Choice and the Machine

“Choice manifests itself in society in small increments and moment-to-moment decisions as well as in loud dramatic struggles; and he who does not see choice in the development of the machine merely betrays his incapacity to observe cumulative effects until they are bunched together so closely that they seem completely external and impersonal. No matter how completely technics relies upon the objective procedures of the sciences, it does no form an independent system, like the universe: it exists as an element in human culture and it promises well or ill as the social groups that exploit it promise well or ill. The machine itself makes no demands and holds out no promises: it is the human spirit that makes demands and keeps promises. In order to reconquer the machine and subdue it to human purposes, one must first understand it and assimilate it. So far, we have embraced the machine without fully understanding it, or, like the weaker romantics, we have rejected the machine without first seeing how much of it we could intelligently assimilate.

The machine itself, however, is a product of human ingenuity and effort: hence to understand the machine is not merely a first step toward re-orienting our civilization: it is also a means toward understanding society and toward knowing ourselves.”

Lewis Mumford in the introduction to Technics and Civilization (1934).

5 thoughts on “Choice and the Machine

  1. At the risk of displaying my ignorance, what is the machine? How do you define it? How does Mumford define it? Is the the ‘machinery’ which makes our society run as it does?

    1. Fair question. Here is how Mumford puts it: “When I use the term ‘the machine’ I shall employ it as a shorthand reference to the entire technological complex. This will embrace the knowledge and skills and arts derived from industry or implicated in the new technics, and will include various forms of tool, instrument, apparatus and utility as well as machines proper.”

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