Political Economy in Mumford’s “Technics & Civilization”


I’ve written about the media ecology tradition, attended the Media Ecology Association’s conferences and had an article published in their journal, but up to now Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media and Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death are the only primary texts associated with the tradition that I’ve read. To broaden my knowledge of the tradition I’m reading some of the books considered foundational in the media ecology canon, beginning with Lewis Mumford’s Technics & Civilization. I paid special attention to Mumford’s references to capitalism in Technics & Civilization because I have an abiding interest in the marriage of critical/Marxian analysis and media ecological perspectives. One of the most common criticisms of McLuhan’s writings on media is the charge of technological determinism, and that McLuhan’s media theory focuses on wide-reaching social and psychological effects while ignoring the historical, political, and economic factors involved in the development and dissemination of technologies. Although this is a valid criticism, as McLuhan’s approach did not emphasize the political economy of media, a number of scholars have re-evaluated McLuhan and other media ecologists to identify parallels in their work with critical theory and the Marxian critique of capitalism. The same criticisms cannot be legitimately levied against Mumford, whose account of successive technological complexes demonstrates careful consideration of the historical, political, and economic situations in which these complexes developed. Technics & Civilization makes clear that a media ecology perspective can incorporate a pronounced political orientation and an analysis of political economy.

Reading through Mumford’s account of the phases of technological complexes, I noted how the capitalist mode of economics is heavily dependent on technology. The interdependence seemed so crucial to both that it almost seemed that the history of capitalism is the history of technological development. Though Mumford does distinguish technics and capitalism as separate but interrelated forces. In the conclusion of the final chapter, “Orientation,” Mumford writes “we have advanced as far as seems possible in considering mechanical civilization as an isolated system” (p. 434). Technics & Civilization was first published in 1934; a contemporary reader will likely extend Mumford’s analysis to account for the last 80 years of technological progress, particularly in consideration of the information and telecommunications revolutions (an editorial note before the main text states that Mumford “would have loved” the Internet). Such an extension must account for the associated developments in capitalism. Scholars have used terms like “hypercapitalism” and “network and informational capitalism” to describe the new outlets of capital accumulation made possible by the global telecommunications infrastructure. Mumford wrote that “we are now entering a phase of dissociation between capitalism and technics” (p. 366), due in part to the over-working of “the machine”. Hypercapitalism has seen new forms of over-exploitation, and the continued commodification of intangibles such as information and attention, calling into question the dissociation of capitalism and technics. Mumford’s warning of the capitalist threat to physical resources, however, remains pertinent today.

The attention Mumford gives to the psychological effects of technics is a fascinating component of his analysis that prefigures McLuhan’s observations on technology as extensions of the human organism. The introduction of introspection and self-reflection instigated by the mirror’s effect on the individual ego; the metamorphosis of thought from flowing and organic to verbal and categorical brought on by print and paper; the shift from self-examination to self-exposure ushered in by the introduction of cameras; these are just some of the examples cited by Mumford to establish that the technological complexes built up from every individual innovation are not constrained to the obvious external manifestations but involve dramatic internal changes as well. In fact, the psychological and material transformations are not distinct processes, but are necessarily interlinked, two sides of the same coin.


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