Academic journal article Communication Research Trends

10. Mumford, Technics, and Ecological History

Academic journal article Communication Research Trends

10. Mumford, Technics, and Ecological History

Article excerpt

Kuhns makes Lewis Mumford the first futurist that he discusses in The Post-Industrial Prophets (1971), Carey (1997) identifies Mumford (along with Innis) as a major influence on McLuhan, and Nystrom (1973) goes so far as to single out Mumford's Technics and Civilization (1934) as media ecology's "founding work" (p.10). This is despite the fact that Mumford did not foreground communication or media in his writings, although neither did he ignore them as he addressed topics such as culture, art, architecture, the city, and of course technics or technology. Given the fact that McLuhan and many other media ecology scholars treat the terms "technology" and "technics" as more or less equivalent to "medium" and "media," it is quite possible to refer to Mumford as a media theorist, or medium theorist (Meyrowitz, 1985). Also of no small significance is the fact Mumford had quite a bit to say about ecology and environments, and described his work as "ecological history" according to Donald Miller's (1989, p. 84) biography. This theme runs through the approximately 30 books he published between 1922 and 1982 (see Strate & Lum, 2000).

Whether or not it is considered the founding work, Technics and Civilization (1934) has been very influential, having set the stage for subsequent media ecological inquiry. For one, it is a pioneering work in the history of technology. But beyond providing a detailed account of the evolution of technology, Mumford puts forth a theory of history in which different ages or epochs are defined by different technological ecologies or complexes. Rather than the more popular conception that posits a great divide brought on by the Industrial Revolution, Mumford emphasizes the evolution of the machine and machine civilization over the course of "three successive but over-lapping and interpenetrating phases" (Mumford, 1934, p. 109; emphasis in the original). Each phase is defined by its characteristic tools, techniques, materials, and sources of energy. The first, which he refers to as the eotechnic phase (about A.D. 1000 to 1750), is described as a water-and-wood complex, during which machine technology did not upset the ecological balance, while allowing for a relatively high degree of creativity, versatility, and autonomy among craftsmen. The second era, which he refers to as the paleotechnic phase (after 1750 and into the 20th century), is described as a coal-and-iron complex, during which industrialization caused major ecological damage, and created the most inhuman of working conditions (Mumford singles out coal mining in this regard). Workers in the factories were transformed into interchangeable human parts of the machine in this most dehumanizing of cultures, and all aspects of life, including art, came to be patterned after the machine. The third epoch, which he refers to as the neotechnic phase (beginning in the 20th century), is described as an electricity-and-alloy complex, and in 1934 Mumford was cautiously optimistic about its potential to restore ecological balance and reverse the effects of the previous phase. He wrote at length about electricity's decentralizing characteristics, about its organic nature and, with it, the possibility that the machine can be made to follow the pattern of life, to serve human beings rather than be served by them. Overall, he viewed the history of technology as one in which a mechanical ideology had replaced an organic one, and would hopefully be replaced in turn by a retrieval of or reversal back into organic ideology via electricity.

While Mumford's early optimism dissolved following the Second World War, his initial assessment served as the basis for McLuhan's discussion of electricity and the electronic communications in Understanding Media (2003a; see Carey, 1997). Moreover, various other ideas popularized by McLuhan can be found in Technics and Civilization, such as the idea that technologies are extensions of the biological, that communication media are extensions of our sense organs and that they can alter our perceptions, that the content of a medium is another medium, that the printing press played a key role in the mechanization of the west (although Mumford argued that it played a secondary role, amplifying the effects of the mechanical clock), and that technology is an invisible environment (see Carey, 1997; Kuhns, 1971). …

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