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From Megatechnic Bribe to Megatechnic Blackmail: Mumford’s ‘Megamachine’ After the Digital Turn

Without even needing to look at the copyright page, an aware reader may be able to date the work of a technology critic simply by considering the technological systems, or forms of media, being critiqued. Unfortunately, in discovering the date of a given critique one may be tempted to conclude that the critique itself must surely be dated. Past critiques of technology may be read as outdated curios, can be considered as prescient warnings that have gone unheeded, or be blithely disregarded as the pessimistic braying of inveterate doomsayers. Yet, in the case of Lewis Mumford, even though his activity peaked by the mid-1970s, it would be a mistake to deduce from this that his insights are of no value to the world of today. Indeed, when it comes to the “digital turn,” it is a “turn” in the road which Mumford saw coming.

It would be reductive to simply treat Mumford as a critic of technology. His body of work includes literary analysis, architectural reviews, treatises on city planning, iconoclastic works of history, impassioned calls to arms, and works of moral philosophy (Mumford 1982; Miller 1989; Blake 1990; Luccarelli 1995; Wojtowicz 1996). Leo Marx described Mumford as “a generalist with strong philosophic convictions,” one whose body of work represents the steady unfolding of “a single view of reality, a comprehensive historical, moral, and metaphysical—one might say cosmological—doctrine” (L. Marx 1990: 167). In the opinion of the literary scholar Charles Molesworth, Mumford is an “axiologist with a clear social purpose: he wants to make available to society a better and fuller set of harmoniously integrated values” (Molesworth 1990: 241), while Christopher Lehmann-Haupt caricatured Mumford as “perhaps our most distinguished flagellator,” and Lewis Croser denounced him as a “prophet of doom” who “hates almost all modern ideas and modern accomplishments without discrimination” (Mendelsohn 1994: 151-152). Perhaps Mumford is captured best by Rosalind Williams, who identified him alternately as an “accidental historian” (Williams 1994: 228) and as a “cultural critic” (Williams 1990: 44) or by Don Ihde who referred to him as an “intellectual historian” (Ihde 1993; 96). As for Mumford’s own views, he saw himself in the mold of the prophet Jonah, “that terrible fellow who keeps on uttering the very words you don’t want to hear, reporting the bad news and warning you that it will get even worse unless you yourself change your mind and alter your behavior” (Mumford 1979: 528).

Therefore, in the spirit of this Jonah let us go see what is happening in Ninevah after the digital turn. Drawing upon Mumford’s oeuvre, particularly the two volume The Myth of the Machine, this paper investigates similarities between Mumford’s concept of “the megamachine” and the post digital-turn technological world. In drawing out these resonances, I pay particular attention to the ways in which computers featured in Mumford’s theorizing of the “megamachine” and informed his darkening perception. In addition I expand upon Mumford’s concept of “the megatechnic bribe” to argue that, after the digital-turn, what takes place is a move from “the megatechnic bribe” towards what I term “megatechnic blackmail.”

In a piece provocatively titled “Prologue for Our Times,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker in 1975, Mumford drolly observed: “Even now, perhaps a majority of our countrymen still believe that science and technics can solve all human problems. They have no suspicion that our runaway science and technics themselves have come to constitute the main problem the human race has to overcome” (Mumford 1975: 374). The “bad news” is that more than forty years later a majority may still believe that.


This article appears in the special issue of Boundary 2 on The Digital Turn.

The complete article can be read at Boundary 2.

About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

7 comments on “From Megatechnic Bribe to Megatechnic Blackmail: Mumford’s ‘Megamachine’ After the Digital Turn

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