The Myth of the Machine

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The Myth of the Machine
Author Lewis Mumford
Language English
Publisher Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
Media type 2 Vols. Print

The Myth of the Machine is a two volume series of books taking an in-depth look at the forces that have shaped modern technology since prehistoric times. The first volume, Technics and Human Development was published in 1967, followed by the second volume, The Pentagon of Power in 1970. The author, Lewis Mumford, shows the parallel developments between human tools and social organization mainly through language and rituals.[1] It is considered a synthesis of many theories Mumford developed throughout his prolific writing career.

Megamachine[edit]

"In The Myth of the Machine, Mumford insisted upon the reality of the megamachine: the convergence of science, technics and political power as a unified community of interpretation rendering useless and eccentric life-enhancing values. Subversion of this authoritarian kingdom begins with that area of human contact with the world that cannot be successfully repressed - one's feelings about one's self."[2]

Mumford dates the emergence of the "Machine" from the pyramid age (primarily with reference to Egypt, but also acknowledging other ancient cultures in that era which produced massive and precisely engineered structures). He uses the term 'Megamachine' to describe the social and bureaucratic structure that enabled a ruler to coordinate a huge workforce to undertake vast and complex projects. Where the projects were public works such as irrigation systems and canals or the construction of cities, Mumford referred to the "labour machine", and where they involved conquest he used the expression "military machine". The term "Megamachine" connoted the social structure in its entirety.

William Manson writes that Mumford differed from other major critics of technology in that "[Mumford] emphasized that the ultimate function of social structures (“society”) should be to enhance individual development and mutually beneficial patterns of social cooperation. Living in such conducive, humanly-scaled communities, individuals could develop their many-sided capacities (moral/empathic, cognitive, aesthetic, etc.). Technical means, if limited to these human purposes and values, could enhance such growth and social well-being." [3] Manson further writes that Mumford’s vision for the future was that "The beleaguered – even “obsolete” – individual would be entirely de-skilled, reduced to a passive, inert, “trivial accessory to the machine.” Technical surveillance and limitless data-collection — “an all-seeing eye” (Panopticon) — would monitor every “individual on the planet.” Ultimately, the totalitarian technocracy, centralizing and augmenting its “power-complex,” ignoring the real needs and values of human life, might produce a world “fit only for machines to live in.”" [4]

Volume I, Technics and Human Development[edit]

In this volume Mumford discusses the progress of terrestrial exploration, and scientific discovery; and traces the interplay of ideological interests, inventions and subjective drives in the evolution of human society.

Volume II, The Pentagon of Power[edit]

The "pentagon" refers to:

  • Politics
  • Power (in the sense of physical energy)
  • Productivity
  • Profit
  • Publicity

There was clearly also an oblique reference to the Pentagon, regarding which he commented: "...the concrete form of the Pentagon in Washington serves even better than its Soviet counterpart, the Kremlin, as a symbol of totalitarian absolutism."

Although much of the volume explores the negative influence of centralised power and exploitative behaviour on the human condition, it finishes on a positive and optimistic note in the closing chapters. William Manson writes that "Ultimately, Mumford advocated a negative revolt — resistance, refusal, withdrawal – whereby individuals may reclaim their autonomy and humanly-derived desires and choices."[4]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Mumford (1970, 12).
  2. ^ Lewis Freid, Makers of the City, Univ Massachusetts Press, 1990. p. 115
  3. ^ Footnote: Manson writes that "this is a humanist vision shared also by such previous thinkers as W. von Humboldt, J. S. Mill, and even Marx & Engels (“the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”)."
  4. ^ a b William Manson, Homo Technomorphis - The Relevance of Lewis Mumford, CounterPunch, 2014.03.21

Bibliography[edit]