Title of the book: Technics and Civilization.
Author: Lewis Mumford.
Publisher, date of publication: Routledge & Keagan Paul Ltd., 1934.
How the book was obtained: The book was obtained using an internet search. It was found in the form of a PDF.
- Lewis Mumford was a world-renowned literary critic, historian, sociologist, and philosopher of technology.
- He was born in Queens, New York, in 1895.
- In 1912, Mumford graduated from Stuyvesant High School.
- After high school graduation, the author entered the City College of New York.
- Another part of his educational background was the New School of Social Research, but he never graduated from this institution.1
- Among the courses the author took over the years were history, drawing and art, American studies, literature, and architecture, to name a few.
Issues Raised in the Book
In his book, Mumford explores the diverse aspects of mechanization and invention. His primary focus is on the emergence of technologies in society and the impacts that follow. The author divides the development of technology in social history into three major periods: the geotechnical phase, the paleotechnic phase, and the neotechnic phase. He also investigates the changes that were facilitated in society throughout different periods due to the growth of technological influence and integration2.
Structure of the Book
This chapter introduces the topic of technology and explains the distinction between technology and tools. Also, the author discusses how the first technological inventions were used and how they became popularized in different societies. In particular, Mumford explores the interaction between developing technologies and capitalism, which benefited immensely from such advancements.
Agents of Mechanization
The second chapter is focused on the forces that were the leading drivers of technological progress at various stages of history. The author emphasizes that the initial driving forces of technology were the needs of the agricultural society. Further, Mumford moves on to a discussion of the era of mining and the role that technologies played at the time. Finally, the author adds that warfare was one of the most powerful pushers of technological development.
The Eotechnic Phase
In this chapter, the author writes about the unique features of various cultures and how these features impacted the development of their technologies. Also, the author describes how different technologies began to obtain a very important role in states and serve as a source of power. Mumford discusses versatile inventions such as advanced types of weaponry, sources of income, and systems of communication.
The Paleotechnic Phase
In the fourth chapter, Mumford describes the advantages that Great Britain acquired as soon as its technologies were developed enough to overpower its neighboring states. The author makes a connection between the military objectives of the country’s leadership and the advancement of technology used for the production of iron and steel. Moreover, the author moves on to a discussion of the history and impact of the steam engine, one of the most important inventions in the entire history of technology. Besides, this chapter explores the degradation of workers and the adverse impacts of technology on the environment.
The Neotechnic Phase
The fifth chapter is focused on the discovery of a new source of energy—electricity—and the social impacts that it had, such as the displacement of many physical laborers by machines. Besides, Mumford specifies that the use of electricity led to the addition of new materials—such as resins, light metals, and new alloys—into the production and technology spheres. Moreover, the author adds that the waste of resources that was typical for the paleotechnic era was reversed in the neotechnic times, where conservation had become a priority.
Compensations and Reversions
In chapter six, Mumford discusses the initiation of the division of values related to machines and those unrelated to technology. At the same time, the author points to another important outcome of more developed technologies: a sense of materialism that went out of control and resulted in superfluous power.
Assimilation of the Machine
The seventh chapter of Mumford’s book takes a philosophical and ethical perspective on technology, connecting its development with movements and styles in art as well as social trends. The integration of the newest inventions (such as photography) into the sphere of art led to discussions regarding their potential impacts, symbolism, and functional value.
In the final chapter, the author explores technology from conquering nature. He wonders if all inventions could be considered tools of progress toward the conquering of nature if they were primarily used for warfare and consumption, which derive from the flawed and power-seeking nature of humans.
Worldview and Ethics
Buttel characterizes the new ecological paradigm (NEP) as one that is frequently juxtaposed with the human exceptionalism paradigm (HEP).3 In particular, the difference between the two constructs is that the latter views humans as separate from nature and its forces; according to this perspective, humans are driven by their free will and culture. At the same time, from the NEP point of view, the attitude of an individual towards nature is based on his or her underlying values and cultural environment.4
In the book, Mumford relies primarily on the perspective of the NEP. The author specifies that humanity has taken on very different attitudes toward nature at different periods of technological development. In other words, the human worldview has evolved from a fear of nature as a divine and mysterious force to a view of nature as a major resource for exploration.
In particular, in the fourth and fifth chapters, Mumford discusses the impact that the development of technologies made on the environment and how humanity reacted to it. At the very beginning stages of industrialization, societies around the world were obsessed with the benefits it produced, so they tended to overlook all the corresponding disadvantages such as pollution. Further, the increased production and technological development resulted in a high rate of consumerism, and the negative environmental effects continued to be overlooked.
However, this attitude changed over time along with changes in culture. Threatened by the potential scarcity of natural resources, humanity had to turn to preservation and conservation practices to balance out the negative effects of production. These changes in worldview and their connection to environmental concerns are the factors that point to NEP as the dominant perspective in the book.
In the checklist proposed for the ethical technology assessment (eTA), three aspects match the ethical issues related to technology that are discussed by Mumford. These aspects include point 2 (control, influence, and power), point 3 (impact on social contact patterns), and point 9 (impact on human values).5
In his book, Mumford emphasizes the influence that military ambitions and societal warfare had on the development of technology. Indeed, war has been one of the major and most powerful drivers of invention and progress. In this way, it is possible to state that from the very beginning, technologies were viewed as potential sources of influence and control. Moreover, the author discusses how the wide use of electricity pushed forward communication technologies and contact powers.
In particular, the invention of radio affected similarly to that of the telegraph; people all around the world began to exchange information and learn about events taking place in faraway locations. Therefore, it is possible to conclude that the techniques discussed in Mumford’s book defeated the barriers naturally created by distance. Finally, Mumford writes about the pointless materialism that came along with the greedy and selfish development of technologies just for the sake of consumerist satisfaction.
The issue of the value of technology and what it came to represent for human society at different points in history is one of the major topics of Mumford’s philosophical analysis of different inventions. The author emphasizes that societal views concerning the meaning of technologies have changed significantly over time, either gaining or losing in terms of value.
The most important issue surrounding technology is that of influence and power, and one of the most likely potential scenarios of unbridled technological development was forecasted long ago: a nuclear war leading to the end of civilization. To mitigate this adverse outcome, society needs to stay mindful of the risks of using technology as a weapon and the damage that can be done by technological advancements. In particular, the number of nuclear warheads owned by the world’s most powerful states must be reduced. Ideally, all nuclear weaponry would be eliminated.
Buttel, Frederick H. “New Directions in Environmental Sociology.” Annual Review of Sociology 13 (1987): 465-488.
Halton, Eugene. “A Brief Biography of Lewis Mumford (1895-1990).” Web.
Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. London: Routledge & Keagan Paul Ltd, 1934.
Palm, Elin, and Sven Ove Hansson. “The case for ethical technology assessment (eTA).” Technological Forecasting & Social Change 73, no. 534 (2006): 543 – 558.
- Eugene Halton, “A Brief Biography of Lewis Mumford (1895-1990)”. Web.
- Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (London: Routledge & Keagan Paul Ltd, 1934), 5.
- Frederick H. Buttel, “New Directions in Environmental Sociology,” Annual Review of Sociology 13 (1987): 469.
- Elin Palm and Sven Ove Hansson, “The case for ethical technology assessment (eTA),” Technological Forecasting & Social Change 73, no. 534 (2006): 551.