In preparation for lectures I’m giving this fall in Vancouver, I’ve been reading a lot of “death of the written world/Facebook and Twitter will bring and end to Western civilization” screeds. (Here, here, and here, for example.)

I tend to find these deeply unsatisfying, but haven’t been able to articulate exactly why. This morning I was reading Lewis Mumford’s 1934 classic Technics and Civilization and realized that his approach to analyzing “the machine” (the automated technologies of the early twentieth century” hits exactly the note I was looking for.

To understand the dominating role played by technics in modern civilization….one must explain the culture that was ready to use them and profit by them so extensively.

Technics and civilization as a whole are the result of human choices and aptitudes and strivings….The machine itself makes no demands and holds out no promises: it is the human spirit that makes demands and keeps promises. In order to reconquer the machine and subdue it to human purposes, one must first understand it and assimilate it. So far, we have embraced the machine without fully understanding it, or, like the weaker romantics, we have rejected the machine without first seeing how much of it we could intelligently assimilate.

Showing 8 comments
  • Janice in NJ

    My kids have encouraged me to purchase an iPad for reading books. My husband has seconded the motion in the hopes that Amazon would stop delivering paper to our tiny cape.

    I played with one at the store. The device doesn’t fit me yet. When they develop an amazing system for handling and manipulating my notes, then I might consider it. In the meantime, I have scratched around in my emotional cabinet to find an answer to the “Why do I detest this thing so much?” Apple’s slogan, “”It just feels right to hold the internet in your hands” says it all.

    I have no more desire to hold the internet. I’m not fascinated with its power anymore. I’m tired of chasing a line. (Euclid defines a line as breadthless length.) I want to live in a world that has two, three, or (gasp) four dimensions. Sure the net helps me gather information; it helps me buy things easily; it makes me laugh. But it makes me feel small, and it doesn’t change me. Real life changes me.

    When I read a paper book, the weight of the pages measures the passage of time. The book moves from right to left in a world where the crease between the two represents my present. I can feel the weight of my past in my left hand. And yes, it feels different than when it was my future and it rested in my right hand.

    As I approach the end of a decent book, there is a swelling tide of associations and ah-ha moments that threaten to cloud the author’s own thoughts on the final pages. I can feel the chaos of my own connections frantically banging into each other as the more logical side of me instinctively begins to sort and categorize the easy ideas – the bigger ones are gently placed aside on the mental to-do-list. I’ll return to them. They will change me. I may not like it, but they will change me. All the while, the weight of the pages in the left hand continues to comfort. I’m at peace with this process. That hefty thickness on the left just feels right.

    I held that iPad and flipped the fake page. I felt nothing. Nothing really moved from right to left. It was all an illusion. In fact when I turned it to its portrait orientation the feeling became even more eerie. My finger slid from right to left, the page curled, turned, and disappeared. I was overwhelmed by the breadthlessness of the line.

    I put it down and walked away. At least for now.

  • Jon Furgeson

    I think that one of Neil Postman’s conclusions in “Technopoly” is similar to Mr. Mumford’s critique. As a former computer scientist, I second (third?) the point. Technology for its own sake is of little benefit. I will add that if it is purely for entertainment purposes, then that is little better, and perhaps worse, from a cultural standpoint.

  • Denise Moore

    I also have been reading about this issue, and have similiar sentiments to what you have expressed in this article. I was unable to download your mp3. Is it available anywhere else?

  • Justin

    Denise, you can’t download that MP3 yet because the lecture won’t be given until November. So the MP3 doesn’t exist. I don’t know why they have the “download this MP3” link there already. A bit confusing…

  • Jeff

    That’s marvelous that you will be giving the Laing Lectures — and what an intriguing topic!

    The Mumford quote seems to assume the same moderate-pragmatist perspective with regard to technology that people like Stackhouse are advancing in terms of Christian ethics. By contrast, I’d say there’s a reason a line can be drawn connecting Neil Postman, Wendell Berry, and (again in the realm of Christian ethics) Stanley Hauerwas, all of whom seem to espouse a kind of idealism (which is certainly not to say an “abstract” or “ascetic” worldview). So, is the question at hand (to borrow from Stackhouse): How do we “make the best of it” when it comes to technology? Or is it (to borrow from Hauerwas): What assumptions does a technological culture demand (despite what Mumford says) that undermine or contradict the reality of “life in the Christian colony”?

    As someone who’s more of an idealist, I find myself reading Mumford’s statement (admittedly out of context) as a little naive about the apparent neutrality of the machine. Even if technological culture lacks direct agency, doesn’t it at least signify a formative influence no longer (regardless of its origins) under the direction of “the human spirit”? Then again, maybe an overly idealistic rejection of technology runs the risk, as Mumford suggests, of overlooking the practical realities of living in the world. For instance, I just deleted my Facebook account because I wanted my relationships with other people to be more intentional. Yet, in the first place, this assumes that I’ll have the willpower to be a good friend in that more intentional way — something I’m not entirely sure of. Secondly, my decision overlooks the fact that the vast majority of people with whom I interact count Facebook relationships as fully legitimate.

    Too bad: it all seems very complicated. I’m sure your wisdom in the lectures will help.

    Have you read Albert Borgmann’s “Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life” (1984)? He seems to hold a fairly balanced perspective, spanning the gap between pragmatism and idealism.

  • Riparazioni Torino

    It always feels better to read a paper book or a paper newspaper but the technology surrounds us. I am a bit of techno-geek and have to incorporate in my mind a lot of stuff about “the machine”. @Janice in NJ I would never buy a iPad for reading books. It feels much more comfortable to feel each page in my hand, put a paper bookmark in it and put it in my book shelf to continue writing when I have a bit of extra time.
    Anyway my head is a mix of vintage and high-tech. We should all find a balance between the two. Great quote by the way even if it’s extracted from the context.

  • Ulla Lauridsen

    I love all the techno stuff, and I have a smart phone and an e-reader etc. – but I think the screeds ring false because there has been a lot of crying wolf. It just is false. Western civilisation is not going anywhere. It’s a good idea and thus a tough cookie. And the written word on paper has been around a long time and is not going anywhere soon. It might be crowded out with time, but nothing dramatic is going to happen.

  • Stephen W. Bennett

    I’ve always found Mumford compelling; particularly in his breadth of insight. The details matter but only in context. Which leads back to the discussion on culture. We seem to be focused on the “weeds” and not the sky as my engineering colleagues liked to say. Technology is our culture and bodes for a future where “work” in any traditional sense is eliminated entirely. After all, isn’t that what we really want? What we are left with in an age still mired in enlightenment thinking, is a conundrum, not a judgement. We still manage to embrace the early Christian medieval view that there is a good and a bad instead of “looking” to “see” the undefined present. We in fact, make it up as we go.

    But our view is limited by our past. Could technology provide for a human world? Aboslutely! Yet we publically choose to not see the possiblities but only the difficulities. A new “narrative” is in order… And we are writing it here in this “Post Modern” world; though we have no idea what the actual consequences will be (intended or other wise.)

Contact Us

We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.

Not readable? Change text. captcha txt