A selection from Lewis Mumford's Technics and Civilization, 1934.
During the last thousand years the material basis and the cultural forms of Western Civilization have been profoundly modified by the development of the machine.
While people often call our period the "Machine Age," very few have... any clear notion as to its origins. Popular historians usually date the great transformation in modern industry from Watt's supposed invention of the steam engine; and in the conventional economics textbook the application of automatic machinery to spinning and weaving is often treated as an equally critical turning point. But the fact is that in Western Europe the machine had been developing steadily for at least seven centuries before the dramatic changes that accompanied the "industrial revolution" took place. Men had become mechanical before they perfected complicated machines to express their new bent and interest; and the will-to-order had appeared once more in the monastery and the army and the counting-house before it finally manifested itself in the factory.
To understand the dominating role played by technics in modern civilization, one must explore in detail the preliminary period of... preparation. ...mechanization and regimentation are not new phenomena in history: what is new is the fact that these functions have been projected and embodied in organized forms which dominate every aspect of our existence.
Chapter I. Cultural Preparation
2. The Monastery and the Clock.
Where did the machine first take form in modern civilization? There was plainly more than one point of origin. Our mechanical civilization represents the convergence of numerous habits, ideas, and modes of living, as well as technical instruments... . [...] The application of quantitative methods of thought to the study of nature had its first manifestation in the regular measurement of time; and the new mechanical conception of time arose in part out of the routine of the monastery. Alfred Whitehead has emphasized the importance of the scholastic belief in a universe ordered by God as one of the foundations of modern physics: but behind that belief was the presence of order in the institutions of the Church itself.
It was... in the monasteries of the West that the desire for order... first manifested itself after the long uncertainty and bloody confusion that attended the breakdown of the Roman Empire. Within the walls of the monastary was sanctuary: under the rule of the order surprise and doubt and caprice and irregularity were put at bay. Opposed to the erratic fluctuations and pulsations of the worldly life was the iron discipline of the rule.
According to a now discredited legend, the first modern mechanical clock, worked by falling weights, was invented by the monk named Gerbert who afterwards became Pope Sylvester II near the close of the tenth century. [...] But the legend, as so often happens, is accurate in its implications if not in its fact. The monastery was the seat of a regular life, and an instrument for striking the hours at intervals or for reminding the bell-ringer that it was time to strike the bells, was an almost inevitable product of this life. If the mechanical clock did not appear until the cities of the thirteenth century demanded an orderly routine, the habit of order itself and the earnest regulation of time-sequences had become almost second nature in the monastery. Coulton agree with Sombart in looking upon the Benedictines, the great working order, as perhaps the original founders of modern capitalism.... . ...one is not straining the facts when one suggests that the monasteries-- at one time there were 40,000 under the Benedictine rule-- helped to give human enterprize the regular collective beat and rhythm of the machine... .
...by the thirteenth century there are definite records of mechanical clocks, and by 1370 a well-designed "modern" clock had been built by Heinrich von Wyck at Paris. Meanwhile, bell towers had come into existence, and the new clocks, if they did not have, till the fourteenth century, a dial and a hand that translated the movement of time into a movement through space, at all events struck the hours. [...] The bells of the clock tower almost defined urban existence... [Editors note: i.e., see Huizinga's The Autumn of the Middle Ages].
The clock, not the steam-engine, is the key-machine of the modern industrial age. For every phase of its development the clock is both the outstanding fact and the typical symbol of the machine: even today no other machine is so ubiquitous [Editors note: see Spengler on the clock as the 'prime symbol' of Faustian technics in his Decline of the West].
In its relationship to determinable quantities... , to standardization, to automatic action, and finally to its own special product, accurate timing, the clock has been the foremost machine in modern technics:... it marks a perfection toward which other machines aspire. The clock... served as a model for many other kinds of mechanical works... . [Editors note: Pascal built the first calculator, and thus the first computer, out of gothic clockwork mechanisms]
The clock... is a piece of power-machinary whose "product" is seconds and minutes: by its essential nature it dissociated time from human events and helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences: the special world of science. [...] In terms of the human organism itself, mechanical time is... foreign: while human life has regularities of its own, the beat of the pulse, the breathing of the lungs, these change from hour to hour with mood and action, and in the longer span of days, time is measured not by the calendar but by the events that occupy it. The shepherd measures from the time the ewes lambed; the farmer measures back to the day of sowing or forward to the harvest: if growth has its own duration and regularities, behind it are not simply matter and motion but the facts of development: in short, history. And while mechanical time is strung out in a succession of mathematically isolated instants, organic time-- what Bergson calls duration [Editors note: and others have called 'lived-time']--is cumulative in its effects.
Around 1345, according to Thorndike, the division of hours into sixty minutes and of minutes into sixty seconds became common: it was this abstract framework of divided time that became more and more the point of reference... , and in the effort to arrive at accuracy in this department, the astronomical exploration of the sky focussed attention further upon the regular, implacable movements of the heavenly bodies through space. Early in the sixteenth century a young Nuremberg mechanic, Peter Henlein, is supposed to have created "many-wheeled watches out of small bits of iron" and by the end of the century the small domestic clock had been introduced in England and Holland. [...] To become "as regular as clock-work" was the bourgeois ideal, and to own a watch was for long a definite symbol of success.
3. Space, Distance, Movement
4.The Influence of Capitalism
5. From Fable to Fact
6. The Obstacle of Animism
7. The Road Through Magic
8. Social Regimentation
9. The Mechanical Universe
10. The Duty to Invent
11. Practical Anticipations
Chapter VI. Compensations and Reversions
2. The Mechanical Routine
The first characteristic of modern machine civilization is its temporal regularity. From the moment of waking, the rhythm of the day is punctuated by the clock. Irrespective of strain or fatigue, despite reluctance and apathy... . [...] ...the time-clock enters... to regulate the entrance and exit of the worker, while an irregular worker-- tempted by the trout in spring streams or ducks on salt meadows-- finds that these impulses are as unfavorably treated as habitual drunkeness.
...the existence of a machine civilization, completely timed and scheduled and regulated, does not necessarily guarantee maximum efficiency in any sense. [...] ...to make [such regularity] arbitrarily rule over human functions is to reduce existence itself to mere time-serving and to spread the shades of the prison-house over too large an area of human conduct. The regularity that produces apathy and atrophy-- that acedia which was the bane of monastic existence, as it is likewise of the army-- is as wasteful as the irregularity that produces disorder and confusion.
In The Instinct of Workmanship Veblen has indeed wondered whether the typewriter, the telephone, and the automobile, though creditable technological achievements "have not wasted more effort and substance than they have saved," whether they are to be credited with an appreciable economic loss, because they have increased the pace and the volume of correspondence and communication and travel out of all proportion to the real need. And Mr. Bertrand Russell has noted that each improvement in locomotion has increased the area over which people are compelled to move... .
One further effect of our closer time co-ordination and our instantaneous communication must be noted here: broken time and broken attention. The difficulties of transport and communication before 1850 automatically acted as a selective screen, which permitted no more stimuli to reach a person than he could handle: a certain urgency was necessary before one received a call from a long distance or was compelled to make a journey oneself: this condition of slow physical locomotion kept intercourse down to a human scale,
and under definite control. Nowadays this screen has vanished: the remote is as close as the near: the ephemeral is as emphatic as the durable. While the tempo of the day has been quickened by instantaneous communication the rhythm of the day has been broken: the radio, the telephone, the daily newspaper clamor for attention, and amid the host of stimuli to which people are subjected, it becomes more and more difficult to absorb and cope with anyone part of the environment, to say nothing of dealing with it as a whole. The common man is as subject to these interruptions as the scholar or the man of affairs... . [...] With the successive demands of the outside world so frequent and so imperative, without any respect to their real importance, the inner world becomes progressively meager and formless: instead of active selection there is passive absorption ending in the state happily described by Victor Branford as "addled subjectivity."
[Editors note: Mumford on 'addled subjectivity': "...an objective order that attempts to exclude subjective elements as unreal or irrelevant inevitably ends, as ours has in fact done, by leaving the field open to an addled subjectivity..."
Also, from Branfords Living Religions, a Plea for the Larger Modernism: "The creative powers of the subjective life grow stale and sterile. This mental malady of over-abstraction from the world we may call Addled Subjectivity. It is a kind of moral leprosy, to which poet, artist, priest, prophet, philosopher, and sage are all exceedingly prone"]