Should the human body shape technological innovation or should technology shape the human body? Theorist Lewis Mumford wrote extensively on this question in the early to mid-20th century. In this short post I’d like to very briefly explore Mumford’s thinking, focusing in particular on his piece Tool-Users vs. Homo Sapiens and the Megamachine.
Lewis Mumford: Basic Ideas
Lewis Mumford was a multi-disciplianry 20th century thinker with a large body of work concerning the effects of technology on humans. In Tool-Users vs. Homo Sapiens and the Megamachine, Mumford introduces the theory of organic humanism or the idea that automatization and mechanization must take human organic limitations into consideration. Mumford contends that totalitarianism is the result of technologically-advanced societies that fail in this respect.
The following quote from Tool-Users provide an intriguing appetizer to this theory:
..only when play and work form part of an organic cultural whole, as in Tolstoy’s picture of the mowers in Anna Karenina, can the many-sided requirements for full human growth be satisfied. Without serious responsible work, man progressively loses his grip on reality. Instead of liberation from work being the chief contribution of mechanization and automation, I would suggest that liberation for work, for more educative, mind-forming, self-rewarding work, on a voluntary basis, may become the most salutary contribution of a life-centered technology (p. 351).
Thus, Mumford is not anti-technology but is rather pro-life centered technology. In other words, Mumford believes that the goals of technological progression should align with the physical and emotional needs of humans.
Grigoriy Myasoyedov: Busy Time for the Mowers (1887)
So what effect does this type of discourse have on higher ed? Two avenues to explore are 1) creating more satisfying, humane degrees, programs, and courses for students and 2) creating more fulfilling work experiences for faculty, staff, and administrators. You can explore other authors’ thoughts on the megamachine and other Mumfordian concepts in these GSU library articles:
- The Critical Theory of Lewis Mumford
- Beyond the “Pragmatic Acquiescence” Controversy: Reconciling the Educational Thought of Lewis Mumford and John Dewey
- A Forefather of Environmentalism — Lewis Mumford, the Critic of Technology and Civilization
Questions for Consideration
- Do we always want to take human limitations into consideration? Or can humans be enhanced by technological tools and processes in a way that is “life-centered”?
- Mumford was writing at a time when the automatization of production was negatively influencing the lives of workers. Can we apply his thinking to our current technological culture of automatized leisure? For instance, can we identify Snapchat as a tool that is “life-centered” or “life-denying”?
- Mumford’s thinking seems dichotomous and follows a developmental trajectory. Is the story here actually more complicated? For instance, can any one mechanized/automatized technology be both simultaneously enriching and impoverishing?