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monotechnic

Lewis Mumford

[muhm-ferd]
Lewis Mumford (October 19, 1895January 26, 1990) was an American historian of technology and science. Particularly noted for his study of cities and urban architecture, he had a tremendously broad career as a writer that also included a period as an influential literary critic. Mumford was influenced by the work of Scottish theorist Sir Patrick Geddes.

Mumford was also a contemporary and friend of Frank Lloyd Wright, Frederic J. Osborn, Edmund N. Bacon, and Vannevar Bush.

Life

Mumford was born in Flushing, New York, and graduated from Stuyvesant High School in 1912. He studied at the City College of New York and the New School for Social Research, but became ill with tuberculosis and never finished his degree. In 1919 he became associate editor of The Dial, an influential modernist literary journal. He later worked for The New Yorker where he wrote architectural criticism and commentary on urban issues.

Mumford's earliest books in the field of literary criticism have had a lasting impact on contemporary American literary criticism. The Golden Day contributed to a resurgence in scholarly research on the work of 1850's American transcendentalist authors and Herman Melville: A study of His Life and Vision effectively launched a revival in the study of the work of Herman Melville. Soon after, with the book The Brown Decades, he began to establish himself as an authority in US architecture and urban life, which he interpreted in a social context.

In his early writings on urban life, Mumford was optimistic about human abilities and wrote that the human race would use electricity and mass communication to build a better world for all humankind. He would later take a more pessimistic stance. His early architectural criticism also helped to bring wider public recognition to the work of Henry Hobson Richardson, Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Mumford was involved in numerous research positions and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964. In 1943 Mumford was made an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. In 1976, he was awarded the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca.

He served as the architectural critic for The New Yorker magazine for over 30 years, and his 1961 book, The City in History, received the National Book Award.

Lewis Mumford died at his home in Amenia, New York.

Ideas

Mumford believed that what defined humanity (what set human beings apart from other animals) was not primarily our use of tools (technology) but our use of language (symbols). He was convinced that the sharing of information and ideas amongst participants of primitive societies was completely natural to early humanity, and had obviously been the foundation of society as it became more sophisticated and complex. He had hopes for a continuation of this process of information “pooling” in the world as humanity moved into the future.

Mumford's choice of the word "technics" throughout his work was deliberate. For Mumford, technology is one part of technics. Using the broader definition of the Greek tekne, which means not only technology but also art, skill and dexterity, technics refers to the interplay of a social milieu and technological innovation - the "wishes, habits, ideas, goals" as well as "industrial processes" of a society. As Mumford writes at the beginning of Technics and Civilization, "other civilizations reached a high degree of technical proficiency without, apparently, being profoundly influenced by the methods and aims of technics."

Megatechnics

In The Myth of the Machine Vol II: The Pentagon of Power (Chapter 12) (1970), Mumford criticizes the modern trend of technology, which emphasizes constant, unrestricted expansion, production, and replacement. He explains that these goals work against technical perfection, durability, social efficiency, and overall human satisfaction. Modern technology—which he calls 'megatechnics'—evades producing lasting, quality products by using devices such as consumer credit, installment buying, non-functioning and defective designs, built-in fragility, and frequent superficial "fashion" changes. "Without constant enticement by advertising", he explains, "production would slow down and level off to normal replacement demand. Otherwise many products could reach a plateau of efficient design which would call for only minimal changes from year to year."

He uses his own refrigerator as an example, explaining that it "has been in service for nineteen years, with only a single minor repair: an admirable job. Both automatic refrigerators for daily use and deepfreeze preservation are inventions of permanent value ... if biotechnic criteria were heeded, rather than those of market analysts and fashion experts, an equally good product might come forth from Detroit, with an equally long prospect of continued use."

Biotechnics

Mumford describes an organic model of technology, or biotechnics, as a contrast to megatechnics. Organic systems direct themselves to "qualitative richness, amplitude, spaciousness, and freedom from quantitative pressures and crowding. Self-regulation, self-correction, and self-propulsion are as much an integral property of organisms as nutrition, reproduction, growth, and repair." Biotechnics models life in seeking balance, wholeness, and completeness.

Polytechnics versus monotechnics

A key idea, introduced in Technics and Civilization (1934) was that technology was twofold:

  • Polytechnic, which enlists many different modes of technology, providing a complex framework to solve human problems.
  • Monotechnic which is technology only for its own sake, which oppresses humanity as it moves along its own trajectory.

Mumford commonly criticized modern America's transportation networks as being 'monotechnic' in their reliance on cars. Automobiles become obstacles for other modes of transportation, such as walking, bicycle and public transit, because the roads they use consume so much space and are such a danger to people. Mumford explains that the thousands of maimed and dead each year as a result of automobile accidents are a "ritual sacrifice" the American society makes because of its extreme reliance on highway transport.

Megamachines

Mumford also refers to large hierarchical organizations as megamachines—a machine using humans as its components. These organizations comprise Mumford's stage theory of civilization. The most recent Megamachine manifests itself, according to Mumford, in modern technocratic nuclear powers—Mumford used the examples of the Soviet and US power complexes represented by the Kremlin and the Pentagon, respectively. The builders of the Pyramids, the Roman Empire and the armies of the World Wars are prior examples.

Features

He explains that meticulous attention to accounting and standardization, and elevation of military leaders to divine status are spontaneous features of megamachines throughout the history. He cites such examples as the repetitive nature of Egyptian paintings which feature enlarged Pharaohs and public display of enlarged portraits of dictators such as Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin. He also cites the overwhelming prevalence of quantitative accounting records among surviving historical fragments, from ancient Egypt to Nazi Germany.

Necessary to the construction of these megamachines is an enormous bureaucracy of humans which act as "servo-units", working without ethical involvement. Technological improvements such as remote control by satellite or radio, instant global communication, and assembly line organizations dampen psychological barriers against the end result of their actions, according to Mumford. An example which he uses is that of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi official who conducted logistics behind the Holocaust. Mumford collectively refers to people willing to carry out placidly the extreme goals of these megamachines as "Eichmanns".

The clock as herald of the Industrial Revolution

One of the better-known studies of Mumford is of the way the mechanical clock was developed by monks in the Middle Ages and subsequently adopted by the rest of society. He viewed this device as the key invention of the whole Industrial Revolution, contrary to the common view of the steam engine holding the prime position, writing: "The clock is a piece of machinery whose 'product' is seconds and minutes."

Urban civilization

In his influential book The City in History, which won the National Book Award, Mumford explores the development of urban civilizations. Harshly critical of urban sprawl, Mumford argues that the structure of modern cities is partially responsible for many social problems seen in western society. While pessimistic in tone, Mumford argues that urban planning should emphasize an organic relationship between people and their living spaces.

Mumford uses the example of the medieval city as the basis for the "ideal city", and claims that the modern city is too close to the Roman city (the sprawling megalopolis) which ended in collapse; if the modern city carries on in the same vein, Mumford argues, then it will meet the same fate as the Roman city.

Mumford wrote critically of urban culture believing the city is “a product of earth … a fact of nature … man's method of expression”. Further Mumford recognised the crises facing urban culture, distrusting of the growing finance industry, political structures, fearful that a local community culture was not being fostered by these institutions. Mumford feared 'metropolitan finance’, urbanisation, politics and alienation.

Writing style

While Mumford's writing exhibits much original research and a uniquely "Mumfordian" approach to history and technology, his style often incorporates powerful rhetorical subtleties and psychoanalytical interpretations of philosophical figures. A Mumford essay also tends to be multidisciplinary, combining references and images from an often startlingly wide range of studies.

Rhetoric

In cataloguing the "obsession" of classic thinkers with space travel, Mumford turns his attention to an obscure work by Johannes Kepler entitled Somnium where Kepler speculates about the possibilities of lunar travel (supposedly attainable as early as 1609). Mumford cites this work as an example of a science-driven transition from Heaven to space travel as the salvation and ultimate goal of the human race—a recurring theme of Mumford's writings loosely summarized as sun worship which, according to Mumford, is a psychotic emanation from the "collective psyche" of mankind.

After illustrating Kepler's "keen grasp of the embarrassing details" and inferring interior compulsions were to blame, Mumford charges Kepler with being "steeped in sun-worship". While these inflections lie below the level of outright attack they are dismissive of Kepler's reasoning and even speculate as to his subconscious motivations.

Influence

Mumford's interest in the history of technology and his explanation of "polytechnics", along with his general philosophical bent, has been an important influence on a number of more recent thinkers concerned that technology serve human beings as broadly and well as possible. Some of these authors — such as Jacques Ellul, Witold Rybczynski, Amory Lovins, J. Baldwin, E. F. Schumacher, Herbert Marcuse, Murray Bookchin, Marshall McLuhan — have been both intellectuals and persons directly involved with technological development and decisions about the use of technology.

Mumford also had a influence on the American environmentalist movement, with thinkers like Barry Commoner and Bookchin being influenced by his ideas on cities, ecology and technology. Ramachandra Guha noted his work contains 'some of the earliest and finest thinking on bioregionalism, anti-nuclearism, biodiversity, alternate energy paths, ecological urban planning and appropriate technology.

It is also evident in the work of some artists. This includes Berenice Abbott's photographs of New York City in the late 1930s.

Works

  • The Story of Utopias (1922)
  • Sticks and Stones (1924)
  • The Golden Day (1926)
  • Herman Melville: A Study of His Life and Vision (1929)
  • The Brown Decades: A Study of the Arts in America, 1865-1895 (1931)
  • The City (1939, a film)
  • "Renewal of Life" series
  • Art and Technics (1952)
  • Values for Survival (1946)
  • The Transformations of Man (1956 New York: Harper and Row)
  • The City in History (1961) often considered his most important work (Awarded the National Book Award)
  • The Highway and the City (1963, essay collection)
  • The Myth of the Machine (2 volumes)
    • Technics and Human Development (1967)
    • The Pentagon of Power (1970)
  • The Urban Prospect (1968, essay collection)
  • My Work and Days: A Personal Chronicle (1979)
  • Sketches from Life: The Autobiography of Lewis Mumford (1982 New York: Dial Press)
  • The Lewis Mumford Reader. Donald L. Miller, ed. (1986 New York: Pantheon Books)

References

Bibliography

External links

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