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.