New Media, Broken Time, & Broken Attention (Lewis Mumford)

talking on old telephone

Either Lewis Mumford, writing in Technics and Civilization was very prescient in 1930, able to anticipate problems with our own new media mobile communication environments, or he hit upon a more general structural feature of modern technologies, the proliferation of their use, and their effect upon human attention and intelligence. Reading Mumford, there’s shock of recognition in the way his discussion of old new media reflects in our own “information age.” Here’s what he still has to say about our own new media:

“What will be the outcome? Obviously, a widened range of intercourse: more numerous contacts: more numerous demands on attention and time. But unfortunately, the possibility of this type of immediate intercourse on a worldwide basis does not necessarily mean a less trivial or a less parochial personality. …With the telephone the flow of interest and attention, instead of being self-directed, is at the mercy of any strange person who seeks to divert it to his own purposes. One is faced here with a magnified form of a danger common to all inventions: a tendency to use them whether or not the occasion demands” (240).

Technics & Civilization is a big book. Mumford tends to repeat himself,  as for instance  here, where he makes the same point as above:

One further effect of our closer time co-ordination and out instantaneous communication must be noted here: broken time and broken attention…Nowadays the screen has vanished: the remote is as close as the near: the ephemeral is as emphatic as the durable. While the tempo of the day has been quickened by instantaneous communication the rhythm of the day has been broke: the radio, the telephone, the daily newspaper clamor for attention, and amid the host of stimuli to which people are subjected, it becomes more and more difficult to absorb and cope with any one part of the environment, to say nothing of dealing with it as a whole (p.272).

Two possibilities are possible here, one cyclical the other linear. [1] Writing in 1930, Mumford registers the first shock of the new technologies such as the radio, the telephone, and the daily newspaper. But over the course of a generation or two, people more or less figured out how to assimilate these media into their/our daily lives. And then the introduction of new new media, like television, video games, FB, etc. opens up the same questions re: time and attention. It might take a while, but young people learn, eventually, how to absorb these new things. It’s cyclical, the shock, assimilating shock, new shock. [2] People really are getting dumber and dumber with each generation, as new technologies continue to stupefy us, progressively.  The telephone, etc. made people dumb, the television even dumber, and the internet dumber still. People don’t read and understand things as much and as broadly as was once upon a time.

I’m more inclined to think the former is more probable than the latter. But it takes time to figure out how to absorb and assimilate these new technologies, which is also, actually, Mumford’s point, at least circa 1930. Mumford in his later writings became much more pessimistic about technology. But bear  in mind that Mumford, even back in the 1930s when he embraced what he called neotechnics, remained pretty clear eyed. I am struck by  how much the structural contour of the argument back then pretty much holds  today. The key, I think, has probably to do with learning how to shut off the machine in a regular, rhythmic way, and learning how to do so in such a way that it becomes second nature.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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3 Responses to New Media, Broken Time, & Broken Attention (Lewis Mumford)

  1. shuerb says:

    Fascinating. I always find shutting-off extremely the machine difficult, especially, my working space is equipped with a fast wireless connection. Writing a novel feels like battling with loneliness, and the internet alleviates that pain. But the problem is that because loneliness is also a fuel to start off my creative engine, the internet consequently hijacks productivity. Perhaps, I have to be more disciplined, but I hate its moral implications. Or, the concept of “productivity” is no longer defined in a form of book?

    • zjb says:

      I find it helpful to “sign out” off of WordPress and Facebook. The extra step it takes mitigates the otherwise immediate reflex always to go and take a peek to see what’s going on. Shabbat and holidays also keep me offline, and since I choose not to have and can’t really afford to have any mobile smart technology, leaving the house really means leaving the internet.

  2. efmooney says:

    Caught the note below p. A4 of Jan 15th NYTimes under the headline ” Illuminating Jewish Life in a Muslim Empire.” It tells of recovered manuscripts from a 11th century Jewish community — probably merchants on the Silk Road to China. The tie to technology comes in at the point these ancient manuscripts are digitalized. An amazing archeological find, and an amazing harnessing of technology to make that find widely available. ( I break in toward the end of the article. . . )

    The 29 Afghan pages will join those texts and, once scanned, complete their journey from a dark cave to the glow of the world’s computer screens. The goal is to build a digital platform that would make the manuscripts widely accessible, with translations and explanations available online.

    “This tells the story of the Jewish people,” Mr. Stollman said. “The technology is here. You can make it come alive.”

    “. . . the National Library [in Jerusalem] is in the midst of transformation, separating from a merger with Hebrew University, moving off campus and digitizing its vast collection. Founded in 1892 with the goal of gathering the intellectual heirlooms of a widely dispersed Jewish people, the library counts among its prized possessions two volumes of Maimonides’s Commentary on the Mishna, Isaac Newton’s manuscripts, a 15th-century Persian Koran illuminated in gold and lapis lazuli, and a notebook in which Franz Kafka practiced Hebrew vocabulary.

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