|volume 14 (1)||March 1995|
As the social study of science and technology has become institutionalized and in many parts of the world been given the status of a full-fledged academic department, something inevitably, but also unfortunately, has gone lost. That something, for me anyway, is a sense of commitment or intellectual partisanship: an interest in taking sides. In seeking to become a discipline, all too many students of science and technology have retreated to the ivory tower from which our field once strived to emerge. And it is all too seldom that practitioners in our field attempt to use our knowledge to take part in broader public debates about the role and direction of science and technology in society. There has developed in our field a growing sense of professionalism, and of specialized competence, which has tended to relegate normative and generalist approaches to the dustbin of history. Fine, readable - and highly political - works like Alfred North Whitehead's Science and the Modern World, John Desmond Bernal's Science in History, Harry Braverman's Labor and Monopoly Capital, David Dickson's Alternative Technology and the Politics of Technical Change, and David Noble's America by Design and Forces of Production are conspicuous for their absence from the literature lists of our field's courses, as more limited and specialized works have tended to take over.
To my mind, the most serious mistake we can make in further professionalizing our curriculum is to give up studying and utilizing the pioneering writings of Lewis Mumford, and in particular to take Technics and Civilization off our reading lists. Of course, it is a difficult, opinionated book, full of references to names and places that are not at all familiar to contemporary students. And of course, Mumford is dated, in the sense that his book reflects a response to a previous set of technological opportunities. Technics and Civilization was written in the age of radio and silent film, of 78 rpm phonograph records and Model T Fords. Are his analyses therefore not anachronistic among our personal computers and compact discs, as we traverse virtual reality on our way to nowhere? Is his interwar organicism and political optimism not outmoded in our postmodernist condition, in a world of thought torn asunder by particularist knowledge claims and relativistic epistemologies?
What I want to do today is to recall the context in which Technics was written, and to suggest that not only has Mumford's approach not lost its relevance for our field, but that in important respects, his book is even more relevant than when it was written. Mumford gives us in one readable book a powerful and comprehensive way to structure our discourse; he gives us concepts, methods and most especially a committed style of writing that are not only worthy of emulation but of passing on to our students.
It all apparently started in 1930, when the 35-year-old Lewis Mumford was asked to give a course at Columbia University's extension division on the Machine Age in America, which Arthur Molella has suggested was most likely the first such course held anwhere in the United States. Then as now, Mumford was unique among American intellectuals for combining what were already separate fields of inquiry, distinct specializations - science and technology on the one hand, culture and society on the other. The two cultures did not exist for Mumford in separate spheres; as a boy he had enjoyed fiddling with radios as much as reading classical literature, and for most of his long life, he saw his main task as bringing the infamous two cultures or at least bringing inquiry about them - together. He didn't combine the cultures by reducing one to the other, but by transcending them both and operating on what might be termed a meta-level of reality, where totality exists. It was by trying to be all-encompassing, by seeing the world in terms of patterns, processes, cycles, that is, by adopting an organismic world view that one could overcome specialization. In this respect, Mumford was inspired by Whitehead, as well as by Patrick Geddes, in thinking of society and its activities through biological concepts, in terms of life processes.
In the 1920s, as a young man with one year of college education - he had dropped out to join the Navy - he had written two books of literary criticism, one on the "golden day" of American letters, which focused on Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman, and one on Herman Melville, perhaps his favorite writer of all. But he had also written three books on what might be considered scientific and technical subjects one on the history of utopias, one on the history of American architecture and one on the history of the arts in the second half of the 19th century: The Brown Decades.
It had been an article in Scribner's magazine, one of the many
now defunct popular journals which, in an earlier time, supported
independent writers like Mumford, which had led to the invitation
to give the course at Columbia. There he had written:
If we wish to have any clear notion of the machine we must think about its psychological as well as its practical origins; and similarly, we must appraise its aesthetic and ethical results. For a century we have isolated the technical triumphs of the machine; we have bowed before the handiwork of the inventor and the scientist; we have alternately exalted these new instruments for their practical success, and despised them for the narrowness of their achievements. When one examines the subject freshly, however, many of these estimates are upset. We find that there are human values in machinery that we did not suspect; we also find that there are wastes, losses, perversions of energy which the ordinary economist blandly concealed. The vast material displacements the machine has made in our physical environment are perhaps in the long run less important than its spiritual contributions to our culture. (Mumford 1979, p. 227)
Here already are the ingredients of Mumford's cultural approach to technology: psychology, aesthetics, ethics, and philosophy. Mumford wanted to investigate the "spiritual contributions" of the machine, its effects on life, and not as an alternative to economics and engineering but as a complement, a necessary corrective to the dominant materialist approaches. The machine, for Mumford, was always as much an idea and an ideal as it was a physical artefact.
Mumford would spend a good part of the next four years collecting material and then writing his magnum opus, Technics and Civilization, which was published in 1934. In what follows I want to briefly discuss what we might term the "making" of Technics and Civilization, and attempt to place it within the context of its times. As perhaps the single most valuable work ever written in the field of science and technology studies, it remains nonetheless a product of its particular cultural conditions, and I think that if we are to appreciate it today, it might be helpful to return to the personal and intellectual contexts in which it was written.
In 1923, when Lewis Mumford published his first book, The Story of Utopia, he had already begun to sketch, in the words of John Thomas, a "plan for the regional reconstruction of the United States which [he] would develop, expand, modify, elaborate but never essentially change" (Thomas 1990, p. 79). Mumford was an active public intellectual - one of Russell Jacoby's famous last intellectuals - writing for the progressive journals, the New Republic and the Dial, and serving as secretary for the Regional Planning Association of America. While he shared many of the prewar concerns of the so-called progressive era, Mumford brought something new into the discursive framework: an ecological sensibility that he had adopted from the Scottish biologist and urban sociologist, Patrick Geddes. For Mumford, as for Geddes, culture was primarily the geographical landscape, what we today would call the environment. After reviewing visions of the ideal society from the ancient Greeks to the late 19th century conceptions, or from Plato to William Morris, Mumford concluded not with a new utopian vision of his own but rather with a proposal for a new kind of scientific practice, which, following Geddes, he called the Regional Survey. It was the regional survey that could overcome the divisions into disciplines, and link the social with the natural and physical sciences.
Mumford's own utopia was a new form of science, or what might better be called a new kind of sciencing. He was critical of the limits that most scientists placed on themselves, their refusal to reflect, evaluate, and contribute to social reform. Science, he wrote, had "provided the factual data by means of which the industrialist, the inventor and the engineer have transformed the physical world; and without doubt the physical world has been transformed. Unfortunately, when science has furnished the data its work is at an end .... So far, science has not been used by people who regarded man and his institutions scientifically. The application of the scientific method to man and his institutions has hardly been attempted" (Mumford 1921, pp. 271-272).
Mumford went on, as he would continue to do throughout the interwar period, not merely to criticize science, but to suggest ways to complement its cold truths with a sense of, or a feeling for, human life. On the one hand, he argued that the specialized knowledge of the scientist needed to be placed within a more holistic or general viewpoint, and that the factual orientation of the scientist needed to be balanced by the emotional and subjective wisdom of the artist. Most importantly, the abstractions of science had to be connected to real life. There was a danger in separating thought from action in that scientists lost any sense of limits or values, and the general public lost any contact with the truths of science. "The upshot of this dissociation of science and social life is that supersitition takes the place of science among the common run of men, as a more easily apprehended version of reality" (p. 275).
Regional Survey, as Mumford outlined it, was a way to cultivate a
more socially useful and relevant technological development:
The aim of the Regional Survey is to take a geographic region and explore it in every aspect. It differs from the social survey with which we are acquainted in America in that it is not chiefly a survey of evils; it is, rather, a survey of the existing conditions in all their aspects; and it emphasizes to a much greater extent than the social survey the natural characteristies of the environment, as they are discovered by the geologist, the zoologist, the ecologist - in addition to the development of natural and human conditions in the historic past, as presented by the anthropologist, the archeologist, and the historian. In short, the regional survey attempts a local synthesis of all the specialist 'knowledges' (p. 279).
Mumford thus developed a notion of culture and of cultural study that combined ecology and history, geography and sociology. He emphasized the region, or the local context, as the basis for all development; and as he explored American history over the next few years in search of a "usable past" and worked as secretary of the Regional Planning Association, he would continue to develop what might be termed an ecological critique of modern American civilization. Mumford's perspective resembled that of other groups of human ecologists which emerged in the interwar years, such as the "southern regionalism" developed by the sociologist Howard Odum at the University of North Carolina and the sociologists of the Chicago school. In the 1920s, their position was opposed both to Thorstein Veblen's technocratic vision, on the one hand, with the corresponding notions of social engineering and expert rule; and to the cultural elitism of T.S. Eliot and Henry Adams, on the other, with their glorification of the past and their idealistic rejection of the "modern temper" - the title of Joseph Wood Krutch's book of 1929. The human ecologists were in between the technocrats and the traditionalists, trying to mobilize regional cultural identities as constructive resources for development, much as Gandhi was trying to do in India, at much the same time.
Mumford's most influential text in the 1920s was The Golden Day, which he published in 1926. By then there had developed something of an intellectual movement amongst literary and artistic critics to reevaluate the artistic achievements of 19th century America. The movement began before the war, in the writings of Waldo Frank and Van Wyck Brooks, and continued with the American Caravan yearbooks and in a number of other works. What distinguished Mumford's book from those of the literati was, on the one hand, his ecological view of culture, and, on the other, his active use of history to evaluate contemporary writers and standpoints. Even though there is a great deal in the book that was new and interesting, it was Mumford's critique of the pragmatisms of William James and John Dewey that apparently attracted the most notoriety at the time. Mumford took issue not with technology itself but with the materialism that it had inspired, both in philosophy and in life, and he saw that materialism as being most clearly formulated in the writings of Dewey.
His book sought to affirm the significance of the classic writers of the 19th century, as the creators of an American culture; Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman represented the emergence of a distinct national culture, framed by the natural environment, but, in particular by the interaction of an older, European sensibility with a new environment. The writers whom Mumford would continue to praise throughout his long life had been the morning of the golden day; by the end of the century, with the closing of the frontier, night had come, and the engineer had become the cultural hero: "The Edisons and Carnegies came to take the place in the popular imagination once occupied by Davy Crockett and Buffalo Bill" (Mumford 1926, p. 118). The "note of the period was consolidation. The great captains of industry controlled the fabrication of profits with a military discipline: they waged campaigns against their competitors which needed only the actual instruments of warfare to equal that art in ruthlessness...." (p. 119).
He criticized Dewey and James and other writers of the progressive era for their "acquiescence", their acceptance of the new technological society; in trying to control its excesses, they succumbed to its materialist values. "The evils of privilege and irresponsible power in America were of course real," he wrote, "but the essentiel poverty of America was a qualitative poverty, one which cut through the divisions of rich and poor; and it has been this sort of poverty which has prevented us from projecting in the imagination a more excellent society." (pp. 124-125).
There were, and would continue to be, important differences between Mumford and Dewey, but Mumford was not always justified in his critique of Dewey. What was at work, it seems, was more a difference in generational sensibility than a difference in standpoint (cf Westbrook 1991, pp. 380ff). Mumford, coming of age in the 1920s, saw Dewey and Veblen, as well, for that matter, as part of the problem; his criticism of pragmatism was a critique of the older generation. But it was also a critique of an overly positive, or adoptive attitude to technology. Mumford for all his utopian envisioning of an alternative technological order, remained throughout his life a critic of the values which he saw as intrinsic to modern technological civilization. If, as we shall see, he pointed to some positive potentials in technology in his writings of the 1930s - the writings that brought his own position closer to Dewey's - he nonetheless remained a cultural critic of technology. The same cannot really be said of Dewey or Veblen. In the course of the 1920s, however, the two elder statesmen of progressive thought responded rather differently to the increasingly technocratic climate of the times. While Veblen became a kind of prophet for the young turks of technocracy, Dewey rethought the relations between democracy and philosophy. They both remained, as it were, faithful to the power of technology, but they looked to different actors for the necessary social and political renewal.
Mumford, for his part, delved deeper into the meanings of the machine. As the 1920s wore on, he grew more interested in the creative potentialities of the new science-based technologies. One can see in his writings of the late 1920s, and in particular in Technics and Civilization, which he published in 1934, a far more sympathetic view of the industrial civilization than he had expressed in the 1920s. In the wake of the depression, he realized that technology's promise was still largely unfulfilled and its human potential largely unexplored; the task of a cultural critic was not merely to identify problems, but to provide constructive ideas for bringing the machine under human control, and even more, using machinery to enrich human life. It had become clear that the machine needed a conscious program for its guidance; and it was this that Mumford aimed to provide, by so doing pioneering in the social study - and constructive assessment - of science and technology.
Mumford's recent biographer, Donald Miller, has pointed to the significance of Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West in the development of Mumford's thinking. In 1926, Mumford reviewed the English translation of the first volume for The New Republic. Spengler offered to Mumford a view of history as moral prophecy, as well as an organic way of thinking about the development of civilization that well fit Mumford's own ideas. As Miller puts it, "Mumford agreed with Spengler that Faustian culture had entered the 'winter' of its development; but where Spengler peered into the future and saw only spreading blackness and blight, Mumford saw a brilliant post-Faustian world, a great revival of the regional and organic outlook." (Ibid, p. 302)
It is important not to exaggerate the similarity between Spengler and Mumford. While they shared an organic approach to human history, Mumford was much more sympathetic to modern science and technology, and much less opposed to the tenor of modern technological civilization than Spengler or other "traditionalist" critics. He explicitly renounced the attitude of despair that he saw in Joseph Wood Krutch's The Modern Temper, which he reviewed in 1930. "We would not destroy the rigorous method of science or the resourceful technology of the engineer," Mumford wrote in his review. "We would merely limit their application to intelligible and humane purposes. Nor would we remove altogether the mechanical world-picture, with its austere symbolism; we would rather expand it and supplement it with a vision of life which drew upon other needs of the personality than the crude will-to-power" (quoted in Pells 1993, p. 31).
When Mumford was asked, in 1930, to give a course on the Machine Age in America, he made it the occasion for a much more ambitious project than any he had previously carried out. He read widely in the history of technology and he obtained a fellowship to visit the technical museums in Europe, in order to prepare himself for what he increasingly saw as his great book, his new synthesis (Technics and Civilization was actually the first of a series of four books, which Mumford, in his typically immodest way, would label the Renewal of Life). The first result, in any case, was an original, exceedingly stimulating, if highly personal, reflection on the history of technology which provided a new role for culture and for cultural analysis in the understanding of technical change.
In Technics and
Civilization, Mumford applied an organic philosophy of history to
technology; and he drew both on his ecological, as well as his
humanist background. He described the rise of the machine as a
cyclical process, and showed how the development of technology
was itself a product of culture - and of cultural criticism. The
machine civilization had been prepared through centuries of
institutional and intellectual developments; he referred to the
medieval monasteries, the Renaissance artists, the scientific
revolution, and the rise of capitalism, and a great deal more as
having been cultural preconditions for the development of the
technological universe. But he also distinguished the waves of
mechanization from one another, borrowing from Patrick Geddes a
terminology and a historical framework, which Geddes had adopted
from archeology (Williams, 1990). First had come the eotechnic
wave, based on water power and primarily using wood as the
working material, when technics were well integrated into the
surrounding landscape; then had come the paleotechnic nightmare
of the industrial revolution, when coal and iron had brought
about a totally different, and far less attractive technical
regime; and, in the 20th century, a third period, a neotechnic
epoch could be distinguished, in which technological innovation
was based on applied science, and a new organic guiding principle
could be discerned in relation to technical development. As
[W]e have now reached a point in the
development of technology itself where the organic has begun to
dominate the machine. Instead of simplifying the organic, to make
it intelligibly mechanical, as was necessary for the great
eotechnic and paleotechnic inventions, we have begun to
complicate the mechanical, in order to make it more organic:
therefore more effective, more harmonious with our living
environment .... [O]ne can now say definitely, as one could not
fifty years ago, that there is a fresh gathering of forces on the
side of life. The claims of life, once expressed solely by the
Romantics and by the more archaic social groups and institutions
of society, are now beginning to be represented at the very heart
of technics itself (Mumford, 1934, pp. 367-368).
His aim was to humanize technology, to give the machine a life of its own, a lifecycle: from the infancy of the middle ages, through the wild aggressive youth of the 19th century, to the potential maturity of the 20th century. He saw, in many of the new science-based technologies, a biological or organic vision, which was superseding the mechanical philosophy of the 18th and 19th centuries. He saw opportunities for assimilating the machine into patterns of regional organization - opportunities which he would discuss in more detail in The Culture of Cities in 1938. The great promise of the science-based technologies was that they were amenable to decentralization and to democratic control.
Perhaps most significantly, Mumford saw a new esthetics emerging, a new kind of art that was not only embodied in the technological products, but was made possible by the new instruments of artistic reproduction. For Mumford, photography, recorded music, moving pictures expanded the human personality: "Whereas in industry the machine may properly replace the human being when he has been reduced to an automaton, in the arts the machine can only extend and deepen man's original functions and intuitions" (Mumford, 1934, p. 343). Modern man expressed himself by means of technological instruments; he could record his feelings and portray his environment in ways that enhanced his experience of life, and that, for Mumford, was always the main goal of all activity.
Mumford's contribution was to provide
a personal, some might say eccentric, reading of the multiple
meanings of the mechanical order. Through his organic philosophy,
at one and the same time humanist and ecological, Mumford could
characterize the social and human problems of technology in a
more comprehensive way than any other single individual. The book
itself created a new field of study: history of technology. While
there would be many who would follow Mumford in subjecting
technology to historical analysis, particularly in the postwar
United States, no one, not even Mumford himself, would manage to
take so much into account as he did in Technics and Civilization.
If its personal and opinionated language can irritate, and its
lack of references can annoy the academic reader, the sheer
amount of thought continually fascinates at least this
contemporary reader. Mumford succeeded in placing technological
development in a human context; after Technics and Civilization,
the debate about technology moved to a new level of constructive
ambition and seriousness. It would never be quite the same again.
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