Lewis Mumford: On Automated Society

 

At that ‘omega- point’ nothing would be left of man’s autonomous original nature, except organized intelligence: a universal and omnipotent layer of abstract mind, loveless and lifeless. Now, we cannot understand the role that technics has played in human development without a deeper insight into the historic nature of man.

—Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine

Lewis Mumford envisioned how our planetary civilization was evolving into an all encompassing machinic system of ‘megatechnics’ of hypercapitalism in which automation would be the guiding motif, shaping our desires to those of a machinic existence in a collective world ruled and governed by algorithmic necessity. The assault on philosophical individualism and passion by various trends in the neurosciences and neo-rationalism is pushing us into a collective enterprise in which humans are being re-engineered to serve a collective intelligence, hooked both spiritually and physically to a system of normative regulatory processes of domestication and impersonalism that will make of us all automaton-servitors in a vast machinic society:

“In terms of the currently accepted picture of the relation of man to technics, our age is passing from the primeval state of man, marked by his invention of tools and weapons for the purpose of achieving mastery over the forces of nature, to a radically different condition, in which he will have not only conquered nature, but detached himself as far as possible from the organic habitat. 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.”1

For Lewis Mumford it is our ability to invent ourselves in the realms of make-believe that is our symbolic activity as social beings rather than tool-use that distinguishes us through our transformation and cultural transmission of both practical and theoretical knowledge that differentiates our species. Cultural transmission through external memory systems is central to this:

I shall develop the view that man is pre-eminently a mind-making, self-mastering, and self-designing animal; and the primary locus of all his activities lies first in his own organism, and in the social organization through which it finds fuller expression. Until man had made something of himself he could make little of the world around him. In this process of self-discovery and self-transformation, tools, in the narrow sense, served well as subsidiary instruments, but not as the main operative agent in man’s development; for technics has never till our own age dissociated itself from the larger cultural whole in which man, as man, has always functioned. (ibid.)


  1. Lewis Mumford. The Myth of the Machine Technics and Human Development-Harcourt (1967)