Mumford, L.: "Tool-Users vs. Homo Sapiens and The Megamachine"

Mumford, L. (2003). Tool-Users vs. Homo Sapiens and The Megamachine. In R. Scharff & V. Dusek (Eds.), Philosophy of technology (pp. 344-351). Malden  MA: Blackwell Publishing. Prologue originally published 1967; Megamachine originally published 1966.


Chapter One: Prologue

Not exactly cheerful:

"with this new 'megatechnics' the dominant minority will create a uniform, all-enveloping, super-planetary structure, designed for automatic operation. Instead of functioning actively as an autonomous personality, man will become a passive, purposeless, machine-conditioned animal whose proper functions, as technicians now interpret man's role, will either be fed into the machine or strictly limited and controlled for the benefit of de-personalized, collective organizations" (344)

Creates a defined set of goals for article to question assumptions/predictions upon which commitment to present tech/sci progress based:

  • evidence to doubt theories of man's "nature" overrate part tools played/ machines play in human development
  • suggest Marx in error by giving material instruments of production central place in human development
  • Teilhard de Chardin-- "reads back into the whole story of man the technological rationalism of our own age" (344)
  • creates "omega-point"-- loss of man's autonomy, "loveless" and "lifeless" abstract mind.

Understanding historic nature of man

Argues that this understanding skewed by social construction/hindsight

  • mechanical progress â†’ "unjustifiable" increase in moral superiority (345)
  • modern have adapted Victorian sense of improvement of humanity through technology, concentrate on contined expansion of tech
  • argues that we have 'radically misinterpreted' course of human development
  • not just about stone tools (often highlighted by biologists and anthropologists): hearths, pits, traps, baskets, canals, cities.
  • yet: insects/bids/mammals etc. far more radical innovations in fabrication of containers. "Man was for long a laggard, compared with many other species" (345).
  • Carlyle's definition of man as "tool-using animal" > argues this "obscures" path of human development
  • "No single trait, not even tool-making, is sufficient to identify man" (345-46)
  • what is uniquely human is bringing variety of animal propensities into emerging cultural entity: human personality
  • Cites DBrul "thus liberated the mouth for speech" (346)
  • "If man was indeed a tool-maker, he possessed at the beginning one primary, all-purpose tool, more important than any later assemblage: his own mind-activated body..." (346).
  • intellectual development led to increased energies for more than merely survival. created cultural outlets.
  • cultural 'work' took precedence over manual work..."tool-technics, in fact, is but a fragment of biotechnics: man's total equipment for life" (346).
  • Huizinga: coined "homo ludens"-- suggesting play, rather than work, formative for human culture. Sports/games/plays. Became translated to homo faber (man as maker).
  • "I submit that at every stage man's inventions and transformations were less for the purpose of increasing the food supply or controlling nature than for utilizing his own immense organic resources and expressing his latent potentialities, in order to fulfill more adequately his superorganic demands and aspirations" (347).
  • Believes development of language more important that tool dev ("chipping a mountain of handaxes" [347])--"until man had made something of himself he could make little of the world around him" (347).
  • argues that the separation of technics from culture a modern occurrence (347): "the classic Greek term "tekhne" characteristically makes no distinction between industrial production and 'fine' or symbolic art; and for the greater part of human history these aspects were inseparable, one side respecting the objective conditions and functions, the other responding to subjective needs" (347).

The Megamachine

posits that the chief mark of human development was the "megamachine," essentially comprised of human parts (348). Notes two factors affected this condition: organizers derived power/authority from 'cosmic' source; social defects of the human machine partly offset by superb achievements (flood control, grain production, etc.) that benefitted whole community. Argues that conceptually, machine detached from human functions/purposes (symbolic that ultimate achievements were tombs or destroyed cities).

The "machine age," therefore, from outset of human civilization. 

Asks, "is this association of inordinate power and productivity with equally inordinate violence and destruction a purely accidental one?" (349)...."Perhaps the most dubious of these advantages, humanly speaking, was the gain in efficiency derived from concentration upon rigorously repetitive motions in work, already indeed introduced in the grinding and polishing process of neolithic tool-making. This inured civilized man to long spans of regular work..." (349).

Argues that the monotonous work of the megamachine conditioned man, inured to "the demonic promptings of the unconscious" (349).

The Megamachine has become a compulsive urge for scientific/technological advance (350). "we are now bound, to explain why the whole process of technical development has become increasingly coercive, totalitarian, and--in its direct human expression--compulsive and grimly irrational, indeed downright hostile to more spontaneous manifestations of life that cannot be fed into the machine" (350). Is it compatible with development of "specifically human potentialities"? (350).

The big questions: generally, what happens if our autonomous functions subjugated to that of the Megamachine.

Parallels nuclear age--absolute power-- to bronze age divine kingship. 

Concerned about ramifications of imbalance of abstract knowledge, especially in light of moral concerns. 

Interesting conversation on work: "instead of liberation from work being the chief contribution of mechanization and automation, I would suggest that liberation for work, for more educative, mind-forming, self-rewarding work, on a voluntary basis, may become the most salutary contribution of a life-centered technology" (351). Presents as counterbalance to universal automation. Automation should be subordinate to other human purposes... "autonomy, self-direction, and self-fulfillment are the proper ends of organisms; and further technological development must aim at reestablishing this vital harmony at every stage of human growth by giving play to every part of the human personality, not merely to those functions that serve the scientific and technical requirements of the Megamachine" (351). 

Opts for reenvisionment; instead of wholescale commitment to machine, replace by "fuller picture of both human nature and the technical milieu, as both have evolved together" (351).