Technics & Civilization

Both Lewis Mumford’s Technics & Civilization and Langdon Winner’s Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought discuss what technology is and how it affects society, giving a critical background to the history of technology or critical thoughts on the future of technology.

Mumford gives a history of technology as it relates to society. He gives three phases in the history of technology – eotechnic, paleotechnic, and neotechnic. The eotechnic phase started in roughly 1000 B.C.E. and went through 1800 C.E.[1] This phase is marked by an effort to bring order and power through purely external means, and materials used in this period (such as wood) were just barely removed from their environment. The biggest technological achievement in this period was the invention of the clock to maintain orderly movements in monasteries. The paleotechnic phase (from about 1800 C.E. to roughly 1900) was barbaric, with advances in mining that led to iron (which is more removed from its environment than metals past) becoming a heavily used material. Labor became a commodity and people were hell-bent on solving specific problems. The neotechnic phase is the newest phase, with abstractions in the way people think as well as the materials they used. Mumford states that the neotechnic phase moves in a direction opposite from the other periods. Mumford writes that “before the new industrial processes could take hold on a great scale, a reorientation of wishes, habits, and goals was necessary” (Mumford, 3). He explores how military institutions pushes along both technological development and capitalism; militaries are always thirsty for new ways to get blood and they always have a market for standardized production, even in bleak economic times. Mumford also writes that the blind faith in technology has been shaken, as “the instruments of destruction…have become…a standing threat to an organized society” (Mumford, 366), which was quite poignant considering his place in history – between the world wars.

In Autonomous Technology, Langdon Winner gives some definitions of things he doesn’t think are technology per se but are certainly related. An apparatus includes tools, instruments, appliances, weapons, and gadgets; these are physical tools of technical performance. An example would be a tire balancing machine. A technique is a whole body of technical activities, such as balancing a tire. An organization includes all varieties of technical social arrangements. This could include the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, which certifies automotive technicians. Winner does not give a definition for technology, but does give one for autonomous technology: technology that has gotten out of control and follows its own course. Stories of human creations coming to life and becoming autonomous have been popular for eons, as Professor Winner wrote in a recent blog post (2017), which included a list of stories that included Pygmalian and Galatea, Frankenstein, the Golem, and Yan Shi. These stories, which also include Pinocchio, are often used as bedtime stories for children, which means that they have most likely pervaded society as a whole. Winner argues that humans have a choice between authoritarian megatechnics and democratic polytechnics in the future of technology. He gives four proposals to make plans for a better technological future without dismantling technology altogether (Winner, 1980, 326-327):

  1. Begin a search for new technological forms.
  2. The development of these forms should include the direct participation of those who will use the technology every day.
  3. Technologies should be understandable to nonexperts; they should be flexible and mutable[2].
  4. We should only apply technology when it is appropriate.

When reading these two books, three things in particular were interesting, including time as a social construct, fractals and self-organization in nature, and machines in opportunistic hands. Mumford writes that clocks were devised as a way to get monks to coordinate their movements, and that this became the mechanism through which life became regimented. The perception of time in this way is uniquely human. The social construction of time can be found pretty much everywhere. An obvious example is daylight savings time; we change the time of day because the way we measure it is just a little off and we need more sunlight. Different cultures have different calendars; some are lunar-based, some are solar-based, and some are both. Each calendar starts on a different day than all the others. Different cultures even start the day at different times – sometimes days start at sundown and go to the next sundown, sometimes days start at sunrise and end at the next sunrise, sometimes there’s an arbitrary ‘midnight.’

In his conclusion, Mumford writes that we have begun to complicate the mechanical world to make it more organic. This is interesting, as nature is certainly more efficient than human-made industry. In nature, certain fractal structures and complex systems are very efficient at what they do[3], which could be due to – among other things – self-organization or fractals. The self-organization of ants allows them to quickly and efficiently complete tasks as a colony, and some scientists have been trying to replicate self-organization in tiny robot colonies[4], which I maintain is a very bad idea. Fractals are very common in nature, and are good as dispersion or absorption systems. Fractals are very good at absorbing stuff that gets thrown at them, such as oxygen or water; the structure of the branches in lungs are fractal and beaches are fractal to absorb the force of waves as they come to shore. Rivers spread out in fractals to maximize irrigation and cardiovascular systems do the same, just with blood. Using fractals and self-organization in technological design could lead to technology that is more efficient, but could also bring us closer to autonomous technology that has run amok – which is why I maintain that self-organized robot armies is a very, very bad idea.

In the first chapter, Winner mentions that Albert Speer, a Nazi, said that technology amplified the violence of the Nazi regime (Winner, 1980, 15)[5]. Speer’s comment, along with the comment that “the modern self-image rests on an insidious myth that man is essentially a tool-making animal” got me thinking about how technology can be used as a tool; a hammer acts as a force-multiplier that squeezes lots of force into a small area. The line between weapon and tool is blurry, which could be due to the ties between capitalism and the military, but I won’t get into that. Pretty much anything can be turned into a weapon in opportunistic hands. A hammer can easily become a skull-crushing blunt force weapon as it is a force multiplier and most people already know how to use it; any old stick or rod can become a staff or a spear for more skull-crushing; even pencils can become very thin daggers that can easily puncture soft tissue (John Wick, anyone?). Umbrellas, textbooks, cell phones, socks, scarves, keys, and many other things can easily become weapons with absolutely no modification[6]. Given that tools can easily become weapons and that everyday objects can become weapons, it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to see how technology could become a weapon or start out as one. In the past, we have discussed how many technologies have started out as military technology, such as microwaves. Technology can be used as a tool/weapon in opportunistic hands – such as quantum physics being used to devastate a country with a nuclear bomb.



Mumford, L. (2010). Technics & Civilization. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press

Winner, L. (1980). Autonomous technology: technics-out-of-control as a theme in political thought. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Pr.

Winner, L. (2017, July 07). Frankenstein: Giving Voice to the Monster. Retrieved October 03, 2017, from

[1] I use B.C.E. and C.E. instead of A.D. mostly so I know what’s going on – I never remember what A.D. means and B.C.E. is just better.

[2] I wholeheartedly agree with this proposal in particular.

[3] Professor Eglash teaches a course that talks about this.


[5] Winner noted that this is not a valid defense.

[6] I can give explanations for all of these if asked.