01 February 2013

Mumford and Technics

As much about life (and how to live it) as it is about technology, Lewis Mumford's Technics and Civilization is a far-reaching exploration of many-sidedness of technological development. Through the analysis of social, economic, political, and other variables, Mumford presents a view of technology that differed dramatically from his contemporaries' depiction of sequential stages of technological evolution initiated by the Industrial Revolution. With a variety of historical examples, cultural anecdotes,  and philosophical explications Mumford sought to reorient society's understanding of technology and thereby reorient society's understanding of itself. In essence, Mumford emphasized the important role human choices (internal, subconscious, external, and/or deliberate) play in technological development. Dissatisfied with the surface-level and self-congratulatory explanations of technology in the early 20th century, Mumford develops an explanatory framework that is more complex, more interconnected, and ultimately more satisfying than his predecessors.

From a rhetorical perspective, Mumford doesn't take much effort to conceal his objectives. Not only is the introductory chapter title "Objectives," but the first paragraph of the text lays out the main questions Mumford seeks to answer. Much critical attention has focused on the significance of this paragraph. So much in fact, one of the blurbs featured on the back cover of the 2010 edition features a quote from Rosalind Williams that draws explicit attention to weight of Mumford's opening lines. Declaring "The questions posed in the first paragraph of Technics and Civilization still deserve our attention, nearly three quarters of a century after they were written,"[1] the quote is a spot-on summary advocating  Mumford's continued relevance. In his praising foreword to Technics and CivilizationLangdon Winner provides an impassioned argument for including Mumford in any contemporary study of technology. Although initially published in 1934, Mumford's text maintains its significance not only because of it primacy, but also because many of the theories remain relevant. As Winner states, the work that Mumford presents in Technics and Civilization "enable us to imagine the layers of knowledge, belief, and skill embedded within the technologies and institutions that surround us."[2]

Although it's been nearly 80 years since the first publication of the book and much has changed -- the technological landscape, cultural milieu, our understanding of the relationship between the two -- Mumford's ideas retain their intellectual currency. One of the more lasting influences was Mumford's division of "the development of the machine and the machine civilization into three successive, but over-lapping and interpenetrating phases: eotechnic, paleotechnic, neotechnic."[3] For Mumford, these phases are significant not because they periodize human history (which are often arbitrary designations and nearly always fluid), but because they demonstrate how "the social process worked hand in hand with the new ideology and the new technics."[4] Many more recent scholars (BijkerHughes, Kranzberg, Noble, etc.) have done a fine job picking up where Mumford left off and offering more analytically rigorous studies of technological development and the technology-culture relationship. Still though, a burgeoning scholars mustn't overlook Mumford's contribution to the study of technology and society.

Much of Technics and Civilization focuses on Mumford's "great hopes for technology,"[5] but there remains an awareness of the changing relationship between technology and culture. Mumford does not dwell upon the shortcomings and pitfalls, but his method for understanding the dynamics between culture and technology requires him to acknowledge the dynamic interplay (both positive and negative). Indeed, Mumford routinely addresses concerns regarding the loss of humanity, experience, objective reality by way of increasing technification and tendency toward abstraction. Many of Mumford's concerns find expression in contemporary discussions of education and technology. "Unfortunately, isolation and abstraction, while important to orderly research and refined symbolic representation, are likewise conditions under which real organisms die, or at least cease to function effectively. The rejection of experience in its original whole...the accuracy and simplicity of science, though they were responsible for its colossal practical achievements, were not an approach to objective reality but a departure from it."[6] Granted Mumford is discussing seventeenth century natural philosophy and the increasing scientification of the world, but much of this applies directly to contemporary discussion of computer-mediated realities. During the 16th and 17th centuries, leading intellectuals (e.g. Bacon, GlanvillHookeLeonardo, etc.) helped usher in a new order founded on "the use of science for the advancement of technics, and the new direction of technics toward the conquest of nature."[7] Many scholars have built their careers on detailed investigations concerning the personas and products associated with the Scientific Revolution. It is neither my interest nor ambition to reiterate the arguments of Kuhn, Shapin, Schaffer, etc., but I do wish to point out how many of the ideological attributes that facilitated the increasing scientification of civilization in the 17th century closely parallel the increasing digitification (or perhaps computerification -- but it seems somewhat beyond the computer or at the very least the notion of the computer is shifting) of education.

L.M. looking contemplative while immersed
in nature on the 18 April 1938 cover of Time 
Those of us with an eye on the role of technology in education must wonder how this longstanding preoccupation on its ideological head. In other words, how can technics be directed for the betterment (rather than rhetorically loaded term 'conquest') of the adventure of learning and creativity? Therefore, I aim to think more about Mumford's questions in terms of their potential for addressing pedagogy, technology, and higher education. Discussing how the development of a scientific methodology created an environment that required invention, Mumford explains "The displacement of the living and the organic took place rapidly with the early development of the machine. For the machine was a counterfeit of nature, nature analyzed, regulated, narrowed, controlled by the mind of men."[8] There is a lot to unpack in this statement, but my immediate concern lies with the machine as creator of counterfeit. While we still discuss the machine (here I'm thinking primarily of computers) in terms of virtual reality, a shift is occurring. Virtual reality (note that counterfeit has dropped from the lexicon) is not always negative. Now the machine (in a radically different, yet strikingly similar manifestation) is oft depicted as the great creative tool of our age. Still though, there is a large contingent that suggests this creative tool is a high priced, needlessly complicated distraction from learning. Indeed, the "unquestioned faith in the machine has been severly shaken."[9] Although somewhat hyperbolic, the contrasting representations of technology in education cannot be underemphasized. How are we to reconcile these diametrically opposed perspectives? How can a critical pedagogy ever enable deep learning and immersive creativity? First, it is necessary to understanding how culture shapes the development and utilization of technologies (both an individual technology -- what Mumford call machines -- and the interconnected matrix of technologies operating at a given time -- what Mumford call the machine).

Take Mumford's discussion of the "various types of writing pen."[10] Used to exemplify the interconnectedness of the technical complex where "any part will...point to and symbolize a whole series of relationships within that complex,"[11] the pen portrays the characteristics and environment typical of each phase. Mumford's main point here (and reiterated throughout the text) is the importance of the assemblage. The individual technologies are not critical. Various technologies can be invented at various times. Nor are the individual characteristics of the environment. Instead, the relationships between technologies and the environment are paramount. What then are we to make of the writing pen in the 21st century? What writing instrument is typical of this technological phase? Moreover, what phase are we currently operating within? Are we still operating in the neotechnic phase? Or perhaps in the late 1990s and early 2000s we transitioned into a new digitechnic phase?

Tackling the rapidly moving technological targets is not an easy task. Vast webs consisting of pedagogies, educational policies, technological innovation, cultural practices, among other nodes have shaped (and continue to shape) the climate of higher education. To adjust the trajectory of technology  in higher education will require understanding the ties that bind these various aspects. Nevertheless, there are models for how to approach such a dynamic endeavor. Just as "Modern man could not have found his own particular modes of thought or invented his present technical equipment without drawing freely on the cultures that had preceded him or that continued to develop about him,"[12] so too will I rely upon the work of my intellectual predecessors to help develop a new approach to the study of technology in higher education.

Certainly not the perfect model, Technics and Civilization provides a solid foundation. Mumford firmly connects the technological with the cultural; identifying how the relationship creates, modifies, and removes in both directions. Additionally, Mumford offers a fine example of how a scholar can integrate historical analysis into a project focused on "re-orienting our technics...bringing it more completely into harmony with the new cultural and regional and societal and personal patterns we have coordinately begun to develop."[13] In other words, in Technics and Civilization I see somewhat of a template for engaging and forward-thinking scholarship. As Williams explains in her long and contemplative review of the text, "The book we know as Technics and Civilization is an accident. Mumford intended to write a book not about the technological past but about the cultural future. He planned a brief discussion of machinery as a preface to a far more comprehensive cultural study...He believed that the first step in reorienting our civilization was understanding the machine, as a means of understanding society and ourselves."[14] Attentive to the interplay between culture and technology and concerned with the future cultural trajectory Mumford provides a useful framework for initiating a study addressing future role of technology in education. At times a bit overly stylized and a bit scant on details (at least by modern scholarly standards), Technics and Civilization is not an ideal, but certainly a fine component of my creative syncretism.

As an individual with various interests and inspirations, I find Mumford's interdisciplinarity to be particularly motivating. To be sure, there are various historical examples of individuals who excelled in several different areas (for those interested, Wikipedia provides a list of such individuals; although the evaluative rigor is somewhat questionable). However, it is less common to find a polymath (aka Renaissance Man) who possessed similarly diverse, yet interconnected interests as oneself. Mere interest in an assortment of topics does not qualify me as a polymath, I am hopeful that my array of degrees and experiences will coalesce in a manner productively similar to Mumford. Oddly, Mumford's obituary from The New York Times provides biographical summary that is strikingly similar to my own.
'If I have any field of specialization at all, it is the all-inclusive one of the social philosopher,' Mr. Mumford once said. It was an apt description, for there was scarcely any aspect of modern society that he left unexamined. Science, technology, urban living, city planning, education, politics, literature, militarism - all these subjects and more Mr. Mumford expounded in a long life of teaching, lecturing and writing here and abroad.
By no means do I wish to duplicate Mumford's trajectory (Williams points out some rather unsavory attributes that need not be duplicated). Instead, as I try to connect various topical components to create a complete structure, I see Mumford's interdisciplinary career as scaffolding for this project.

  1. Rosalind Williams, "Lewis Mumford's Technics and Civilization," Technology and Culture 43, no 1 (2002): 148-149.
  2. Langdon Winner, foreword to Technics and Civilization, Lewis Mumford (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010), xi.
  3. Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010), 109.
  4. Ibid., 2010),41.
  5. Langdon Winner, foreword to Technics and Civilization, Lewis Mumford (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010), xii.
  6. Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010), 50.
  7. Ibid., 57.
  8. Ibid., 52.
  9. Ibid., 365.
  10. Ibid., 110.
  11. Ibid., 110.
  12. Ibid., 107.
  13. Ibid., 434.
  14. Rosalind Williams, "Lewis Mumford's Technics and Civilization," Technology and Culture 43, no 1 (2002): 141.

"Lewis Mumford, a Visionary Social Critic, Dies at 94." The New York Times (New York, NY), Jan. 28, 1990.

Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Williams, Rosalind. "Lewis Mumford's Technics and Civilization.Technology and Culture 43, no. 1 (2002): 139-149.