Blame Lewis Mumford

[ Image: Darick Chamberlin ]

Lewis Mumford ruined my life. I was once a highly-paid electrical engineer. But then I started reading too much, and kept seeing references to this mysterious Mumford dude. Then I happened upon a used copy of The Myth of the Machine and got my mind blown.

The Myth of the Machine is about a society sick with technology — ours. And it made it all the more clear to me that I could never be a balanced human being in a career so focussed on pure technology. So I left engineering, got a masters in urban planning, and am now eeking out a living as an urban designer.

Dirty secret: Those who design the places in which people spend most of their lives make diddly-squat compared to those who design technological widgets that people don’t really need. Thank you Lewis Mumford.

My review of The Myth of the Machine, after the break.

The Myth of the Machine
by Lewis Mumford
Volume 1: Technics and Human Development
Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967
Volume 2: The Pentagon of Power
Harcourt, Brace & Javanovich, 1970

A work of such depth and breadth as Lewis Mumford’s The Myth of the Machine may be best first approached through metaphor, and one of Mumford’s favorites was the human experience as theater. The meaning of a play is not in the least bit revealed through a functional dissection of its physical components, such as the playhouse, the sets, or even the actors’ bodies. An appreciation of the play requires the subjective contemplation of a human mind steeped in cultural history. Likewise, the real life cosmos will never make sense through the lens of the reductionist, mechanistic world view that dominates Western thought, and therein lies one of the central shaky pillars of the myth of the machine. Our potent talents at understanding the mechanical nature of the Universe have brought us no closer to answering the paramount questions that shape everything we do: what is the proper way to live, what is the purpose of a life?

At the heart of the myth rests a belief that humankind’s proper destiny is a world dominated by science and technology. Mumford’s aim is to expose this myth for what it is, from its historic origins up to the modern day, and to show that there are alternatives to the dehumanized, monotone, machine-dominated way of life that has been spreading across the planet for the past century. But Mumford is no Luddite, and gives due credit to the life enriching potential of technology. He simply seeks a sane acknowledgement of the shortcomings of a society so heavily weighted toward technical rather than humanistic concerns. Because scientific investigation is by definition objective and therefore questions of morality do not “enter into the equation,” the focus on technology, while it has undeniably released incredible powers, has at the same time led to a growing pool of people lacking the moral framework to apply these powers responsibly. Drunk on technological cheerleading, we tend to shrug off technology’s sublime negative by-products, such as planet-scale pollution and ecological depletion, the mass exterminations of war, the threat of nuclear or biochemical annihilation. Or, as a more everyday example, although the widespread destruction caused by cars is plain for all to see, we ignore that reality and pretend we can’t live without them.

In the generation since The Myth of the Machine was published, Mumford’s broadly ranging critical observations of technical society have only become more relevant. Contemporary issues discussed include: the connection between a mechanistic mode of thought and the propensity for exploitation of life, the suicidal paradox of unlimited growth, the absurdity of a system which must create superfluous consumer demand to absorb the output of efficient industrial production, the shortsightedness of using gross national product as the primary measure of progress, the replacement of creative culture with vapid paid entertainment, the fallacies of standardized (i.e. mechanized) education, the loss of social equilibrium caused by transitory, speed-obsessed lifestyles, the threat to privacy from computerized market research, the scourge of externalized costs and absentee ownership in delocalized economic systems, the importance of maintaining diversity in natural ecosystems as well as in human pursuits, the potential debacle of genetic engineering fueled by the insatiable desire to conquer nature, the fact that instant electronic communication does not produce instant wisdom, and the list goes on.

As a seed of change, the key distinction of Mumford’s work is that instead of just complaining about the life-suffocating trends of modern technical society, which is the easy part, he digs into the root causes. For only when we can see for ourselves the groundless hollow core of the myth will we call its bluff. One of the deepest of these roots is the doctrine proclaiming that scientific investigation leads to objective truth, a postulate that Mumford debunks, reminding us of the paradox that “the mind that explores nature is itself a part of nature.” Moreover, the basic constructs of science such as mathematics and time are human inventions, and are meaningless to the Universe unless that Universe happens to include a subjective human being. Obtuse philosophical arguments aside, the inadequacy of this restrictive objective outlook becomes clear to one and all once we realize that it cannot quantify, and therefore must disregard what is most precious in life, or, as Mumford puts it, “to heed only the abstractions of the intelligence or the operations of machines, and to ignore feelings, emotions, intuitions, fantasies, ideas, is to substitute bleached skeletons, manipulated by wires, for the living organism.”

If Mumford is correct, then the myth of the machine is central to many of our most vexing societal ills, and should be dealt with as such. The trouble is the myth is highly seductive–evidence of the machine’s magic engulfs us daily. The idolizing hooplah surrounding the yearly earsplitting jet fighter air show in the summer skies above my Seattle home provides the quintessential reminder of this mind-numbing intoxication; decent people, people in love, parents with small children, somehow repressing the gory truth that these spectacular machines were born to slaughter human beings.

Thus the myth pervades, even more so because the tradeoff appears benign: all that is required of one to find comfort and security in “technopolis” is to give up a bit of one’s humanity and start living more like a standardized cog in a machine, as opposed to an unpredictably creative, free human being. And as the machine-based social system becomes more pervasive, it is easier to forget that there could be another, perhaps better way. Our human soul must be muzzled because mechanized systems don’t deal well with caprice or diversity–efficiency demands predictability and uniformity. Unfortunately, history has shown that social diversity is a vital ingredient for human development, not to mention that organic diversity is the crowning achievement of life on earth. And ironically, many of science’s greatest discoveries were serendipitous.

The job at hand, then, is to shift the balance away from the machine and back to the living natural world, the urgent problem not one of further technical invention, but how to create, in Mumford’s words, “human beings capable of understanding their own nature sufficiently to control, and when necessary to suppress, the forces and mechanisms they have brought into existence.” We have everything to gain, for as Mumford writes, “love begets love as life begets life.”

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