Reading Excerpt: Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine

 (My apologizes for hastily posting this a few days ago, I have only now gone through and proof-read it and corrected a few minor errors, again this is the ONLY complete first chapter of Mumford's work, let alone any chapter, on the internet at present and I had to manually reproduce it, word for word. The only issue I have with the work is that the true historical origins and actual technical prowess of pre-dyanstic Egypt is up for re-evaluation in light of the discovery of the Piri Reis map (among a few other pre-industrial maps depicting an ice free Antarctica) and the cogent formulation of an unorthodox theory by Graham Hancock which is summarized in an earlier blog post here) I really enjoyed reading this chapter a second time through and the chapters that follow are equally stimulating, I highly recommend "The Myth of the Machine" by Lewis Mumford. Enjoy.)

Chapter One


Ritual, art, poesy (sic), drama, music, dance, philosophy, science, myth, religion are all as essential to man as his daily bread: man's true life consists not alone in the work activities that directly sustain him, but in the symbolic activities which give significance both to the processes of work and their ultimate products and consummations.


The last century, we all realize, has witnessed a radical transformation in the entire human environment, largely as a result of the impact of the mathematical and physical sciences upon technology. This shift from an empirical, tradition-bound technics to an experimental mode has opened up such new realms as those of nuclear energy, supersonic transportation, cybernetic intelligence and instantaneous distant communication. Never since the Pyramid Age have such vast physical changes been consummated in so short a time. All these changes have, in turn, produced alterations in the human personality, while still more radical transformations, if this process continue unabated and uncorrected, loom ahead.

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 strictily limited and controlled for the benefit of de-personalized, collective organizations.

My purpose in this book is to question both the assumptions and the predictions upon which our commitment to the present forms of technical and scientific progress, treated as if ends in themselves, has been based. I shall bring forward evidence that casts doubts upon the current theories of man's basic nature which over-rate the part that tools once played--and machines now play--in human development. I shall suggest that not only was Karl Marx in error in giving the material instruments of production the central place and directive function in human development, but that even the seemingly benign interpretation of Teilhard de Chardin reads back into the the whole story of man the narrow technological rationalism of our own age, and projects into the future a final state in which all the possibilities of human development would come to an end. At that "omega-point" ["Singularity" in Kurzweilian terms] 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. Yet that insight has been blurred during the last century because it has been conditioned by a social environment in which a mass of new mechanical inventions had suddenly proliferated, sweeping away ancient processes and institutions, and altering the traditional conception of both human limitations and technical possibilities.

Our predecessors mistakenly coupled their particular mode of mechanical progress with an unjustifiable sense of increasing moral superiority. But our own contemporaries, who have reason to reject this smug Victorian belief in the inevitable improvement of all other human institutions through command of the machine, nevertheless concentrate, with manic fervor, upon the continued expansion of science and technology, as if they alone magically would provide the only means of human salvation. Since our present over-commitment to technics is in part due to a radical misinterpretation of the whole course of human development, the first step toward recovering our balance is to bring under review the main stages of man's emergence from its primal beginnings onward.

Just because man's need for tools is so obvious, we must guard ourselves against over-stressing the role of stone tools hundreds of thousands of years before they became functionally differentiated and efficient. In treating tool-making as central to early man's survival, biologists and anthropologists for long underplayed, or neglected, a mass of activities in which many other species were for long more knowledgeable than man. Despite the contrary evidence put forward by R. U. Sayce, Daryll, Forde, and Andre Leroi-Gourhan, there is still a tendency to identify tools and machines with technology: to substitute the part for the whole.

Even in describing only the material components of technics, this practice overlooks the equally vital role of containers: first hearths, pits, traps, cordage; later, baskets, bins, byres, houses, to say nothing of still later collective containers like reservoirs, canals, cities. These static components play an important part in every technology, not least in our own day, with its high-tension transformers, its giant chemical retorts, its atomic reactors.

In any adequate definition of technics, it should be plain that many insects, birds, and mammals had made far more radical innovations in the fabrication of containers, with their intricate nests and bowers, their geometric beehives, their urbanoid anthills and termitaries, their beaver lodges, than man's ancestors had achieved in the making of tools until the emergence of Homo Sapiens. In short, if technical proficiency alone were sufficient to identify and foster intelligence, man was for long a laggard, compared with many other species. The consequences of this perception should be plain: namely, that there was nothing uniquely human in tool-making until it was modified by linguistic symbols, aesthetic designs, and socially transmitted knowledge. At that point, the human brain, not just the hand, was what made a profound difference; and that brain could not possibly have been just a hand-made product,  since it was already well developed in four-footed creatures like rats, which have no free-fingered hands.

More than a century ago Thomas Carlyle described man as a "tool-using animal", as if this were the one trait that elevated him above rest of brute creation. This overweighting of tools, weapons, physical apparatus, and machines has obscured the actual path of human development. the definition of man as a tool-using animal, even when corrected to read "tool-making", would have seemed strange to Plato, who attributed man's emergence from a primitive state as much to Marsyas and Orpheus, the makers of music, as to fire-stealing Prometheus, or Hephaestus [the Greek version of the Roman god Vulcan], the blacksmith-god, the sole manual worker in the Olympic pantheon.

Yet the description of man as essentially a tool-making animal has become so firmly embedded that the mere finding of the fragments of little primate skulls in the neighborhood of chipped pebbles, as with the Australopithecines of Africa, was deemed sufficient  by their finder, Dr. L. S. B. Leakey, to identify the creature as in the direct line of human ascent, despite marked physical divergence from both apes and later men. Since Leaky's sub-hominids had a brain capacity about a third of Homo Sapiens--less indeed than some apes--the ability to chip and use crude stone tools plainly neither called for nor by itself generated man's rich cerebral equipment.

If the Austrolopithecines lacked the beginning of other characteristics, their possession of tools would only prove that at least one other species outside the true genus Homo boasted this trait, just as parrots and magpies share the distinctly human achievement of speech, and the bower bird that for colorful decorative embellishment. No single trait, not even tool-making, is sufficient to identify man. What is specially and uniquely human is man's capacity to combine a wide variety of animal propensities into an emergent cultural entity: a human personality.

If the exact functional equivalence of tool-making with utensil-making had been appreciated by earlier investigators, it would have been plain that there was nothing notable about man's hand-made stone artifacts until far along in his development. Even a distant relative of man, the gorilla, puts together a nest of leaves for comfort in sleeping, and will throw a bridge of great fern stalks across a shallow stream, presumably to keep from wetting or scarping his feet. Five-year-old children, who can talk and read and reason, show little aptitude in using tools and still less in making them: so if tool-making were what counted, they could not yet be identified as human.

In early man we have reason to suspect the same kind of facility and the same ineptitude. When we seek for proof of man's genuine superiority to his fellow creatures, we should do well to look for a different kind of evidence than his poor stone tools alone; or rather, we should ask ourselves what activities preoccupied him during those countless years when with the same materials and the same muscular movements he later used so skillfully he might have fashioned better tools.

The answer to this question I shall spell out in detail in the first few chapters; but I shall briefly anticipate the conclusion by saying that there was nothing specifically human in primitive technics, apart from the use and preservation of fire, until man had reconstituted his own physical organs by employing them for functions and purposes quite different from those they had originally served. Probably the first major displacement was the transformation of the quadruped's fore-limbs from specialized organs of locomotion to all-purpose tools for climbing, grasping, striking, tearing, pounding, digging, holding. Early man's hands and pebble tools played a significant part in his development, mainly because as Dr. Brul has pointed out, they facilitated the preparatory functions of picking, carrying, and macerating food, and thus liberated the mouth for speech.

If man was indeed a tool-maker, he possessed at the beginning one primary, all-purpose tool, more important than any later assemblage: his own mind-activated body, every part of it, including those members that made clubs, hand-axes or wooden spears. To compensate for his extremely primitive working gear, early man had a much more important asset that extended his whole technical horizon: he had a far richer biological equipment than any other animal, a body not specialized for any single activity, and a brain capable of scanning a wider environment and holding all the different parts of his experience together. Precisely because of his extraordinary plasticity and sensitivity, he was able to use a larger portion of both his external environment and his internal, psychosomatic resources.

Through man's overdeveloped and incessantly active brain, he had more mental energy to tap than he needed for survival at a purely animal level; and he was accordingly under the necessity of canalizing that energy, not just into food-getting and sexual reproduction, but into modes of living that would convert this energy more directly and constructively into appropriate cultural--that is, symbolic--forms. Only by creating cultural outlets could he tap and control and fully utilize his own nature.

Cultural 'work' by necessity took precedence over manual work. These new activities involved far more than the discipline of hand, muscle and eye in making and using tools, greatly though they aided man: they likewise demanded a control over all man's natural functions, including his organs of excretion, his upsurging emotions, his promiscuous sexual activities, his tormenting and tempting dreams.

With man's persistent exploration of his own organic capabilities, nose, eyes, ears, lips, and sexual organs were given new roles to play. Even the hand was no mere horny specialized work-tool: it stroked a lover's body, held a baby close to the breast, made significant gestures, or expressed in shared ritual and ordered dance some otherwise inexpressible sentiment about life or death, a remembered past, or an anxious future. Tool-technics, in fact, is but a fragment of bio-technics: man's total equipment for life.

This gift of free neural energy already showed itself in mans primate ancestors. Dr. Allison Jolly has recently shown that brain growth in lemurs derived from their athletic playfulness, their mutual grooming, and their enhanced sociability, rather than from tool-using or food-getting habits; while man's exploratory curiosity, his imitativeness, and his idle manipulativeness, with no thought of ulterior reward, were already visible in his simian relatives. In American usage, 'monkey-shines' and 'monkeying' are popular indentifications of that playfulness and non-utilitarian handling of objects. I shall show that there is even reason to ask whether the standardized patterns observable in early tool making are not in part derivable from the strictly repetitive motions of ritual, song and dance, forms that have long existed in a state of perfection among primitive peoples usually in far more finished style than their tools.

Only a little while ago the Dutch historian, J. Huizinga, in 'Homo Ludens' brought forth a mass of evidence to suggest that play, rather than work, was the formative element in human culture: that man's most serious activity belonged to the realm of make-believe. On this showing, ritual and mimesis, sports and games and dramas, released man from his insistent animal attachments; and nothing could demonstrate this better, I would add, than those primitive ceremonies in which he played at being another kind of animal. Long before he had achieved the power to transform the natural environment, man had created a miniature environment, the symbolic field of play, in which every function of life might be re-fashioned in a strictly human style, as in a game.

So startling was the thesis of 'Homo Ludens' that his shocked translator deliberately altered Huizinga's express statement, that all culture was a form of play, into the more obvious conventional notion that play is an element in culture. But the notion that man is neither Homos sapiens nor Homo ludens, but above all Homo faber, man the maker, had taken such firm possession of present-day Western thinkers that even Henri Bergson held it. So certain were nineteenth-century archaeologists about the primacy of stone tools and weapons in the 'struggle for existence' that when first paleolithic cave paintings were discovered in Spain in 1879, they were denounced, out of hand, as an outrageous hoax, by 'competent authorities' on the ground that Ice Age hunters could not have had the leisure or the mind to produce the elegant art of Altamira.

But mind was exactly what Homo sapiens possessed in a singular degree: mind based on the fullest use of all his bodily organs, not just his hands. In this revision of obsolete technological stereotypes, I would go even further: for I submit that at every stage man's inventions and transformations were less for the purpose of increasing the food supply or controlling nature than for utilizing his own immense organic resources and expressing his latent potentialities, in order to fulfill more adequately his superorganic demands and aspirations.

When not curbed by hostile environmental pressures, man's elaboration of symbolic culture answered a more imperative need than that for control over the environment--and, one must infer, largely predated it and for long outpaced it. Among sociologists, Leslie White deserves credit for giving due weight to this fact by his emphasis on 'minding' and 'symbolizing', though he has but recovered for the present generation the original insights of the father of anthropology, Edward Taylor.

On this reading, the evolution of language--a culmination of man's more elementary forms of expressing and transmitting meaning--was incomparably more important to further human development than the chipping of a mountain of hand-axes. Besides the relatively simple coordinations required for tool-using, the delicate interplay of the many organs needed for the creation of articulate speech was a far more striking advance. This effort must have occupied a greater part of early man's time, energy, and mental activity, since the ultimate collective product, spoken language, was infinitely more complex and sophisticated at the dawn of civilization than the Egyptian or Mesopotamian kit of tools.

To consider man, then, as primarily a tool-using animal, is to overlook the main chapters of human history. Opposed to this petrified notion, I shall develop the view that man is preeminently 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. The classic Greek term 'tekhne' characteristically makes no distinction between industrial production and 'fine' or symbolic art; and for the greater part of human history these aspects were inseparable, one side respecting the objective conditions and functions, the other responding to subjective needs.

At its point of origin, technics was related to the whole nature of man, and that nature played a part in every aspect of industry: thus technics, at the beginning, was broadly life-centered, not work-centered or power-centered. As in any other ecological complex, varied human interests and purposes, different organic needs, restrained the overgrowth of any single component. Though language was man's most potent symbolic expression, it flowed, I shall attempt to show, from the same common source that finally produced the machine: the primeval repetitive order of ritual, a mode of order man was forced to develop, in self-protection, so as to control the tremendous overcharge of psychical energy that his large brain placed at his disposal. 

So far from disparaging the role of technics, however, I shall rather demonstrate that once this basic internal organization was established, technics supported and enlarged the capacities for human expression. The discipline of tool-making and tool-using served as a timely correction, on this hypothesis, to the inordinate powers of invention that spoken language gave to man--powers that otherwise unduly inflated the ego and tempted man to substitute magical verbal formulae for efficacious work. 

On this interpretation, the specific human achievement, which set man apart from even his nearest anthropoid relatives, was the shaping of a new self, visibly different in appearance, in behavior, and in plan of life from his primitive animal forebears. As this differentiation widened and the number of definitely human 'identification marks' increased, man speeded the process of his own evolution, achieving through culture in a relatively short span of years changes that other species accomplished laboriously through organic processes, whose results, in contrast to man's cultural modes, could not be easily corrected, improved, or effaced. 

Henceforth the main business of man was his own self-transformation, group by group, region by region, culture by culture. This self-transformation not merely rescued man from permanent fixation in his original animal condition, but freed his best-developed organ, his brain, for other tasks than those of ensuring physical survival. The dominant human trait, central to all other traits, is this capacity for conscious, purposeful self-identification, self-transformation, and ultimately for self-understanding. 

Every manifestation of human culture, from ritual and speech to costume and social organization, is directed ultimately to the remodeling of the human organism and the expression of the human personality. It is only now that we belatedly recognize this distinctive feature, it is perhaps because there are widespread indications in contemporary art and politics and technics that man may be on the point of losing it--becoming not a lower animal, but a shapeless, amoeboid non-entity. 

In recasting the stereotyped representations of human development, I have fortunately been able to draw upon a growing body of biological and anthropological evidence, which has not until now been correlated of fully interpreted. Yet I am aware, of course, that despite this substantial support the large themes I am about to develop, and even more their speculative subsidiary hypotheses, may well meet with justifiable skepticism; for they have still to undergo competent critical scrutiny. Need I say that so far from starting with a desire to dispute the prevailing orthodox views, I at first respectfully accepted them, since I knew no others? It was only because I could find no clue to modern man's overwhelming commitment to his technology, even at the expense to his health, his physical safety, his mental balance, and his possible future development, that I was driven to reexamine the nature of man and the whole course of technological change. 

In addition to discovering the aboriginal field of man's inventiveness, not in his making of external tools, but primarily in the re-fashioning of his own bodily organs, I have undertaken to follow another freshly blazed trail: to examining the broad streak of irrationality that runs all through human history, counter to man's sensible, functionally rational animal inheritance. As compared even with other anthropoids, one might refer without irony to man's superior irrationality. Certainly human development exhibits a chronic disposition to error, mischief, disordered fantasy, hallucination, 'original sin' and even socially organized and sanctified misbehavior, such as the practice of human sacrifice and legalized torture. In escaping organic fixations, man forfeited the innate humility and mental stability of less adventurous species. Yet some of his most erratic departures have opened up valuable areas that purely organic evolution, over billions of years, had never explored.

The mischances that followed man's quitting mere animalhood were many but the rewards were great. Man's proneness to mix his fantasies and projections, his desires and designs, his abstractions and his ideologies, with the commonplaces of his daily experience were, we can now see, an important source of his immense creativity. There is no clean dividing line between the irrational and the super-rational; and the handling of these ambivalent gifts has always been a major human problem. One of the reasons that the current utilitarian interpretations of technics and science has been so shallow is that they ignore the fact that this aspect of human culture has been as open to both transcendental aspirations and demonic compulsions as any other part of man's existence--and has never been so open and so vulnerable as today.

The irrational factors that have sometimes constructively prompted, yet too often distorted, man's further development became plain at the moment when the formative elements in paleolithic and neolithic cultures united in the great cultural implosion that took place around the Fourth Millennium B.C.: what is usually called 'the rise of civilization.' The remarkable fact about this transformation technically is that it was the result, not of mechanical inventions, but of a radically new type of social organization: a product of myth, magic, religion, and the nascent science of astronomy. This implosion of sacred political powers and technological facilities cannot be accounted for by any inventory of the tools, the simple machines, and the technical processes then available. Neither the wheeled wagon, the plow, the potter's wheel, nor the military chariot could of themselves have accomplished the mighty transformations that took place in the great valleys of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and India, and eventually passed, in ripples and waves, to other parts of the planet.

The study of the Pyramid Age. I made in preparation for writing 'The City in History' unexpectedly revealed that a close parallel existed between the first authoritarian civilizations in the Near East and our own, though most of our contemporaries still regard modern technics, not only as the highest point in man's intellectual development, but as an entirely new phenomenon. On the contrary, I found that what economists lately termed the Machine Age or the Power Age, had its origin, not in the so-called Industrial Revolution of the Eighteenth Century, but at the very outset in the organization of an archetypal machine composed of human parts.

Two things must be noted about this new mechanism, because they identify it throughout its historic course down to the present. The first is that the organizers of the machine derived their power and authority from a heavenly source. Cosmic order was the basis of this new human order. The exactitude in measurement, the abstract mechanical system, the compulsive regularity of this 'megamachine', as I shall call it, sprang directly from astronomical observations and scientific calculations. This inflexible, predictable order, incorporated later in the calendar, was transferred to the regimentation of the human components. As against earlier forms of ritualized order, this mechanized order was external to man. By a combination of divine command and ruthless military coercion, a large population was made to endure grinding poverty and forced labor at mind-dulling repetitive tasks in order to insure "Life, Prosperity and Health" for the divine or semi-divine ruler and his entourage.

The second point is that the grave social defects of the human machine were partly offset by its superb achievements in flood control and food production, which laid the ground for an enlarged achievement in every area of human culture: in monumental art, in codified law, in systematically pursued and permanently recorded thought, in the augmentation of all the potentialities of the mind by the assemblage of a varied population, with diverse regional and vocational backgrounds in urban ceremonial centers. Such order, such collective security and abundance, such stimulating cultural mixtures were first achieved in Mesopotamia and Egypt, and later in India, China, Persia and the Andean and Mayan cultures: and they were never surpassed until the megamachine was reconstituted in a new form in our own time. Unfortunately these cultural advances were largely offset by equally great social regressions.

Conceptually the instruments of mechanization five thousand years ago were already detached from other human functions and purposes than the constant increase of order, power, predictability, and above all, control. With this proto-scientific ideology went a corresponding regimentation and degradation of once autonomous human activities: 'mass culture' and 'mass control' made their first appearance. With mordant symbolism, the ultimate products of the megamachine in Egypt were colossal tombs, inhabited by mummified corpses; while later in Assyria, as repeatedly in every other expanding empire, the chief testimony to its technical efficiency was a waste of destroyed villages and cities, and poisoned soils: the prototype of similar 'civilized' atrocities today. As for the great Egyptian pyramids, what are they but the precise static equivalents of our own space rockets? Both devices for securing, at an extravagant cost, a passage to Heaven for the favored few.

These colossal miscarriages of a dehumanized power-centered culture monotonously soil the pages of history from the rape of Sumer to the blasting of Warsaw and Rotterdam, Tokyo and Hiroshima. Sooner or later, this analysis suggests, we must have the courage to ask ourselves: Is this association of inordinate power and productivity with equally inordinate violence and destruction a purely accidental one?

In the working out of this parallel and in the tracing of the archetypal machine through later Western history, I found that many obscure irrational manifestations in our own highly mechanized and supposedly rational culture became strangely clarified. For in both cases, immense gains in valuable knowledge and usable productivity were cancelled out by equally great increases in ostentatious waste, paranoid hostility, insensate destructiveness, hideous random extermination.

This survey will bring the reader to the threshold of the modern world: the sixteenth century in Western Europe. Though some of the implications of such a study cannot be fully worked out until the events of the last four centuries are re-examined and re-appraised, much that is necessary for technics will be already apparent, to a sufficiently perceptive mind, from the earliest chapters on. This widened interpretation of the past is a necessary move toward escaping the dire insufficiencies of current one-generation knowledge. If we do not take the time to review the past we shall not have sufficient insight to understand the present or command the future: for the past never leaves us, and the future is already here.

The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development 

The Myth of the Machine: The Pentagon of Power


  1. this is my blog about lewis mumford, in spanish

  2. Alvin, thank-you for your work in trying to help us all wake up to this nightmare. I wish I could speak Spanish so that I could understand your blog but I know that you are a proponent of Mumford's sound philosophy. Take-care my brother.


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