Techno-Humanism (Lewis Mumford, Technics & Civilization)


Am just finishing Lewis Mumford’s Technics & Civilization, a classic from 1930 that still has a lot of punch. I think I was reading Jeremy Stolow’s Deus in Machina, and Mumford’s name keeps popping up, in a good way. I’m glad I got to Mumford before Katherine Hayles, who wrote a seminal book on technology, virtual bodies, and “posthumanism,” a book which I’m going to get to after Norbert Wiener, another mid-century techno-humanist, about whose God and Golem I have already posted here. Mumford, of course, was a humanist. He was among the first writers writing about technology to draw the discussion of technology in a larger historical frame of reference, and to draw out its social and aesthetic implications. It probably didn’t hurt that he was something of a renaissance man. The architectural critic at the New Yorker, he wrote widely, including an early book on Herman Melville.

My main problem with books like Technics & Civilization is trying to assess the historical claims re: technologies and their emergence and development in this period or that. I’m simply not competent. I tend to read these parts like historical fiction, assuming that the history isn’t quite all that right. I tend to think the theoretical claims, whether they hit or miss, stick better than the historical ones. One instance is that I’m pretty sure that the material calls for a less jaundiced view of those old dirty 19th century technologies, what he calls “paleotechnics.” Also, the notion that 19th century bourgeois aesthetics in music and painting represents a “compensation” to technological depredations.  The problems with technology identified by Mumford would go across the board, including our own, allegedly “cleaner” information technologies and bio technologies, called “neotechnics” by Mumford. These problems have much to do with the de-skilling of the human person, the regimentation of social life, the exploitation of labor, alienation from nature, the dulling of culture and aesthetic life, etc. (Mumford was a proponent of “basic communism,” by which he pretty much meant people not having to work too much.)


But what I’d like to hone in on, polemically, is how reading Mumford brings to mind the human part of the technics-civilization interface against all the claims made out there by posthumanists re: the impact of technology on what it means to be a human subject. Mumford writes very much against the kind of techno-determinism, the emphasis today on big-data, and the way the human person gets lost in big data information flows. If anything, Mumford’s interest in “neotechnics” has to do with smallness, with the way minute quantities make a big impact in modern technology how “Subtlety, finesses, delicacy, respect for organic complexity and intricacy now characterize the entire range of scientific thought…In a word, the quantitative and the mechanical have at last become life-sensitive” (254). “[T]he quantity, the local composition, and the environmental relation of a quality are as important, so to say, as its original sign as quality” (p.328).


This attention to the local and small inform, I think, Mumford’s opposition to technological determinism and science-determinism. For Mumford, human free will and human choice still mattered. It’s worth quoting almost in full this bit early on where he writes, “Technics and civilization as a whole are the result of human choices and aptitudes and strivings, deliberate as well as unconscious, often irrational when apparently they are most objective and scientific: but even when they are uncontrollable they are not external. Choice manifest itself in society in small increments and moment-to-moment decisions as well as in loud dramatic struggles; and he who does not see choice in the development of the machine merely betrays his incapacity to observe cumulative effects until they are bunched together so closely that they seem completely external and impersonal. No matter how completely technics relies upon the objective procedures of the scientist, it does not form an independent system, like the universe: it exists as an element in human culture and it promises well or ill as the social groups that exploit it promise well or ill. The machine itself makes no demands and holds to no promise: it is the human spirit that makes demands and keeps promises. In order to reconquer the machine and subdue it to human purpose, one must first understand it and assimilate it” (p.6).


And, as so often seems to be the case, religion and aura keep coming to the surface. Writing about the shift from 19th century paleotechnics to 20th century neotechnics, Mumford writes, “The dark blind world of the machine, the miner’s world, began to disappear: heat, light, , electricity,  and finally mater were all manifestations of energy, and as one pursued the analysis of matter further the old solids became more and more tenuous, until finally they were identified  with electric charges: the ultimate building stones of modern physics, as the atom was of the older physical theories. The imperceptible, the ultra-violet, and the infra-red series of rays, became commonplace elements in the new physical world at the moment that dark forces of the unconscious were added to the purely external and rationalized psychology of the human world. Even the unseen was, so to say, illuminated: it was no longer unknown. One might measure and used what one could not see and handles. And while the paleotechnic world had used physical blows and flame to transform matter, the neotechnic was conscious of other forces equally potent under other circumstances: electricity, sound, light, invisible rays and emanations. The  mystics’ belief in a human aura became as well substantiated by exact science as the alchemist’s dream of transmutation was through the Curries’ isolation of radium” (p.246)


The upshots to this techno humanism are two: whether or not technology is, indeed, assimilable, because maybe it’s not, and also whether we its users will develop the skills and sensibility that will allow us to integrate technology into our lives, perhaps, in such a way, as to be able to set it aside, to not use it as much as we use it, or to use it perhaps in such a way that the presence of technology begins to start to fade more and more into the background. Alert to art, visual perception and orders of representation, Mumford more than implies that assimilating the machine is very much about aesthetic choice and aesthetic style (pp.344ff). A machine, he notes, is no more real than a poem (p.319)

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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