The development of modern technology is often considered a function of several Industrial Revolutions and innovations. The work of Lewis Mumford criticizes this idea of technology as a collection of devices and instruments, and provides a different framework to understand the drivers of technological revolutions. Instead, he describes technology from a different perspective and uses different, non-technical criteria to distinguish between ‘technological era’s’.
- Distributed ledgers technologies, like the Blockchain, are gaining momentum.
- Cryptocurrencies are booming
- Newly installed renewable energy capacity increased at a record pace in 2016, led by solar (47% of total additions), wind (34%), and hydropower (15.5%). Besides disrupting the fossil fuel market, it will also disrupt energy-dependent markets, for example the car market.
- Annual AI revenues will explode in the coming years: from $1.38 billion to almost $60 billion in 2025.
- Automation and digitalization changes the role of the worker in the production process and requires another set of skills.
The core message of Lewis Mumford’s book Technics and Civilization is that technological development is always the result of the interplay between the inner and outer world of man: “Man internalizes his external world and externalizes his internal world.” His book shows therefore that technological development cannot be understood as the result of technological innovations as such, but as an embedded process within a whole range of philosophical, religious, social, cultural, and political developments. For example, the social regimentation of the medieval monastery and their strict division of prayer time led to the need for time measuring devices, like clocks, while improvements in glassmaking helped to “put the world in a frame” and created the idea of the modern “ego”, both crucial for the scientific and Industrial Revolution.
Whereas in the first three phases, technology was in constant interaction with man and his world, in this last phase man and technics might be decoupled, making this the “autotechnic complex”.
Mumford divides the development of technology into three phases: the eotechnic (AD 1000-1700), paleotechnic (1700-1900), and neotechnic phase (starting in the 1930s). These phases are defined by a “technological complex”: a coherence between the resources are used in the production process, the paradigmatic place of economic activity and the type of worker that was required. The eotechnic complex uses water and wood as primary resources for the farm and guild, and eotechnic innovations extended the capabilities of the “skilled craftsman” who produced economic value. The paleotechnic complex was founded upon coal and iron, through the mine and factory. These were centralized places of economic activity, where the worker became “deskilled”, specialized, and subordinated to the modern machine. Paleotechnic innovations were characterized by a strive for more efficiency and reducing the human factor in the production process, as “logic of the machine” prevailed. The neotechnic phase was unfolding when Mumford wrote his book (1934), but he saw its omens in the development of electricity, better communication means, and the increasing aversion against technological domination.
Central in Mumford’s argument is the tension between organic/human and technical values: in the eotechnic phase, organic values dominated technical values and technology was used by man. In the paleotechnic phase, technics prevails over man. In the neotechnic phase, we witness a synthesis: man must assimilate the machine by reinstalling vital and organic values in the world using technology. We can see this idea in the rise of yoga and meditation, the “hyper experience economy”, ecological consumption and local production. Furthermore, the rise of modern ICT and the “white collar worker” since the 1950s, point to neotechnic elements. Avatar (2009) and Wall-E (2008) are typical “neotechnic movies”, showing what happens when technical values trump organic ones.
But perhaps we are currently witnessing the dawn of a new technological phase, one Mumford didn’t foresee or predicted, heralded by the advent of renewable energy sources, decentralized economic models, distribution mechanisms (Blockchain), and “new” money (cryptocurrencies). Furthermore, AI will radically transform, and digitalization increasingly reduce, the human factor in the production process (like in the Fourth Industrial Revolution): the idea of a (almost) fully automated production process. Whereas in the first three phases, technology was in constant interaction with man and his world, in this last phase man and technics might be decoupled, making this the “autotechnic complex”. Using Mumford’s own example of the pen: moving from the goose-quill (eotechnic), to the steel pen (paleotechnic), and the fountain pen (neotechnic), in the autotechnic phase we no longer need a pen as AI and computers do the writing for us.