The Ghost in the Net
Technology and Liberty in the Writings of Lewis Mumford

An Epistolary Dialogue Between
Roberto Calvo Macias and
Dr. Sam Vaknin

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However far modern science and technology have fallen short of their inherent possibilities, they have taught mankind at least one lesson: Nothing is impossible.

Today, the degradation of the inner life is symbolized by the fact that the only place sacred from interruption is the private toilet.

By his very success in inventing laboursaving devices, modern man has manufactured an abyss of boredom that only the privileged classes in earlier civilizations have ever fathomed.

For most Americans, progress means accepting what is new because it is new, and discarding what is old because it is old.

I would die happy if I knew that on my tombstone could be written these words, "This man was an absolute fool. None of the disastrous things that he reluctantly predicted ever came to pass!"

Lewis Mumford (1895-1990)

Dear Sam,

We begin our series on great personalities of the 20th century with Lewis Mumford. Of course, this is only an excuse to develop our own ideas. Those who are interested in the ideas of "our" characters can go to the nearest bookstore and read directly form the fountain. Anyway, for the sake of those who are not acquainted with Mumford, I will draw a brief biography.

Lewis Mumford was born in 1895 (the same year X-rays were discovered by Roentgen and the Dreyfus affair was another significant "success").  Mumford started his career in the US Patent Office (overseeing "cement and concrete"), which gave him a first person insight into technological innovation processes. Later he made contact with his late master Patrick Geddes (and other great thinkers like Victor Branford). These encounters converted him into a generalist. His writing career extended over six decades in which he made  significant contributions to the literature of history, philosophy, art, and architectural criticism. Perhaps best known for his work on urban planning and the study of technology, Mumford was co-founder of the Regional Planning Association of America and, for 32 years, wrote the "Sky Line" column on architecture for the New Yorker. He served on the faculties of several institutions, including Stanford university, the University of Pennsylvania, and MIT, and was appointed to the New York City Board of Higher Education. He received many awards, as the National Medal for Literature and The National Medal for the Arts.

His first literary work was "The Story of  Utopias", which advanced one of the major themes of his life:  the utopian (technological) literature and its impact on human development. After some other minor works (which included a beautiful book on Herman Melville, 1929), he published his first great opus, "Technics and Civilization (1934)", one of the first historical works on technology. It was even incorporated in the curricula of technological institutes, like Cal tech, the first technological university to have a historical course. This book was, though with some doubts, technologically oriented. After the war, his point of view, regarding this as well as other matters, changed somewhat. In 1938 he presented "The Culture of Cities", the first work pertaining to the other leitmotif of his life: urbanism and architecture. In the forties and fifties, Mumford produced several works on the "human condition", sanity, city development and arts. In 1961 appeared another major work of his, "The city in History", a complete survey of the city and its cycles.

In the "decisive years", during the sixties, Mumford wrote, in our humble opinion, his major work: "The Myth of the Machine". It was partly based on the ideas of Oswald Spengler as refined by Alfred Toynbee, and, distilling nearly sixty years of investigation, Lewis Mumford brings to a head his radical revisions of the stale popular conceptions of human and technological progress. "The Myth" is a fully developed historical explanation of the irrationalities that have undermined the highest achievements of modern technology - speed, mass production, automation, instant communication, and remote control. These have inevitably brought about pollution, waste, ecological disruption and human extermination. And he makes a comparison - part historical and part artistic - between the state machine of the Pyramid Age and the global cybernetic techno-machine of our "strange days" (the Pentagon of Power).

As the generalist work of Mumford covers practically all fields of knowledge, I propose to you to focus our dialogue on the problem of technology and life (with some linkage to his other major field: urbanism). Indeed, this is a  hot topic nowadays (the "mad cow disease" issue).

Highlights of this theme are:

  1. Mumford discussion of cybernetics and the "automation of automation" (Wiener);
  1. Mumford's polemics with McLuhan and the audio-visual tribe - a humbug, in LM words;
  1. And especially, his proposal to change the actual mega-technology into the life plenitude of organic polytechnology - anticipating the ecological views of today.

As you are interested in technological media (i.e. your essay on the Internet), here is a first strike courtesy Mr. Mumford:

".... It is to replace human autonomy in every form by an up-to-date electronic model of the mega machine. The mass media, he demonstrates, are 'put out before they are thought out'. In fact, 'their being put out tends to cancel the possibility of their being thought out at all". Precisely. Here McLuhan gives the whole show away. Because every technical apparatus is an extension of man's bodily organs, including his brain, this peripheral structure, by Mcluhan's analysis, must, by its very mass and ubiquity, replace all autonomous needs or desires: since now for us 'technology is a part our bodies', no detachment or divorce is possible. 'Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulations of those who would try to benefit from taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don't really have any rights (read autonomy) left' ".

"This latter point might well be taken as a warning to disengage ourselves, as soon as possible, from the power system so menacingly described: for McLuhan it leads, rather, to a demand for unconditional surrender. 'Under electric technology', he observes, 'the entire business of man becomes learning and knowing'. Apart from the fact that this is a pathetically academic picture of the potentialities of man, the kind of learning and knowing that McLuhan becomes enraptured over is precisely that which can be programmed on a computer: 'We are now in position...', he observes, 'to transfer the entire show to the memory of a computer'. No better formula could be found for arresting and ultimately suppressing human development..."

Well, this is my opening movement, Your turn, Mr. Vaknin.

Dear RCM,

Good to renew our dialogues. I will get straight to the point, or, rather, to the points. I intend to deal with each and every one of them extensively - but, as is our habit, I am just mapping the territory.

1. Is it meaningful to discuss technology separate from life, as opposed to life, or compared to life? Is it not the inevitable product of life, a determinant of life and part of its definition? Francis Bacon and, centuries later, the visionary Ernst Kapp, thought of technology as a means to conquer and master nature - an expression of the classic dichotomy between observer and observed. But there could be other ways of looking at it (consider, for instance, the seminal work of Friedrich Dessauer). Kapp was the first to talk of technology as "organ projection" (preceding McLuhan by more than a century). Freud wrote in "Civilization and its Discontents": "Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic god. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times."

2. On the whole, has technology contributed to human development or arrested it?

3. Even if we accept that technology is alien to life, a foreign implant and a potential menace - what frame of reference can accommodate the new convergence between life and technology (mainly medical technology and biotechnology)? What are cyborgs - life or technology? What about clones? Artificial implants? Life sustaining devices (like heart-kidney machines)? Future implants of chips in human brains? Designer babies, tailored to specifications by genetic engineering? What about ARTIFICIAL intelligence?

4. Is technology IN-human or A-human? In other words, are the main, immutable and dominant attributes of technology alien to humans, to the human spirit, or to the human brain? Is this possible at all? Is such non-human technology likely to be developed by artificial intelligence machines in the future? Finally, is this kind of technology automatically ANTI-human as well? Mumford's classification of all technologies to polytechnic (human-friendly) and monotechnic (human averse) springs to mind.

5. Is the impact technology has on the INDIVIDUAL necessarily identical or even comparable to the impact it has on human collectives and societies? Think Internet - the answer in this case is clearly NEGATIVE.

6. Is it possible to define what is technology at all?
If we adopt Monsma's definition of technology (1986) as "the systematic treatment of an art" - is art to be treated as a variant of technology? Robert Merton's definition is a non-definition because it is so broad it encompasses all teleological human actions: "any complex of standardized means for attaining a predetermined result". Jacques Ellul resorted to tautology: "the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency in every field of human activity" (1964). H.D. Lasswell (whose work is mainly media-related) proffered an operative definition: "the ensemble of practices by which one uses available resources to achieve certain valued ends". It is clear how unclear and indefensible these definitions are.

7. The use of technology involves choices and the exercise of free will. Does technology enhance our ability to exercise free will - or does it detract from it? Is there an inherent and insolvable contradiction between technology and ethical and moral percepts? Put more simply: is technology inherently unethical and immoral or a-moral? If so, is it fatalistic, or deterministic, as Thurstein Veblen suggested (in "Engineers and the Price System")? To rephrase the question; does technology DETERMINE our choices and actions? Does it CONSTRAIN our possibilities and LIMIT our potentials? We are all acquainted with utopias (and dystopias) based on technological advances (just recall the millenarian fervour with which electricity, the telegraph, railways, the radio, television and the Internet were greeted). Technology seems to shape cultures, societies, ideals and expectations. It is an ACTIVE participant in social dynamics. This is the essence of Mumford's "megamachine", the "rigid, hierarchical social organization". Contrast this with Dessauer's view of technology as a kind of moral and aesthetic statement or doing, a direct way of interacting with things-in-themselves. The latter's views place technology neatly in the Kantian framework of categorical imperatives.

8. Is technology IN ITSELF neutral? Can the undeniable harm caused by technology be caused, as McLuhan put it, by HUMAN mis-use and abuse: "[It] is not that there is anything good or bad about [technology] but that unconsciousness of the effect of any force is a disaster, especially a force that we have made ourselves". If so, why blame technology and exonerate ourselves? Displacing the blame is a classic psychological defence mechanism but it leads to fatal behavioural rigidities and pathological thinking.


Note: Primary Technology, Consumer Technology, and World Peace

Paradigm shifts in science and revolutionary leaps in technology are frequently coterminous with political and military upheavals. The dust usually requires three centuries to settle. Such seismic waves and tectonic shifts occurred between the 12th and 14th centuries AD, again starting with the 15th and ending in the 17th century AD, and, most recently, commencing in the 19th century and still very much unfolding.

These quakes portend the emergence of new organizing principles and novel threats. Power shifts from one set of players and agents to another. And the scope and impact of the cataclysm increases until it peaks with the last vestiges of the cycle.

Thus, in the current round (19th-21st centuries AD), polities shifted from Empires to Nation-states and economies from colonialism-mercantilism to capitalism: a new order founded on new systems and principles. Industrialized warfare and networked terrorism emerged as the latest threats. Ochlocracies and democracies supplanted the rule of various elites and crowds of laymen lay siege to the hitherto unchallenged superiority and leadership of experts. Finally, starting in the late 19th century, globalization replaced localization everywhere.

Why this confluence of scientific-technological phase transitions and political-military tumults?

There are three possible explanations:

(I) Scientific and technological innovations presage political and military realignments, rather as prequakes forewarn of full-fledged earthquakes. Thus, at the beginning of the twentieth century, physical theories, such as Relativity and Quantum Mechanics reflected a gathering political and military storm in an increasingly uncertain and kaleidoscopic world. Or ...

(II) Scientific and technological innovations cause political and military realignments

Still, many technologies - from the GPS to the Internet and from antibiotics to plastics - were hatched in state-owned laboratories and numerous scientific advances were spurred on and financed by the military-industrial complex. Science and technology in the 20th century seem to be the brainchildren, not the progenitors of the political and martial establishments.

It seems, therefore, that Scientific and technological innovations move in tandem with political and military realignments. Instability, competition, and conflict are the principles that underlie our political philosophy (liberal democracy), economic worldview (Darwinian capitalism), and personal conduct within our anomic societies. It would have been shocking had they failed to permeate our science and technology as well. As people change one dimension of their environment (let's say, their political system), all other parameters are instantaneously affected as well. Science, technology, politics, and warfare resonate and influence each other all the time. Hence the aforementioned synchronicity.

But, what are the transmission mechanisms between science-technology and politics-military? How is a tremor in one sphere communicated to the other?

First, we must distinguish between primary and consumer technologies.

Primary technologies are purely military, industrial, commercial, and large-scale. As primary technologies mature, they are invariably converted into consumer technologies. Primary technologies are disempowering, inaccessible, societal (cater to the needs of the society in which they were developed and within which they are deployed), concentrated in the hands of the few, self-contained, focused (goal-oriented), and largely localized (aim to function and yield results locally).

Consumer technologies are the exact obverse of their primary counterparts: by design, they empower the user, are ubiquitous, cater to the needs of individuals, are distributed and redundant, collaborative, emphasize multitasking, and are global.

Science and technology interact with politics and the military along two pathways:

(I) Established structures are rarely undermined by the mere invention or even deployment of a new technology. It is the shift from primary technology to consumer technology that rattles them. Primary technologies are used by interest groups and power centers to preserve their monopoly of resources and the decision-making processes that determine their allocation. Primary technologies are always in favor of the existing order and are, therefore, conservative. In contrast, consumer technologies grant erstwhile outsiders access to these cherished commodities. Consumer technologies are, therefore, by definition, radical and transformative.

(II) But, the masses are not always content to await their turn while the elites reap the considerable rewards of their first mover status and old-boy-network clubbish advantages. Sometimes the mob demands instant use, or even control of primary technologies. Such revolutionary spasms "compress" historical processes and render primary technologies consumer technologies by dint of the mob's ability to access and manipulate them.

If so, how come we have known periods of tranquility, prosperity, and flourishing of the arts and sciences? Why hasn't history been reduced to a semipternal dogfight between haves and haves not?

The answer is: the mitigating effects of consumer technologies.

Whichever the pathway, once consumer technology is widespread, it becomes a conservative and stabilizing force. Consumers in possession of (often expensive) consumer technologies have a vested interest in the established order: property rights, personal safety, the proper functioning of institutions and producers, and so on.

Consumers wish to guarantee their access to future generations of consumer technologies as well as their unfettered ability to enjoy and make use of the current crop of gadgets and knowledge. To do so, leisure time and wealth formation and accumulation are prerequisites. Both are impossible in a chaotic society. Consumers are "tamed", "domesticated", and "pacified" by their ownership of the very technologies that they had fought to obtain.

Similarly, developers, creators, inventors, and investors require a peaceful, predictable, just, fair, and functional environment to continue to churn out technological innovations. Consumers are aware of that. While inclined to "free rider" behavior in the "Commons", most consumers are willing to trade hard cash and personal freedom for the future availability of their favorite toys and content.

Consumer then form an alliance with all other stakeholders in society to guarantee a prolonged period of status quo. Such intermezzos last centuries until, somehow, the deficiencies and imperfections of the system lead to its eventual breakdown and to the eruption of new ideas, new disruptive technologies,  creative destruction, and political and military challenges as new players enter the scene and old ones refuse to exit without a fight.

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