Prophet of Techno-Servitude

Apostle of Autonomy

One may without exaggeration now speak of technological compulsiveness: a condition under which society meekly submits to every new technological demand and utilizes without question every new product….

Lewis Mumford (1970)

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, haunted by the wide-awake nightmares we are now forced to “live,” I found myself  fascinated once again by his monumental, tragic vision of the technologically-enabled “power-systems” called civilizations.

How did Mumford differ from other major critics of technology?  First and foremost, he was a humanist: that is to say, he emphasized that the ultimate “function” of social structures (i.e., “society”) was to enhance human freedom and mutually beneficial cooperation of actual human beings.  In short: humanly-scaled communities, wherein individuals enjoy substantial latitude for spontaneous realization of capacities and aptitudes.  If optimized by diverse social conditions conducive to free growth, individuals could develop their many-sided capacities (cognitive, aesthetic, moral/empathic, etc.).  Technical means, if limited to these human purposes and values, could enhance such growth and social well-being.  (Even in Marx and Engels, this “libertarian” vision is emphasized: “The free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”)

Yet, in his brilliant, comparative-historical analysis, Mumford demonstrated how centralized “power-systems”—whether ancient Egypt or Nazi Germany—ultimately utilized technical means to mobilize and control military-bureaucratic regimentation of immense human populations (“the Megamachine”).   (As to the latter example, see Edwin Black’s recent study IBM and the Holocaust.)   By the 20th century, in Mumford’s view, hi-tech automation had drastically truncated the individual’s agency/free will—as he was further de-skilled and often reduced to a mere appendage to technical systems.  “Modernity” means (in part): centralization, standardization, ever-greater “efficiency,” and the reduction of the unique individual into “the calculable person” (Foucault).

But what did Mumford foresee for the forbidding 21st century 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.”  At the same time, people, losing “confidence in [their] own unaided capacities,” would become psychologically dependent on an array of ubiquitous devices, instruments, computers.  Entirely indoctrinated by “technological determinism,” 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.”  (See Simon Head’s new book Mindless: How Smarter Machines are Creating Dumber Humans.)  Ultimately, the 21st totalitarian technocracy, centralizing and augmenting its “power-complex,” ignoring the real needs and values of human life, would produce a world “fit only for machines to live in.”

This brief article scarcely does justice to the breadth and scope of Mumford’s critique of technology—its history, extensions into social control, and finally its replacement (or “efficient” extermination) of the mere human beings it was originally intended to serve.

Ultimately, Mumford advocated a negative revolt, a resistance and withdrawal, whereby individuals may reclaim their autonomy and humanly-derived desires and choices.  One might call this “dodging the Mega-System”: leaving the urban, market-driven “Patholopolis”; embracing an aesthetic ethos of ecstatic pantheism; and re-vitalizing the erotic/sensuous modalities of the bodily life.  (“I sing the body electric.”– Walt Whitman.)  Or, to use the popular motto: Choose to Refuse!  Technolatry—a failed religion which has denied and starved real human needs and aspirations—is already losing its acolytes and adherents.

Note:  for further discussion, see my previous articles: “Twilight of Technolatry,” “Deadly Folly of Busy-ness,” and “Spontaneity or Robopathy?

William Manson is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press). Read other articles by William.