated time from human events and helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences: the special world of science. [...] In terms of the human organism itself, mechanical time is... foreign: while human life has regularities of its own, the beat of the pulse, the breathing of the lungs, these change from hour to hour with mood and action, and in the longer span of days, time is measured not by the calendar but by the events that occupy it. The shepherd measures from the time the ewes lambed; the farmer measures back to the day of sowing or forward to the harvest: if growth has its own duration and regularities, behind it are not simply matter and motion but the facts of development: in short, history. And while mechanical time is strung out in a succession of mathematically isolated instants, organic time-- what Bergson calls duration [Editors note: and others have called 'lived-time']--is cumulative in its effects.

Around 1345, according to Thorndike, the division of hours into sixty minutes and of minutes into sixty seconds became common: it was this abstract framework of divided time that became more and more the point of reference... , and in the effort to arrive at accuracy in this department, the astronomical exploration of the sky focused attention further upon the regular, implacable movements of the heavenly bodies through space. Early in the sixteenth century a young Nuremberg mechanic, Peter Henlein, is supposed to have created "many-wheeled watches out of small bits of iron" and by the end of the century the small domestic clock had been introduced in England and Holland. [...] To become "as regular as clock-work" was the bourgeois ideal, and to own a watch was for long a definite symbol of success.

Now, the orderly punctual life that first took shape in the monasteries is not native to mankind, although by now Western peoples are so thoroughly regimented by the clock that it is "second nature" and they look upon its observance as a fact of nature. Many Eastern civilizations have flourished on a loose basis in time: the Hindus have in fact been so indifferent to time that they lack even an authentic chronology of the years. Only yesterday, in the midst of the industrializations of Soviet Russia, did a society come into existence to further the carrying of watches there and to propagandize the benefits of punctuality. The popularization of time-keeping, which followed the production of the cheap standardized watch, first in Geneva, then in America around the middle of the last century, was essential to a well-articulated system of transportation and production.

To keep time was once a peculiar attribute of music... . But the effect of the mechanical clock is pervasive and strict: it presides over the day from the hour of rising to the hour of rest. [...] When one thinks of time, not as a sequence of experiences, but as a collection of hours, minutes, and seconds, the habits of adding time and saving time come into existence. Time took on the character of an enclosed space: it could be divided, it could be filled up, it could even be expanded by the invention of labor-saving instruments.

Abstract time became the new medium of existence. Organic functions themselves were regulated by it: one ate, not upon feeling hungry, but when prompted by the clock: one slept, not when one was tired, but when the clock sanctioned it. A generalized time-consciousness accompanied the wider use of clocks: dissociating time from organic sequences... . [...] In the seventeenth century journalism and periodic literature made their appearance: even in dress, following the lead of Venice as fashion-center, people altered styles every year rather than every generation.

The gain in mechanical effeciency through co-ordination and through the closer articulation of the day's events cannot be over-estimated: while this increase cannot be measured in mere horse-power, one has only to imagine its absence today to foresee the speedy disruption and eventual collapse of our entire society."


Evolution of the Concept of Space, Distance, Movement

"Dagobert Frey... has made a penetrating study of the difference in spatial conceptions between the early Middle Ages and the Renascence: he has re-enforced by a wealth of specific detail, the generalization that no two cultures live conceptually in the same kind of time and space. [...] Long before Kant announced that time and space were categories of the mind, long before the mathematicians discovered that there were conceivable and rational forms of space other than the form described by Euclid, mankind at large had acted on this premise. Like the Englishman in France who thought that bread was the right name for Ie pain each culture believes that every other kind of space and time is an approximation to or a perversion of the real space and time in which it lives.

During the Middle Ages spatial relations tended to be organized as symbols and values. [...] Without constant symbolic reference to the fables and myths of Christianity the rationale of medieval space would collapse.

In medieval cartography the water and the land masses of the earth, even when approximately known, may be represented in an arbitrary figure like a tree, with no regard for the actual relations as experienced by a traveller, and with no interest in anything except the allegorical correspondence.

One further characteristic of medieval space must be noted: space and time form two relatively independent systems. First: the medieval artist introduced other times within his own spatial world, as when he projected the events of Christ's life within a contemporary Italian city, without the slightest feeling that the passage of time has made a difference, just as in Chaucer the classical legend of Troilus and Cressida is related as if it were a contemporary story. When a medieval chronicler mentions the King, as the author of The Wandering Scholars remarks, it is sometimes a little difficult to find out whether he is talking about Caesar or Alexander the Great or his own monarch: each is equally near to him. Indeed, the word anachronism is meaningless when applied to medieval art: it is only when one related events to a co-ordinated frame of time and space that being out of time or being untrue to time became disconcerting. Similarly, in Botticelli's The Three Miracles of St. Zenobius, three different times are presented upon a single stage [Editors note: see Modernity and the Planes of Historicity by Reinhart Koselleck (1981). A selection can be found here ].

Between the fourteenth and the seventeenth century a revolutionary change in the conception of space took place in Western Europe.

The new interest in perspective brought depth into the picture and distance into the mind. In the older pictures, one's eye jumped from one part to another, picking up symbolic crumbs... : in the new pictures, one's eye followed the lines of linear perspective along streets, buildings, tessellated pavements.... .

Within this new ideal network of space and time all events now took place... .

What the painters demonstrated in their application of perspective, the cartographers established in the same century in their new maps. The Hereford Map of 1314 might have been done by a child: it was practically worthless for navigation. that of Ucello's contemporary, Andrea Banco, 1436, was conceived on rational lines and represented a gain in conception as well as in practical accuracy. By laying down the invisible lines of latitude and longitude, the cartographers paved the way for later explorers, like Columbus... . [...] Both Eden and Heaven were outside the new space... .

Presently, on the basis laid down by the painter and the cartographer, an interest in space as such, in movement as such, in locomotion as such, arose.

The categories of time and space, once practically dissociated, had become united: and the abstractions of measured time and measured space undermined the earlier conceptions of infinity and eternity, since measurement must begin with an arbitrary here and now even if space and time be empty. ...the conquest of space and time had begun.

The signs of this conquest are many: they cam forth in rapid succession. In military arts the cross-bow and the ballista were revived and extended, and on their heels cam more powerful weapons for annihilating distance-- the cannon and later the musket. Leonardo conceived n airplane and built one. Fantastic projects for flight were canvassed.

The new attitude toward time and space infected the workshop and the counting house, the army and the city. The tempo became faster: the magnitudes became greater: conceptually, modern culture launched itself into space and gave itself over to movement. What Max Weber called the "romanticism of numbers" grew naturally out of this interest. In time-keeping, in trading, in fighting men counted numbers; and finally, as the habit grew, only numbers counted."


Evolution of the Concept of Nature

"Meanwhile, with the transformation of the concepts of time and space went a change in the direction of interest from the heavenly world to the natural one. Around the twelfth century the supernatural world, in which the European mind had been enveloped as in a cloud from the decay of the classical schools of thought onward, began to lift... .

Every culture lives within its dream. That of Christianity was one in which a fabulous heavenly world, filled with gods, saints, devils, demons, angels, archangels, cherubim and seraphim and dominions and powers, shot its fantastically magnified shapes and images across the actual life of earthborn man. This dream pervades the life of a culture as the fantasies of night dominate the mind of a sleeper: it is reality--while the sleep lasts. But, like the sleeper, a culture lives within an objective world that goes on through its sleeping or waking, and sometimes breaks into the dream, like a noise, to modify it or to make further sleep impossible.

By a slow natural process, the world of nature broke in upon the medieval dream of hell and paradise and eternity... .

"In the Middle Ages," as Emile Male said, "the idea of a thing which a man formed for himself was always more real than the actual thing itself, and we see why these mystical centuries had no conception of what men now call science. The study of things for their own sake held no meaning for the thoughtful man... . The task for the student of nature was to discern the eternal truth that God would have each thing express."

During the Middle Ages the external world had had no conceptual hold upon the mind. Natural facts were insignificant compared with the divine order and intention which Christ and his Church had revealed.... . ...whatever significance the items of daily life had was as stage accessories and costumes and rehearsals for the drama of Man's pilgrimage through eternity.

The herbals and treatises on natural history that came out during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, though they still mingled fable and conjecture with fact, were resolute steps toward the delineation of nature.... .

The discovery of nature as a whole was the most important part of that era of discovery which began for the Western World with the Crusades and the travels of Marco Polo and the southward ventures of the Portuguese. Nature existed to be explored, to be invaded, to be conquered, and finally, to be understood. Dissolving, the medieval dream disclosed the world of nature, as a lifting mist opens to view the rocks and trees and herds on a hillside, whose existence had been heralded only by the occasional tinkling of bells or the lowing of a cow.

The great series of technical improvements that began to crystallize around the sixteenth century rested on a dissociation of the animate and the mechanical.

The original advances in modern technics became possible only when a mechanical system could be isolated from the entire tissue of relations.

For thousands of years animism had stood in the way of this development... .

It was by reason of the Church's belief in an orderly independent world, as Whitehead has shown in [the introduction to] Science and the Modern World, that the work of science could go on so confidently. [...] is perhaps no accident that the serious scientists of the seventeenth century, like Galileo, Descartes, Leibniz, Newton, Pascal, were so uniformly devout men. The next step in development, partly made by Descartes himself, was the transfer of order from God to the Machine. For God became in the eighteenth century the Eternal Clockmaker who, having conceived and created and wound up the clock of the universe, had no further responsibility until the machine ultimately broke up-- or, as the nineteenth century thought, until the works ran down.

The method of science and technology, in their developed forms, implies a sterilization of the self, an elimination, as far as possible, of the human bias and preference, including the... pleasure in man's own image and the instinctive belief in the immediate presentations of his fantasies. What better preparation could a whole culture have for such an effort than the spread of the monastic system and the multiplication of a host of separate communities, dedicated to the living of a humble and self-abnegating life, under a strict rule? Here, in the monastery, was a relatively non-animistic, non-organic world: the temptations of the body were minimized... more often.. than in secular life. The effort to exalt the individual self was suspended in the collective routine.

[The monastery] Like the army... sharpened and disciplined and focussed the masculine will-to-power... . One of the first experimental scientists, Roger Bacon, was a monk; so, again, was Michael Stifel, who in 1544 widened the use of symbols in algebraic equations; the monks stood high in the roll of mechanics and inventors. The spiritual routine of the monastery, if it did not positively favor the machine, at least nullified many of the influences that worked against it.

In still another way did the institutions of the Church perhaps prepare the way for the machine: in their contempt for the body. Now respect for the body and its organs is deep in all the classic cultures of the past. [....] The whole ritual of life in the old cultures tended to emphasize respect for the body and to dwell on its beauties and delights... . [...] The enthronement of the human form in sculpture, and the care of the body in the palestra of the Greeks or the baths of the Romans, re-enforced this inner feeling for the organic.

This affirmative sense of the body surely never disappeared, even during the severest triumphs of Christianity: every new pair of lovers recovers it through their physical delight in each other. [...] But the systematic teachings of the Church were directed against the body and its culture: if on one hand it was a Temple of the Holy Ghost, it was also vile and sinful by nature: the flesh tended to corruption, and to achieve the pious ends of life one must mortify it and subdue it, lessening its appetites by fasting and abstention.

Hating the body, the orthodox minds of the Middle Ages were prepared to do it violence. Instead of resenting the machines that could counterfeit this or that action of the body, they could welcome it. [...] The writer in the Nurnberg Chronicle in 1398 might say that "wheeled engines performing strange tasks and shows and follies come directly from the devil"-- but in spite of itself, the Church was creating devil's disciples.

Something more important than gold came out of the researches of the alchemists: the retort and the furnace and the alembic: the habit of manipulation by crushing, grinding, firing, distilling, dissolving-- valuable apparatus for real experiments, valuable methods for real science.

In sum, magic turned men's minds to the external world: it suggested the need of manipulating it: it helped create the tools for successfully achieving this, and it sharpened observation as to the results. The philosopher's stone was not found, but the science of chemistry emerged... . The herbalist, zealous in his quest for simples and cure-alls, led the way for the intensive explorations of the botanist and the physician.... . [...] As children's play anticipates crudely adult life, so did magic anticipate modern science and technology... "


The Evolution of Technology

More information

  • mixed review: An Appraisal of Lewis Mumford's "Technics and Civilization" (1934)

Daedalus, Vol. 88, No. 3, Current Work and Controversies (Summer, 1959), pp. 527-536 (10 pages) [2]