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Lewis Mumford

26 August 2016

OJ Haugen suggested reading Lewis Mumford's 'Technics and Human Development: the myth of the machine' written way back in 1966. It is still relevant today as it succinctly puts into perspective the limitations of archaeology. He asks the question, what exactly do we know about Stone Age people and Early forms of humanity. Archaeologists retrieve pieces of knapped flint and the occasional stone axe or hammer stone and out of such odds and bits anthropologists and others create a storyline – but is it only part of the story. Mumford thought so. Other animals, he said, used tools – from chimps to crows. What defines the difference between humans and animals is their minds – not the size of their brains but the ability of their minds to possess imagination. Stone age people evolved language and myth and tools lagged behind such advances. It is only at certain times in history that tools and machines have driven human progress – such as what he called the Pyramid Age and presumably the Greco-Roman era as well as the Modern era. He did not live to see the space age but even in the post WWII world technical advances were coming fast and furious. It is an interesting point he makes. Have modern humans living a technology and science dominated culture advanced too far from their development of the mind. Is the latter now lagging behind the tool revolution and should that matter? 

These phases of advancement in the machine world occur when innovation takes dominance over tradtional forms that are learnt and relearnt over many generations. Certain factors have to be in place in order for a surge in technology advances. One might say that a dominant cultural attitude created by the mind, such as a religious belief system, is capable of stifling science research. In the modern world religion and science are able to maintain a distance from each other but it would be easy to think of examples when that differed. He gives many examples of rudimentary tool using cultures around the world that never the less had a developed society with ceremonial gatherings and a strong family and tribal bonds (such as Australian Aborigines, the Bushmen and Pygmies, and even advanced kingdoms such as the Maya). Tools and technology were secondary to the development of the mind and its relationship with other humans. He then goes on to argue that tools and technology were never the driving force of human advance but a secondary feature. In the modern world science likes to present itself as advancing civilisation in all kinds of ways, offering itself as some kind of panacea to the problems created by the mind (such as intractable religious beliefs) but is that idea just an extension of the mind games. Can gadgets and spacecraft classify our current generation as superior to preceding generations? Technologically yes, but as far as mind games is that also true. What would happen if the machine age advanced and advanced but the mind remained static without developing apace? Would it all go bang like the abandonment of a Mayan ceremonial city?

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