Relationship Between Man and Machine in Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization
Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization is both a chronicle and a critique of
the development of technology alongside society. Mumford sees the development of
modern technology as having occurred in three distinct phases—greatly oversimplifying,
one could say that the phases represent the shift from “wood and water” to “coal and
iron” and finally to “alloy and electricity”. The work is also intensely concerned with the relationship between war and technology. Though the book was written in 1934, its
insights transcend the decades and are surprisingly applicable today.
An issue concerning us right now, Mumford talks at length about the influences of
war on technological advancement, in fact, "at every stage in its modern development it
was war rather than industry and trade that showed in complete outline the main
features that characterize the machine."  We may be inclined to say that warfare,
rather than necessity, is the mother of invention. The large majority of new discoveries
and inventions aren't discovered by quirky inventors in their basement labs. Instead, we
have research and development teams working in large corporations with grants from
the US Military. It is somewhat unsettling to think that many of our brightest minds are
hired to further their fields under the watchful direction of our military.
Of course, many inventions developed by the military make their way into civilian
life arguably completely separated from its intended martial use. The most obvious
example comes from ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency); the Internet. The
Department of Defense was very interested in developing a way for computers to
communicate with each other so that they could have command and control over
information during wartime.  The wide and varying effects of the Internet on our
society are still to be seen, and history will probably tell us that it is a great boon to us; bringing many people together, making the world smaller. However, it should give us pause, especially since half of us, as computer scientists, will be working for the military in some shape or form. We live in a country where much the creative forces are driven, ultimately, by violent goals. How would things be different if projects were funded with world peace as the end objective?
After giving broad insights about how technology has affected society in general,
the author begins tracing its roots by cataloguing them into approximate phases.
Mumford calls the first stage in the development of modern technics the
“eotechnic phase”. This phase refers to the state of technology generally between 1000-
1750 AD, although this first phase peaked in the United States around 1850. The
eotechnic was the “water and wood” phase—water as its source of power, and wood the
materials it was built on.
Mumford begins with this phase...