Accueil > Critique de la technologie, Réappropriation, Texts in English > Lewis Mumford, The Human Heritage, 1972

Lewis Mumford, The Human Heritage, 1972

The Primacy of Mind

My point of departure in analyzing technology, social change and human development, concerns the nature of man. And to begin with I reject the lingering anthropological notion, first suggested by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Carlyle, that man can be identified, mainly if not solely, as a tool-using or tool-making animal: Homo faber. Even Henri Bergson, a philosopher whose insights into organic change I respect, so described him. Of course man is a tool-making, utensil-shaping, machine-fabricating, environment-prospecting, technologically ingenious animal – at least that! But man is also – and quite as fundamentally – a dream-haunted, ritual-enacting, symbol-creating, speech-uttering, language-elaborating, self-organizing, institution-conserving, myth-driven, love-making, god- seeking being, and his technical achievements would have remained stunted if all these other autonomous attributes had not been highly developed. Man himself, not his extraneous technological facilities, is the central fact. Contrary to Mesopotamian legend, the gods did not invent man simply to take over the unwelcome load of disagreeable servile labor.

Man’s chief technological inventions are embedded in the original human organism, from standardization to automation and cybernation: automatic systems, indeed, so far from being a modem discovery, are perhaps the oldest of nature’s devices, for the selective responses of the hormones, the endocrines, and the reflexes antedated by millions of years that super computer we call the forebrain or neopallium. Yet anything that can be called human culture has demanded certain specific technical traits: specialization, standardization, repetitive practice; and it was early man’s positive enjoyment of playful repetition, a trait still shown by very young children, as every parent knows, that underlay every other great cultural invention, above all spoken language. This utilization and development of the organism as a whole, not just the employment of man’s limbs and hands as facile tools or tool-shapers, is what accounts for the extraordinary advances of Homo sapiens. In making these first technological innovations man made no attempt to modify his environment, still less to conquer Nature; for the only environment over which he could exercise effective command, without extraneous tools, was that which lay nearest him; his own body, operating under the direction of his highly activated brain, busy by night in dreams as well as by day in seeking food, coping with danger, or finding shelter.

On this reading, before man could take even the first timid steps toward conquering nature,’ he first had the job of discovering, controlling and utilizing more effectively his own organic capacities. By his studious exploration and reconstruction of his bodily functions he opened up a wide range of possibilities not programmed, as with other animals, in his genes. Strangely, it took Andre Varagnac, a French interpreter of the archaic folk remains of neolithic culture, to point out only recently that the earliest mode of a specifically human technology was almost certainly the technology of the body. This consisted in the deliberate remodeling of man’s organs by enlarging their capacity for symbolic expression and communal intercourse. Most significantly, the only organ that continued to increase in size and weight was the brain. By this close attention to his body, even primitive man at a very early moment placed his automatic functions under some measure of cerebral intervention; the first step in conscious self-organization, rational direction, and moral control. The mind of man is his own supreme artifact. And out of his most highly developed organ, the brain, all his specifically human artifacts, beginning with words, images and graphs, have emerged.

Long before man had given stone tools the form of even the crudest hand-axe, he had already achieved an advanced technology of the body These basic technical achievements started with infant training; and they involved not only repetition, but foresight, feedback, and attentive learning: learning to walk, learning to control the excretory functions, learning to make standardized gestures and sounds, whose recognition and remembrance by other members of the group gave continuity to the whole human heritage. Not least man learned to distinguish to some degree between his private subconscious dreams and his shared waking realities, and as the forebrain exercised more authority he learned, likewise in the interest of group survival, to curb his blind destructive impulses, to diminish overpowering rage and fear, to inhibit demented fantasies and murderous aggressions, and to superimpose social responsibility, moral sensibility and esthetic delight upon random sexuality, Unless man had mastered fear sufficiently to be able to play with fire – a feat no other animal has dared to perform – he would have lacked one of the essential requirements for the survival and spread of his species, since fire enormously increased the number of foods and habitats available for both paleolithic and neolithic man.

The point I am stressing here is that every form of technics has its seat in the human organism; and without man’s many artful subjective contributions, the brute materials and energies of the existing physical world would have contributed nothing whatever to technology. So it was through the general culture of body and mind, not just through tool-making and tool-using, that not only man’s intelligence but other equally valuable capacities developed. Almost down to the present century, all technical operations took place within his organic and human matrix. Only the most degraded forms of work, like mining, which was reserved for slaves and deliberately treated as punishment, lacked these happy educative qualities. Today at last we are beginning to measure the loss we face through our present efforts to remodel the human organism and the human community to conform to the external controls and objectives imposed automatically by the power system.

This leads me to a second departure from technocratic orthodoxy. How is it that modern man since the seventeenth century has made technology the emotive center of his life? Why has the Pentagon of Power, dominated by the conception of constant technological progress and endless pecuniary gain, taken command of every other human activity? At what point did the belief in such technological progress, as a good in itself, replace all other conceptions of a desirable human destiny? To answer this question I have had to trace this power-bent aberration back five thousand years to its point of origin in the Pyramid Age. But first I would call attention to its modern expression in a sign that once greeted the visitor at the entrance of a World’s Fair celebrating A Century of Progress. That sign said «Science discovers; Technology executes; Man conforms.»

Man conforms indeed! Where did that strange categorical imperative come from? How is it that man, who never in his personal development conformed submissively to the conditions laid down by Nature, now feels obliged at the height of his powers to surrender unconditionally to his own technology? I do not question the fact itself. During the last two centuries a power-centered technics has taken command of one activity after another. By now a large sector of the population of the planet feels uneasy, deprived and neglected – indeed cut off from “reality” – unless it is securely attached to some part of the megamachine; to an assembly line, a conveyor belt, a motor car, a radio or a television station, a computer, or a space capsule. To confirm this attachment and make universal this dependence, every autonomous activity, once located mainly in the human organism or in the social group, has either been wiped out of existence or reshaped by training and indoctrination and corporate organization to conform to the requirements of the megamachine. Is it not strange that our technocratic masters recognize no significant life processes or human ends except those that further the expansion of their authority and their magical prerogatives?

Thus the condition of man today, I have suggested in The Pentagon of Power, resembles the pathetic state of Dr. Bruno Bettelheim’s psychiatric patient: a little boy of nine who conceived that he was run by machines. «So controlling was this belief,» Dr. Bettelheim reports, that the pathetic child «carried with him an elaborate life-support system made up of radio, tubes, light bulbs, and a breathing machine. At meals he ran imaginary wires from a wall socket to himself, so his food could be digested. His bed was rigged with batteries, a loud speaker, and other improvised equipment to keep him alive while he slept.»

The fantasy of this autistic little boy is the state that modern man is fast approaching in actual life, without as yet realizing how pathological it is to be cut off from his own innate resources for living, and to feel no reassuring tie with the natural world or his own fellows unless he is connected to the power system, or with some actual machine, constantly receiving information, direction, stimulation, and sedation from a central external source, with only a minimal opportunity for self-motivated and self-directed activity.

Technocratic man is no longer at home with life, or with the environment of life; which means that he is no longer at home with himself. I It- has become, to paraphrase A. E. Housman, «a stranger and afraid» in a world his own technology has made. But in view of the fact that during the last century our insight into the organic world has been immensely deepened, indeed revolutionized by the biological sciences, why do we still take the Newtonian ’machine’ instead of the Darwinian “organism” as our model, and pay more respect to the computer than to the immense historical store of knowledge and culture that made its invention possible?

Since my own analysis of technology begins, not with the abstract physical phenomena of mass and motion, but with organisms, living societies, and human reactions, I do not regard such conformity as any­thing more than an institutionalized mental derangement, one of many errors that the human race has committed while straining to improve its condition and to make use of powers and functions it does not even now fully understand. Within the framework of history and ecology one dis­covers a quite different picture of Nature, and a more hopeful view of mans own countless unexplored potentialities. Biology teaches us that man is part of an immense cosmic and ecological complex, in which power alone, whether exhibited as energy or productivity or human con­trol, plays necessarily a subordinate and sometimes inimical part, as in tornadoes and earthquakes. This organic complex is indescribably rich, varied, many-dimensioned, self-activating; for every organism, by its very nature, is the focal point of autonomous changes and external transformations that began in the distant past and will outlive the narrow lifespan of any individual, group, or culture. What is now accepted and even exalted as “instant culture” – the beliefs and practices of a single generation – is in reality a blackout of collective memory, similar to what takes place under certain drugs. This bears no resemblance at all to any recorded human culture, since without some of paleolithic man’s basic inventions, above all language and graphic abstractions, even the latest scientific discoveries of this one-generation culture could not be kept in mind long enough to be described, understood, or continued beyond their own ephemeral lifetime.

On this interpretation the most important goal for technology is not to extend further the province of the machine, not to accelerate the transformation of scientific discoveries into profit-making inventions, not to increase the output of kaleidoscopic technological novelties and dictatorial fashions; not to put all human activities under the surveillance and control of the computer – in short, not to rivet together the still separate parts of the planetary megamachine, so that there will be no possibility of escaping it. No: the essential task for all human agencies today, and not least for technology itself, is to bring back the autonomous attributes of life to a culture that, without them, will not be able to survive the destructive and irrational forces that its original mechanical achievements generated. If our main problem today turns out to be that of controlling technological irrationalism, it should be obvious that no answer can come from technology alone. The old Roman question – Who shall control the controller? – has now come back to us in a new and more difficult form. For what if the controllers, too, have become irrational?

Invention of the Megamachine

What then was the origin of the Victorian notion that science and technology, if sufficiently developed, would replace or happily demolish all the earlier phases of human culture? Why did “progressive” but still “human” minds, from the eighteenth century on, think that it was possible and desirable – indeed imperative – to wipe out every trace of the past and thus to replace an organic culture, full of active ingredients derived from many ancient natural and human sources, by an up-to-date manufactured substitute, devoid of esthetic, ethical, or religious values, or indeed any specific human qualities except those that served the ma chine? By the middle of the nineteenth century this belief had become a commonplace. Progress meant, not humanization, as in the earliest technology of the body, but mechanization; with bodily efforts becoming more and more superfluous until they might either be eliminated, or at best transferred, in a limited way, to sport and play. Was this the inevitable effect of the ’Industrial Revolution? And, if so, what made seem ugly liberated minds embrace so fatalistically the “inevitability of the inevitable”?

My own generation, I confess, still accepted readily – all too readily – this faith in the redemptive power of science and technology, though not, I hasten to add, with quite the fanatical devoutness of a Buckminster Fuller or a Marshall McLuhan today. So, when I wrote Technics and Civilization more than thirty years ago, I still properly stressed the more beneficent motives and the more sanguine contributions of modern technology; and though I gave due attention to the ecological depredations of the earlier paleotechnic phases, I supposed that these malpractices would be wiped out by the further neotechnic improvements promised by hydroelectric power, scientific planning, industrial decentralisation, and the regional city. Still, even in Technics and Civilization, I devoted a lone chapter to the negative components which, so far from disappearing, were already becoming more demonic, more threatening, and more insistent.

Some twenty years later, in a seminar I conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I critically reviewed this early interpretation and found that the chapter I had devoted to the negative aspects of modem technology would have, to be expanded. While much of the current praise of industrial rationalization was, up to a point, sound, this had been accompanied by a negative factor we had not dared to face – or had mistakenly attributed to Fascism or Communism alone. For during the last half-century, all the concealed symptoms of irrational behavior had suddenly exploded in our faces. This period witnessed not only the unparalleled destruction wrought by two global wars, but the further degeneration of war itself into deliberate genocide, directed not against armies but against the entire population of the enemy country. Within a single generation, less than thirty years, thanks to purely technological advances, from the airplane to napalm and nuclear bombs, all the moral safeguards mankind had erected against random extermination had been broken down, If this was technology’s boasted conquest of nature, the chief victim of that conquest, it turned out, was man himself.

With these massive miscarriages of civilization in view, I tentatively put to myself a decade ago a question that I did not ask publicly until I wrote the first volume of The Myth of the Machine. «Is the association of inordinate power and productivity with equally inordinate hostility, violence, and destructiveness, a purely accidental one?» This question was so uncomfortable to entertain, so contrary to the complacent expectations of our technocratic culture, that I cannot pretend that 1 eagerly searched about for an affirmative answer. But fortunately, at that moment I was making an intensive study of the whole process of urbanization, that which Gordon Childe called the Urban Revolution, as it took place in Egypt and Mesopotamia toward the end of the Fifth Millennium before the Christian era. Digging mentally around those urban ruins, I discovered an extraordinary complex machine which turned out, on analysis, to be the first real machine, and the archetype of all later machines. This artifact had for long remained invisible, because it was composed entirely of highly specialized and mechanized human parts. Only the massive constructive results of its operation remained visible, not the formative ideas and mythical projections that had brought this machine into existence.

What Childe called the Urban Revolution was only an incident in the assemblage of the “Megamachine”, as I chose to call it. Please note that the superb technological achievements of this gigantic machine owed nothing, at the beginning, to any ordinary mechanical invention: some of its greatest structures, the pyramids of Egypt, were erected without even the aid of a wheeled wagon or a pulley or a derrick. What brought the megamachine into existence was not an ordinary invention but an awesome expansion of the human mind in many different areas: a trans formation comparable only to that which took place when in a far more distant past the structure of language and abstract signs had advanced sufficiently to identify, interpret, communicate, and pass on to later generations every part of a community’s experience.

The decisive tools that made this machine possible were likewise inventions of the mind: astronomical observation and mathematical notation, the art of the carved and the written record, the religious concept of a ’universal order derived from close observation of the heavens and giving authority – the authority of the Gods – to a single commanding figure, the king, he who had once been merely a hunting chief. At this point the notion of an absolute cosmic order coalesced with the idea of a human order whose rulers shared in its god-like attributes. Then both the machine and the Myth of the Machine were born. And therewith, large populations hitherto isolated and scattered could be organized and put to work, on a scale never before conceivable, with a technical adroitness whose precision and perfection were never before possible. Small wonder that those divine powers were worshipped and their absolute rulers obeyed!

In unearthing this invisible megamachine I was not so much trespassing on the diggings of established archaeologists as flying over them. So far I was safe! But my next move, in equating the ancient megamachine with the technological complex of our own time, caused me to push into heavily defended territory, where few competent colleagues have as yet been willing to venture. This is not the place to summarize all the evidence I have marshalled in The City in History and The Myth of the Machine. Enough to point out that the original institutional components of the Pentagon of Power are still with us, operating more relentlessly if not more efficiently than ever before: the army, the bureaucracy, the engineering corps, the scientific elite – once called priests, magicians, and soothsayers – and, not least, the ultimate Decision Maker, The Divine King, today called the Dictator, the Chief of Staff, the Party Secretary, or the President: tomorrow the Omnicomputer.

Once I had identified the megamachine, I had for the first time a clue to many of the irrational factors in both religion and science that have undermined every civilization and that now threaten, on a scale inconceivable before, to destroy the ecological balance of the whole planet. For from the beginning, it was plain, this Invisible Machine had taken two contrasting forms, that of the Labor Machine and that of the War Machine: the first potentially constructive and life-supporting, the other destructive, savagely life-negating. Both machines were products of the same original myth, which gave to a purely human organization and an all-too-human ruler an absolute authority derived from the cosmos itself. To revolt against that system, to question its moral validity, or to try to withdraw from it, was disobedience to the Power Gods. Under very thin disguises, those gods are still with us. And their commands are more fatally irresistible than ever before.

Since the original labor machine could not be economically put to work except for large-scale operations, smaller, more serviceable and manageable machines of wood and brass and iron were in time invented as useful auxiliaries to the Invisible Machine. But the archetype itself persisted in its negative, military form. The army and the army’s “table of organization” was transmitted through history, more or less intact, from one large territorial organization to another – the army with its hierarchical chain of command, with its system of remote control, with its regimentation of human responses, ensuring absolute obedience to the word of command, with its readiness to impose punishment and inflict death to ensure conformity to the Sovereign Power, Not only does this power system break down human resistance and deliberately extirpate the communal institutions that stand in its way, but it seeks to extend both its political rule and its territorial boundaries; for power, whether technological, political, or pecuniary, recognizes no necessary organic limits.

The real gains in law, order, craftsmanship, social cooperation and economic productivity the megamachine made possible must not be belittled. But unfortunately these gains were reduced, often entirely can celled out, by the brutalizing and dehumanizing institutions that the military megamachine brought into existence: organized war, slavery, class expropriation and exploitation, and extensive collective extermination. In terms of human development, these evil institutions have no rational foundation or humane justification. This, I take it, is the basic trauma of civilization itself; and the evidence for it rests on much sounder foundations than Freud’s quaint concept of a mythical act of patricide. What is worse, the hallucinations of absolute power, instead of being liquidated in our time through the advance of objective scientific knowledge and democratic participation, have become more obsessive. In raising the ceiling of civilization’s constructive achievements, the modern megamachine likewise lowered its depths.

Technological Exhibitionism

The parallels between the ancient and the modern megamachine extend even to their fantasies: in fact, it is their fantasies that must first be liquidated by rational exposure if the megamachine is to be replaced by superior and more human types of organization and association based on personal initiative and mutual aid. In the religious legends of the early Bronze Age, one discovers, if one reads attentively, the same irrational residue one finds in our present power system: its obsession with speed and quantitative achievements, its technological exhibitionism, its bureaucratic rigidity in organization, its relentless military coercion and conscriptions, its hostility to autonomous processes not yet under control by a centralized authority. The subjective connection between the ancien and the modern megamachine is clear.

All the boasted inventions of our modern technology first erupted in audacious Bronze Age dreams as attributes of the Gods or their earthly representatives: remote control, human flight, supersonic locomotion, instantaneous communication, automatic servo-mechanisms, germ warfare, and the wholesale extermination of large urban populations by fire and brimstone, if not nuclear fission. If you are not familiar with the religions literature of Egypt and Babylonia, you will find sufficient data in the Old Testament of the Bible to testify to the original paranoia of the Power Complex in the dreams and daily acts of the gods and the kings who represented that power on earth.

Just as today, unrestrained technological exhibitionism served as proof of the absolute power of the monarch and his military-bureaucratic scientific elite. None of our present technological achievements would have surprised any earlier totalitarian rulers. Kublai Khan, who called himself Emperor of the World, boasted to Marco Polo of the automatic conveyor that brought food to his table, and of the ability of his magicians to control the weather. What our scientifically oriented technologies have done is to make even more fabulous dreams of absolute control not only credible but probable; and in that very act they have magnified then irrationality – that is, their divorce from ecological conditions and historical human traditions under which life of every kind, and above all conscious human life, has actually flourished. The fact that most of these ancient fantasies have turned into workaday realities does not make their present and prospective misuse less irrational or less hostile to Life,

Do not be deceived by the bright scientific label on the package Ideologically the modern power complex, if measured by the standards of ecology and humane morality, is as obsolete as its ancient predecessor. Our present technocratic economy, for all its separate inventions, lacks the necessary dimensions of a life economy, and this is one of the reasons that the evidences of its breakdown are now becoming frighteningly visible. We have abundant biological evidence to demonstrate that life could not have survived or developed on this planet if command of physical energy alone had been the criterion of biological success. In all organic processes quality is as important as quantity, and too much is as fatal to life as too little. No species can exist without the constant aid and sustenance of thousands of other living organisms, each conforming to its own life pattern, going through its appointed cycle of birth, growth, decay, and death. If a feeble, unarmed, vulnerable creature like man has become lord of the creation, it is because he was able deliberately to mobilize all his personal capacities, including his gifts of sympathy group loyalty, love and parental devotion. These gifts ensured the time and attention necessary to develop his mind and pass on his specifically human traditions to his offspring.

For remember: man is not born human. What has separated man’s career from that of all other species is that he needs a whole lifetime to explore and to utilize – and in rare moments to transcend – his human potentialities. When man fails to develop the arts and disciplines that bring out these human capacities, his “civilized” self sinks, as Giambattista Vico long ago pointed out, to a far lower level than any other animal Since the megamachine from the beginning attached as much value to its negative components – to success in war, destruction, enslavement and extermination – as to life-promoting functions, it widened the empire of absurdity and irrationality. To face this built-in irrationality of both ancient and modern megamachines is the first step toward controlling the insensate dynamism of modern technology.

Let me cite a classic example of our present demoralizing conformities. Observe what a distinguished mathematician, the late John von Neumann, said about our current addiction to scientific and technological innovations. «Technological possibilities,» von Neumann said, «are irresistible to man. If he can go to the moon, he will. If he can control the climate, he will.» Though von Neumann expressed some alarm over tins situation, I am even more alarmed at what he took for granted. For the notion that technological possibilities are irresistible is far from obvious. On the contrary, it is a historical fact that this compulsion, except in the form imposed by the original Bronze Age model megamachine itself, is limited to modern Western man. Until now, human development was curtailed severely both by archaic institutional fixations and backward technological practices, conditioned by magic hocus-pocus. One of the chief weaknesses of traditional village communities was rather that they too stubbornly resisted even the most modest technical improvement, preferring stability and continuity to rapid change, random novelties, and possible disruption. As late as the seventeenth century an inventor in Rostock was publicly executed for designing an automatic loom.

What von Neumann was talking about was not historic man in general, but modern Western Man, Bureaucratic Man, Organization Man, Post-historic or Anti-historic Man: in short, our compulsive, power obsessed, machine-conditioned, contemporaries. Let us not overlook the fact that when any single impulse becomes irresistible, without regard to past experience, present needs, or future consequences, we are facing an ominously pathological derangement. If von Neumann’s dictum were true, the human race is already doomed, for the governments of both the United States and Russia have been insane enough to produce nuclear weapons in quantities sufficient to exterminate mankind five times over. Is it not obvious that from the outset there has been a screw loose in the mighty megamachine? And have these paranoid obsessions not increased in direct proportion to the amount of political and physical power the system now has placed in the hands of its leaders?

How is it then, you may ask, that earlier civilizations were not destroyed by the persistent aberrations of the power complex? The most obvious answer is that their destruction repeatedly did take place, in most of the twenty-odd civilizations that Arnold Toynbee’s Study of History examined. But in so far as these power systems survived, it was probably because they were still held back by various organic limitations mainly because their energy, in the form of manpower, was until recently derived solely from food crops; and though sadistic emperors might massacre the populations of whole cities, this killing could be done only by hand. Even in its palmiest days the megamachine depended upon the self-maintenance of man’s small, scattered, loosely organized farming villages and feudal estates, whose members were still autonomous enough to carry on even when the ruling dynasties were destroyed and their great cities were reduced to rubble.

Furthermore, between the power technics of the megamachine and the earlier organic, fertility technics of farm and garden, there fortunately persisted until recently a third mediating mode of technics, common to both the urban and the rural environments; namely, the cumulative polytechnics of the handicrafts – pottery making, spinning, weaving stone-carving, building, gardening, farming, animal breeding – each a rich repository of well-tested knowledge and practical experience. Whenever the centrally controlled megamachine broke down or was defeated in war, its scattered members could reform themselves, falling back on smaller communal and regional units, each transmitting the essential traditions of work and esthetic mastery and moral responsibility. Not all the technical eggs were then in one basket. Until now, this wide dispersal of working power, political intelligence, craft experience, and life sup porting communal practices happily mitigated the human disabilities of a system based on the abstractions of power alone.

But note; our modern power system has annihilated these safe guards, and thereby, incidentally, endangered its own existence. Thank’s to its overwhelming success in both material and intellectual productivity, the organic factors that made for ecological, technological, and human balance have been progressively reduced, and may soon be wiped out. Even as late as 1940, as the French geographer, Max Sorre, pointed out, four-fifths of the population of the planet still lived in rural areas closer in their economy and way of life to a neolithic village than to a modern megalopolis. That rural factor of safety is fast vanishing, and except in backward or underdeveloped countries, has almost disappeared. No competent engineer would design a bridge with as small a factor of safety as that under which the present power system operates. The more completely automated the whole system becomes and the more extensive its centralized mode of communication and control, the narrower that margin becomes; for as the system itself becomes more completely integrated, the human components become correspondingly depleted, disintegrated and paralyzed, unable to take over the functions and activities they have too submissively surrendered to the megamachine.

Judged by any rational criteria, the modern megamachine has poor chances of survival. Though everyone is now aware of its mounting series of slowdowns and breakdowns, its brownouts and blackouts, its depressions and inflations, these failures are ironically the results of the power system’s very success in achieving high levels of production. Technologically speaking, the old problem of scarcity of food or goods or valid knowledge has been solved, but the new problem of over-abundance has proved even more disconcerting, and harder to remedy without radically revising all the sacred principles of the Pentagon of Power.

The ancient megamachine worked, we now perceive, only because its benefits were reserved for a restricted, privileged class, or a small urban population. The modern megamachine, in order to universalize its methods and goals, now seeks to impose unrestricted mass production and mass consumption upon the proliferating populations of the entire planet. But it should now be plain that without deliberate human intervention, vigilantly imposing thrift, moderation, humane restraint upon the whole business of production, consumption, and reproduction, this affluent society is doomed to choke to death on its waste products. The only resources that can be increased indefinitely are those that nourish, energize, and expand the higher functions of the mind.

Happily, in recent years there has been a sudden, if belated, awakening to the dire human consequences of our unquestioning devotion to technology’s expansions and extensions Who can now remain blind to our polluted oceans and rivers, our smog-choked air, our mountainous rubbish heaps, our sprawling automobile cemeteries, our sterilized and blasted landscapes, where the strip miner, the bulldozer, the pesticides, and the herbicides have all left their mark; the widening deserts of con­crete, in motor roads and car parks, whose substitution of ceaseless locomotion for urban decentralization daily wastes countless man-years of life in needless transportation; not least our congested, dehumanized cities where health is vitiated and depleted by the sterile daily routine. With the spread of biological knowledge that has gone on during the last generation, the meaning of all these ecological assaults has at last sunk in and begun to cause a general reversal of attitude toward the entire technological process, most markedly among the young. The claims of megatechnics are no longer unchallengeable; their demands no longer seem irresistible. Only backward Victorian minds now believe «you can’t stop progress», or that one must accept the latest devices of technology solely because they promise greater financial gains or greater national prestige, or greater scope for the bureaucratic and military elite.

Though there has been a general awakening to the negative goods – or «bads» as Bertrand de Jouvenel calls them –that have accompanied the explosive technology of the twentieth century, most of our contempo­raries still hold stubbornly to the naive belief that there is a purely technological solution to every human problem. Hence the elaborate build up, since 1945, of rocket projectiles to intercept nuclear weapons at a distance, as if this could promise any substantial control over the self-imprisoned minds that had, in the first instance, sanctioned these weapons. Such minds are open to the same kind of anti-social psychotic impulses we find spreading in many other groups. If we seriously mean to control the megamachine, we must now reverse the process that brought about its original invention, and bring back to all its human agents – not merely its leaders – the necessary self-confidence and moral discipline that will make them ready to intervene at any point where the power complex threatens human autonomy, to challenge its purposes, to reduce its automatic compulsions, to restore and further cultivate the missing organic components of the human personality.

Unfortunately, our recent consciousness of the physical pollution and degradation of the environment that has taken place during the last three centuries, and with alarming swiftness during the last three decades, is still mainly confined to visible environmental results and bodily illnesses and injuries. But we must be equally conscious of the mental pollution and cultural desecration that results from the imposition of our uniform electro-mechanical model on our many-layered cultural heritage. Not least we must realize the massive damage done by our own special cultural products – the mass production of printed matter, of pictures, of films, of scientific and scholarly papers no less than the daily outpourings of the mass media. All this has done as much to degrade our minds as our physical conquests have done to degrade the planetary habitat. The excess storage of insignificant information, the excess transmission of unnecessary messages, the passive submission to the constant symbolic bombardment by images and sounds of every sort, culminating in the nerve-shattering extravaganzas of amplified electronic “music” are last reducing even our genuine cultural achievements to an agglomeration of astronomical dimensions that will be inaccessible to the mind. No system of condensing this bulk or retrieving its separate items will do anything but add quantitatively to the chaos.


The end of this long paper is obviously not the place to canvass and carry further the positive measures needed to reverse the accelerating forces of technocratic disintegration. Certainly it is not in extensive cosmonautic explorations of outer space, but by more intensive cultivation of the historic inner spaces of the human mind, that we shall recover the human heritage. In a sense, all my major books, starting with Technics and Civilization, the first volume in The Renewal of Life series, have been attempts to understand the repeated miscarriages of mind that have limited the highest achievements of every historic civilization. My maturest interpretation of the archaeological and historic evidence will be found in three successive books: The City in History, 1960, Technics and Human Development, 1967, and The Pentagon of Power, 1970.

Fortunately, at least one reputable anthropologist has clearly perceived the implications of this interpretation of the basic role of man’s unique symbolic artifacts in technics and in human development. By the terms of his rejection of these views, he has willy-nilly given support to my description of the modern power complex. I refer to the review of the first volume of The Myth of the Machine, published in Science by Professor Julian Steward. «The thesis of this book,» Steward noted, «has inevitable practical and political implications for the contemporary world. If two million years of cultural evolution results from man’s mind, rather than from the imperatives of technology, man is presumably able to devise a better society. If on the other hand, economic, social, and political institutions are inevitable responses to mass production and distribution, to what extent can the human mind, or reason, reverse or deflect these trends?»

If this second option were indeed the only one open, technics as practiced under the guidance of positive science today would have precisely the cosmic status attributed in the Sumerian King List to the institution of Divine Kingship. Like the sacred Powers of Kingship, our technology must have been “handed down from heaven”. If so, not man but the Gods would be responsible for its existence, its devastating power, and its ultimate destination – namely to take over and supplant all autonomous organic and human activities, On such terms, the megamachine, eviscerated of all latent human attributes except such traits as may have been implanted in the human genes, would have absorbed all the attributes of Godhead. In the end human beings would be reduced, in Teilhard de Chardin’s ominous words, to mere “particles” –specialized cells in a megalocephalic brain.

I am indebted to Professor Steward for having restated, as the solid foundation of current scientific orthodoxy, the ancient religious Myth of the Machine. Quod erat demonstrandum.

Lewis Mumford

Note: This paper was first published in Technology, Power, and Social Change, Charles Thrall and Lerold Starr, Editors, Lexington, Mass., 1972. A revised version for the Rome World special Conference on Futures Research, entitled Technology and Culture, was published by the IPC Technology Press in England in 1974.

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