Mumford: The Road Through Magic (Technics and Civilization, 1934)

The Fountain of Youth
The Fountain of Youth

Between fantasy and science is magic. Magicians were necessary to reach science, as they were the first to both believe in marvels as well as seek to “work them”. It’s difficult to define precisely where magic ends and science begins, but two unscientific qualities of magic are: “secrets and mystifications” and “a certain impatience for results.” Regarding the latter, fraudulent acts of magic were commonplace amongst alchemists of the 1500s, (as is sometimes the case amongst scientists today) for the sake of achieving immediate results. But, what the alchemists and magicians could be thanked for is working with their hands, in their laboratories, with real tools and real substances, and most of all, on demonstration. The alchemists, magicians, and early scientists lacked systems. “As children’s play anticipates crudely adult life, so did magic anticipate modern science and technology: it was chiefly a lack of direction that was fantastic: the difficulty was not in using the instruments but in finding a field where it could be applied and finding the right system for applying it.”


Mumford: The Obstacle of Animism (Technics and Civilization, 1934)

Cloaca: A Mechanical Pooping Machine
Cloaca: A Mechanical Pooping Machine

While the natural world came as a great inspiration for technology (hornets nests: paper; rolling logs: wheels; lungs: bellows), technological development could only proceed slowly until the machine could be dissociated from living things. Airplanes were unsuccessful so long as they were designed to have bird (Leonardo da Vinci) or bat (Clement Ader) wings, bodies, and motion; Giovanni Branca’s human-shaped steam-engine was a nonstarter. In the meantime, circular motion, which we find infinitely useful, is only rarely seen in nature—perhaps most often by humans dancing. Dissociating life from actions resulted in the arm becoming a crane, firelight becoming electric light, human and animal work becoming mechanical work.

God, as clockmaker, had created and set an orderly world. If the world was nothing but God’s creation, wrapped in symbolism, and the Church the only path to the absolute, then there was no place for mechanical understanding or development unless Earth and Heavens could be divided. In the 17th and 18th centuries, that division became clear—there, the Heavens and the soul of man, and here, the earth. But even the monastery may be considered mechanical: its sterile environment, separate from the earthly world, temptations removed, strict rules and minimized irregularity as the self is replaced by the collective. A machine. And like a machine, it was “incapable of self-perpetuation except by renewal from without.” Hence, a great number of scientific discoveries came from monks. Further, Christianity’s teachings that the body is sinful, vile, and corrupt, to be mortified and subdued, meant that rather than celebrate the body, as pagans once did (gigantic symbols of fertility, etc.), it would be reasonable to move away from the body and toward the machine. Even as the Church would declare machines the work of the Devil, it “was creating the Devil’s disciples.”
The machine came about most quickly wherever the body was destroyed: monasteries, mines, and battlefields. It came about more slowly in places that gave life: agriculture.

Mumford: From Fable to Fact (Technics and Civilization, 1934)

fact-checking“‘In the Middle Ages,’ as Emile Male said, ‘the idea of a thing which a man formed for himself was always more real than the actual thing itself, and we see why these mystical centuries had no conception of what men now call science. The study of things for their own sake held no meaning for the thoughtful man. . . . The task for the student of nature was to discern the eternal truth that God would have each thing express.’”
“How far could the mind go in [science] as long as the mystic numbers three and four and seven and nine and twelve filled every relation with an allegorical significance.”
“Unfortunately, the medieval habit of separating the soul of man from the life of the material world persisted, though the theology that supported it was weakened; for as soon as the procedure of exploration was definitely outlined in the philosophy and mechanics of the seventeenth century man himself was excluded from the picture. Technics perhaps temporarily profited by this exclusion; but in the long run the result was to prove unfortunate. In attempting to seize power man tended to reduce himself to an abstraction, or, what comes to almost the same thing, to eliminate every part of himself except that which was bent on seizing power.”

Mumford: The Influence of Capitalism (Technics and Civilization, 1934)

monopolyThe “romanticism of numbers” directly led to the rise of capitalism, already well-structured by the 1300s, and modern (double-entry bookkeeping, bills of exchange, letters of credit, speculation in ‘futures’) by the 1500s. The result: abstraction and calculation became part of the everyday lives of city people. Business became more abstract, concerned with non-commodities, imaginary futures, and hypothetical gains. Marx: “money does not disclose what has been transformed into it”–everything can be bought and sold. Money is the only thing one can acquire without limit. Money both grew out of a need through trade, as well as promoted increased trade. The continual and fast-paced development of machines can be attributed to the lure of commercial profit.

Mumford: Space, Distance, Movement (Technics and Civilization, 1934)

hereford_mapCultures can be differentiated by their unique conceptions of space and time. Europe in the Middle Ages understood space and time in terms of arbitrary, religion-based symbolism. For instance, medieval cartography presents land masses and water as arbitrary shapes (see the Hereford Map), related to each other allegorically. Further, time was understood as something fluid, where in storytelling the past is happening now, so that it’s realistic to the medievel mind to transport a story from a thousand years ago into the present, or as in Botticelli’s The Three Miracles of St. Zenobius, where three different times are presented at once. The result of this was the ability to understand what we presently only understand using science–ship’s drop off the horizon, demons drop down chimneys. Things in the world come and go in the same way as adults come and go in the eyes of children–things are all either mysteries or miracles. All things make sense through religion–“the true order of space was Heaven, even as the true order of time was Eternity.”

boticelliBetween the 14th and 17th centuries, space “as a hierachy of values” was replaced by “space as a system of magnitudes.” In painting, horizons, vanishing points, and visual relationships between things replaced symbolic relationships between things. Size no longer corresponded to divine proportions, but to distance, objects in relationship to one another. This meant a need to understand the world accurately. Space would now be measured in the same way time was measured with a clock. To understand something would be to place it, and to time it–how long to get there? By placing things geographically, there was now an incentive to explore and discover the world. And by graphing out the world, even while incomplete or inaccurate, there was now a basis of expectations, rather than the navigationally useless maps of the Middle Ages. Explorers did not need to hug the shoreline, as in the old maps, but could now launch into the open seas and return to roughly where they began. Eden and Heaven were no longer to be found on maps. The concepts of space and time require us to begin, arbitrarily, with here and now–their conquest is through measurement, and through their conquest, scientific advancement. And in conquering space and time, the importance of numbers and counting grew.

Mumford: The Monastery and the Clock (Technics and Civilization, 1934)

water-clock“The clock, not the steam engine, is the key machine of the modern industrial age”

The clock “is a piece of power-machinery whose ‘product’ is seconds and minutes: by its essential nature it dissociated time from human events and helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences: the special world of science. There is relatively little foundation for this belief in common human experience: throughout the year the days are of uneven duration, and not merely does the relation between day and night steadily change, but a slight journey from East to West alters astronomical time by a certain number of minutes. In terms of the human organism itself, mechanical time is even more foreign: while human life has regularities of its own, the beat of the pulse, the breathing of the lungs, these change from hour to hour with mood and action, and in the longer span of days, time is measured not by the calendar but by the events that occupy it. The shepherd measures from the time the ewes lambed; the farmers measures back to the day of sowing or forward to the harvest: if growth has its own duration and regularities, behind it are not simply matter and motion, but the facts of development: in short, history. And while mechanical time is strung out in a succession of mathematically isolated instants, organic time—what Bergson calls duration—is cumulative in its effects. Though mechanical time can, in a sense, be speeded up or run backward, like the hands of a clock or the images of a moving picture, organic time moves in only one direction—through the cycle of birth, growth, development, decay, and death—and the past that is already dead remains present in the future that has still to be born.”

Mumford: Machines, Utilities, and ‘The Machine’ (Technics and Civilization, 1934)

technics1There are physiological processes, like growing hair in response to the cold. Then there are things that, rather, change the environment—tools and machines. Tools are flexible in function—a knife can be used to cut, shave, carve, etc. Whereas machines are inflexible in function—a drill can only drill.

Tools, however, function as extensions of the person who manipulates them. It takes considerable effort and skill to use a hammer properly, whereas regardless of how complicated a machine is, it requires little relative effort or skill to use (for instance, in driving a car, by pushing your foot down, you cause a number of processes to take place, and, ultimately, the wheels to turn and move the heavy car automatically).

In between these two, tool, and machine, is the machine-tool, which blurs the line between the human extension and the automatic—say, an electric handheld drill, which involves a number of processes effected only by pushing a button, and is run by electricity, yet still requires considerable skill to use, as it acts like an extension of the person.

Lastly, utensils and utilities, from baskets to kilns to roads, are important technological objects in the development of the modern environment.