Technics and #Occupations

I’ve been quite active in my conversation, sharing, and communication about the Occupy Wall Street movement and its counterparts around the world. As yet, I haven’t really given attention to them here, although I’ve wanted to. It was a difficult task to think of the appropriate, succinct, commentary for this blog, but it occurred to me that the great champion of humanity in the media ecology tradition, Lewis Mumford, would be the best choice. Mumford is often called a technological determinist (as are many in the pantheon of media ecology), but I believe that label is too restrictive and fails to do his position justice. Mumford believed that technology, or rather technics, play an important role in pushing human behavior in one particular direction or another.

Technics comes from the Greek term tekhne, which implies craftsmanship, craft or art and includes the idea of applied knowledge on their behalf. Technology falls under this category in that technology, as we think of it, is simply applied knowledge on behalf of some form of craftsmanship, craft, or art. It’s a physical manifestation of that principle, but we limit our notions of technology to devices and machines, rather than more expansively to techniques, languages, and systems of information. Mumford often illustrates the organization and implementation of human labor to build the pyramids as an example of technics, for example.

In 1963, Mumford produced a speech for the Fund for the Republic Tenth Anniversary Convocation on “Challenges to Democracy in the Next Decade.” That speech was later published in the journal Technology and Culture under the title Authoritarian and Democratic Technics and is available for download via PDF here. I’m going to reproduce the first several paragraphs here, as I think they begin an important conversation about the purpose and importance behind the Occupy Wall Street movement, which is likely as yet unarticulated and perhaps still invisible and intuitive at best.

“Democracy” is a term now confused and sophisticated by indiscriminate use and often treated with patronizing contempt. Can we agree no matter how far we might diverge at a later point, that the spinal principle of democracy is to place what is common to all men above that which any organization, institution, or group may claim for itself? This is not to deny the claims of superior natural endowment, specialized knowledge, technical skill, or institutional organization: all these may, by democratic permission, play a useful role in the human economy. But democracy consists in giving final authority to the whole, rather than the part; and only living human beings, as such, are an authentic expression of the whole, whether acting alone or with the help of others.

Around this central principle clusters a group of related ideas and practices with a long foreground in history, though they are not always present, or present in equal amounts, in all societies. Among these items are communal self-government, free communication as between equals, unimpeded access to the common store of knowledge, protection against arbitrary external controls, and a sense of individual moral responsibility for behavior that affects the whole community. All living organisms are in some degree autonomous, in that they follow a life-pattern of their own; but in man this autonomy is an essential condition for his further development. We surrender some of our autonomy when ill or crippled: but to surrender it every day on every occasion would be to turn life into a chronic illness. The best life possible – and here I am consciously treading on contested ground – is one that calls for an ever greater degree of self-direction, self-expression, and self-realization. In this sense, personality, once the exclusive attribute of kings, belongs on democratic theory to every man. Life itself in its fullness and wholeness cannot be delegated.

In framing this provisional definition I trust that I have not, for the sake of agreement, left out anything important. Democracy, in the primal sense I shall use the term, is necessarily most visible in relatively small communities and groups, whose members meet frequently face to face, interact freely, and are known to each other as persons. As soon as large numbers are involved, democratic association must be supplemented by a more abstract, depersonalized form. Historic experience shows that it is much easier to wipe out democracy by an institutional arrangement that gives authority only to those at the apex of the social hierarchy than it is to incorporate democratic practices into a well-organized system under centralized direction, which achieves the highest degree of mechanical efficiency when those who work it have no mind or purpose of their own.

Mumford is concerned with the notion of technics as a servant to humanity rather than a dominant ideology. The bulk of his writing on technology (and technics) bears that tint and therefore its no surprise he would take the position articulated above. The technic of human association, according to the speech/article, was long subverted on behalf of tyrants and kings to build their pyramids, fill their coffers, and maintain their empires. The authoritarian nature of such technics began to wane at the advent of technics and perspectives that “enlightened” humanity and pushed us in the direction of a more egalitarian worldview. It is Mumford’s contention, however, that the democratic quality of this change was again subverted by those who had greater capacity to organize the new scientific and mechanical systems, and humanity was once again relegated to the role of cogs in a vast machine. That machine has but one aim, to expand and promote itself.

Mumford further writes:

The center of authority in this new system is no longer a visible personality, an all-powerful king: even in totalitarian dictatorships the center now lies in the system itself, invisible but omnipresent: all its human components, even the technical and managerial elite, even the sacred priesthood of science, who alone have access to the secret knowledge by means of which total control in now swiftly being effected, are themselves trapped by the very perfection of the organization they have invented. Like the pharaohs of the Pyramid Age, these servants of the system identify its goods with their own kind of well-being: as with the divine king, their praise of the system is an act of self-worship; and again like the king, they are in the grip of an irrational compulsion to extend their means of control and expand the scope of their authority. In this new systems-centered collective, this Pentagon of power, there is no visible presence who issues commands: unlike Job’s God, the new deities cannot be confronted, still less defied. Under the pretext of saving labor, the ultimate end of this technics is to displace life, or rather, to transfer the attributes of life to the machine and the mechanical collective, allowing only so much of the organism to remain as may be controlled and manipulated.

The question posed by Mumford here is, understanding that there is a difference in the authoritarian technics of Pharaoh and the modern day context, why do we still engage in the authoritarian system when we so cherish the notion of democracy. He finally explains:

The bargain we are being asked to ratify takes the form of a magnificent bribe. Under the democratic-authoritarian social contract, each member of the community may claim every material advantage, every intellectual and emotional stimulus he may desire, in quantities hardly available hitherto even for a restricted minority: food, housing, swift transportation, instantaneous communication, medical care, entertainment, education. But on one condition: that one must not merely ask for nothing that the system does not provide, but likewise agree to take everything offered, duly processed and fabricated, homogenized and equalized, in the precise quantities that the system, rather than the person, requires. Once on opts for the system no further choice remains. In a word, if one surrenders one’s life at the source, authoritarian technics will give back as much of it as can be mechanically graded, quantitatively multiplied, collectively manipulated and magnified.

So much of the frustration built up in our society on both the political left and right are buried in this heap of problems, and so much so that the notion of a political left and right hardly seem to matter at all. The complaint that the Republican and Democratic parties are equally dysfunctional and hardly inseparable stems from the underlying notion that they are part of a system with the ideology of efficiency, expansion, and control. At the center is the ideology of technics, rather than of human beings. The ideology of scientific and technological wonder is no different than the ideology of theocracy. And, it most insidiously works its way into our culture becoming invisible, unquestioned, and all powerful.

Corporations are people. This idea comes from the ideology of technics and is one of the most reviled notions of our society for those who want more than to be cogs in a machine. When President Obama, or anyone else managing this system of technics, notes that the goal is to expand the economy there is a hint at the invisible ideology flicking its tongue at us just beyond our reach. Perhaps it’s a discussion for another day, but the notion of expanding economies in a world of limited and endangered resources is borderline criminal. What’s left to do when the resources, human and otherwise, are thin? The greatest benefactors of the system, who hold the reigns of control and authority, must invent new investments to keep the expansion going, to cow to the nature of the system itself. Those inventions, as we have recently seen, might be complex financial instruments, highly unstable, unpredictable, and potentially disastrous to the system itself. For those of us who are mere cogs in the system, such volatility  can prove lethal. For those at the top, only a total collapse would be a true disaster since the integrity of the system is enough to assure their continued benefit.

At the core of the frustration bubbling in the street is a desire for democracy…the technics of democracy. In small fits and starts, we see ecological movements with people at the center emerging. We see local co-ops and credit unions growing. We see locavores, those people who grow, sell, and eat their foods locally, growing in numbers. We might even see a growth in the democratic business or school ecology, where small collectives take control of their own human experience by leaving the authoritarian system on behalf of greater self-determination. It’s this idea that I think lies at the center of both the Libertarian/Tea Party grassroots and the Occupy Wall Street/Anti-globalization movements. The degree to which they are eventually absorbed into the larger authoritarian system will determine their fate. The Tea Party has largely seen itself absorbed, and as such we see the corruption of its humanity. Occupy Wall Street could be absorbed by the political aspirations of the waning labor movement and the Democratic Party, but the extent to which the whole thing stays organic, focused on building democratic alternatives to the authoritarian technic and its institutional system, the extent to which the movement serves as an anti-environment, is the extent to which we can say whether it made a difference or not.


About mikeplugh

Media Ecology General Semantics Baseball Japan Fordham University
This entry was posted in ecology, historical, politics, technology and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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