Lewis Mumford (October 19, 1895 -January 26, 1990) was an American historian of technology (to which Mumford referred as technics) and science, also noted for his study of cities. Mumford was influenced by the work of Scottish theorist Sir Patrick Geddes.
Mumford was also a contemporary and friend of Fred Osborne and Vannevar Bush.
Mumford was born in Flushing, New York, and studied at Stuyvesant High School, the City College of New York and the New School for Social Research, yet never earned a degree. In 1919 he became associate editor of the Dial and wrote architectural criticisms, as well as commentating on urban issues.
His early writings established him as an authority in US architecture and urban life, which he interpreted in a social context.
Mumford was involved in numerous research positions and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964. In 1943 Mumford was decorated Knight of the British Empire.
Mumford died at his home in Amenia (CDP), New York.
In the Myth of the Machine , Mumford criticizes the modern trend of technology, which emphasizes constant expansion, production, and replacement. He explains that these goals work against the goals of consumers, who seek technical perfection, durability, social efficiency, and overall human satisfaction. Modern technology—which he calls 'megatechnics'—circumvents producing lasting, quality products by using devices such as consumer credit, installment buying, non-functioning and defective designs, built-in fragility, and frequent changes in the name of fashion. “Without constant enticement by advertising,” he explains, “production would slow down and level off to normal replacement demand. Otherwise many products could reach a plateau of efficient design which would call for only minimal changes from year to year.”
He uses his own refrigerator as an example, explaining that it “has been in service for nineteen years, with only a single minor repair: an admirable job. Both automatic refrigerators for daily use and deepfreeze preservation are inventions of permanent value. Though one cannot bestow any such unqualified upon the design of the contemporary motor car, one can hardly doubt that if biotechnic criteria were heeded, rather than those of market analysts and fashion experts, an equally good product might come forth from Detroit, with an equally long prospect of continued use.”
Mumford describes an organic model of technology, or biotechnics, as a contrast to megatechnics. Organic systems direct themselves to "qualitative richness, amplitude, spaciousness, and freedom from quantitative pressures and crowding. Self-regulation, self-correction, and self-propulsion are as much an integral property of organisms as nutrition, reproduction, growth, and repair." Biotechnics models life in seeking balance, wholeness, and completeness.
Polytechnics versus Monotechnics
A key idea, introduced in his best-known work Technics and Civilization (1934) was that technology was twofold:
- Polytechnic, which enlists many different modes of technology, providing a complex framework to solve human problems.
- Monotechnic which is technology only for its own sake, which oppresses humanity as it moves along its own trajectory.
Mumford commonly criticized modern American transportation networks as being 'monotechnic' in their reliance on cars. Automobiles become obstacles for other modes of transportation, such as walking, bicycle and lightrail, because the roads they use consume so much space and are such a danger to people. Mumford also describes the thousands of maimed and dead each year as a being part of a "ritual sacrifice" which our society makes to the extreme reliance it has chosen.
Mumford also discusses large hierarchical organizations in terms of the megamachine, a machine using humans as its components. The buildings of the Pyramids, the Roman Empire and the armies of the world wars are examples of such machines.
Mumford divides human civilization into three distinct epochs:
In his earlier writings, Mumford was optimistic about human abilities, and wrote that the human race would use electricity and mass communication to build a better world for all humankind. He would later take a more pessimistic stance.
One of the more well-known studies of Mumford is of the way the clock was created by monks in the middle ages and subsequently adopted by the rest of society. He viewed this device as the key invention of the whole industrial revolution, writing: "The clock is a piece of machinery whose 'product' is seconds and minutes."
In his influential book The City in History , Mumford explores the development of urban civilizations. Harshly critical of urban sprawl, Mumford argues that the structure of modern cities is partially responsible for many social problems seen in western society. While pessimistic in tone, Mumford argues that urban planning should emphasize an organic relationship between people and their living spaces.
Mumford's interest in the history of technology and his explanation of "polytechnics," along with his general philosophical bent, has been an important influence on a number of more recent thinkers concerned that technology serve human beings as broadly and well as possible. Some of these authors - such as Jacques Ellul, Witold Rybczynski, Amory Lovins, J. Baldwin, E.F. Schumacher - have been both intellectuals and persons directly involved with technological development and decisions about the use of technology.
Sticks and Stones (1924)
The Golden Day (1926)
The Brown Decades: A Study of the Arts in America, 1865-1895 (1931)
- "Renewal of Life" series
Technics and Civilization (1934)
The Culture of Cities (1938)
The Condition of Man (1944)
The Conduct of Life (1951)
The City in History (1961) often considered his most important work
The Myth of the Machine (1967 - 1970, 2 volumes)
The Urban Prospect (1968, essay collection)
My Work and Days: A Personal Chronicle (1979)
- Donald Miller , Lewis Mumford: A Life (New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson , 1989)
Last updated: 08-17-2005 06:36:46