Over several decades, I’ve managed to hold on to my worn, battered copies of Lewis Mumford’s The Myth of the Machine (two volumes: 1967, 1970). And a few nights ago, disturbed by the wide-awake nightmares in which we are now forced to “live,” I found myself immersed once again in this fascinating, monumental work. In his brilliantly comprehensive, comparative-historical analysis, Mumford demonstrated how centralized “power-systems”—whether, say, ancient Egypt or Nazi Germany—have utilized technical means for the military-bureaucratic regimentation of immense human populations (“the Megamachine”). (As to the latter example, see Edwin Black’s recent study IBM and the Holocaust.) Mumford painstakingly examined how over centuries technical means, implementing mass-organization and over-arching social control, have served power-elites. In social theory, “modernity” is characterized by centralization, standardization, ever-greater “efficiency,” and the reduction of the unique individual into “the calculable person” (Foucault).
How did Mumford differ from other major critics of technology? First and foremost, he was a humanist, emphasizing that the ultimate function of social structures (“society”) should be to enhance individual development and mutually beneficial patterns of social cooperation. Living in such conducive, humanly-scaled communities, individuals could develop their many-sided capacities (moral/empathic, cognitive, aesthetic, etc.). Technical means, if limited to these human purposes and values, could enhance such growth and social well-being—a humanist vision shared also by such previous thinkers as W. von Humboldt, J. S. Mill, and even Marx & Engels (“the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”).
What was Mumford’s somber vision for the years to come? The beleaguered– even “obsolete”–individual would be entirely de-skilled, reduced to a passive, inert, “trivial accessory to the machine.” Technical surveillance and limitless data-collection—“an all-seeing eye” (Panopticon)—would monitor every “individual on the planet.” Ultimately, the totalitarian technocracy, centralizing and augmenting its “power-complex,” ignoring the real needs and values of human life, might produce a world “fit only for machines to live in.”
Moreover—as we already observe now–people, losing “confidence in [their] own unaided capacities,” would become psychologically dependent on an array of ubiquitous devices, instruments, computers. Entirely indoctrinated in what may be called “techno-inevitabilism,” such “machine-addicts” would mindlessly accept the latest gadgets, surrendering “to these novelties unconditionally just because they are offered, without respect for their human consequences.” By 1970, Mumford was already diagnosing “technological compulsiveness”—a condition in which “society meekly submits to every new technological demand and utilizes without question every new product.” And even a decade earlier, sociologist C. Wright Mills had perceived a qualitative decline in human thinking– obscured by an “overwhelming accumulation of technological gadgets.” (More recently, see Simon Head’s book, Mindless: How Smarter Machines are Creating Dumber Humans, 2013.)
Ultimately, Mumford advocated a negative revolt—resistance, refusal, withdrawal– whereby individuals may reclaim their autonomy and humanly-derived desires and choices. One might call this “dodging the Mega-System”: possibly fleeing the urban, market-driven “Patholopolis”—or at least, exercising one’s autonomous right to–Choose to Refuse! Technolatry—a failed religion which has denied and starved real human needs and aspirations—is already beginning to lose its acolytes and followers.
William Manson, a psychoanalytic anthropologist, formerly taught social science at Rutgers and Columbia universities. He is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press).