Reasons to Read The Works of Lewis Mumford

by splicedcomma

To me, Lewis Mumford is a lot like Stefan Zweig. When he was alive, Stefan Zweig was one of the most popular German language writers–his amazing autobiography, The World Of Yesterday, reads like a who’s who of early twentieth century European literature. Today, Zweig is relatively unknown. He is certainly not remembered and admired in the same way as Hermann Hesse, Gunter Grass or Thomas Mann (yes, a Nobel Prize is the common denominator of their lasting fame). Lewis Mumford, when he was alive, was prolific: he was a columnist for The New Yorker and he wrote over two dozen books, many of which are over four hundred pages in length. Mumford is today, in comparison to Herbert Marcuse and Marshal McLuhan, a lesser known theorist of technology and modern society.

So, in the interest of getting more people to read Lewis Mumford (I would recommend Technics and Civilization and both volumes of The Myth of the Machine) I offer some reasons:

  1. Mumford provides an incredible social history of technology. His analysis clearly demonstrates that technology is not just material. Tools and mechanical instruments are embedded in social systems, and these systems are just as important to the understanding of what technology is.
  2. Mumford has a beautiful writing style, particularly because it is so anti-academic. On this point, a funny side-story: Mumford is mentioned in William Zinsser’s On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. On the usage of the word “good,” Zinsser agreed with Mumford, who stated that this particular adverb should be “left as the exclusive property of Ernest Hemingway.”
  3. Technics and Civilization and The Myth of the Machine both have annotated bibliographies. These annotations encourage the reader to learn more. This is surprisingly rare: most bibliographies can have a overwhelming effect on the reader, which is sometimes an purposeful effect. A long list of cited books and articles that runs for pages and pages can be useful, but only when someone like Mumford takes the time to tell you something about each book.
  4. The twentieth and twenty first centuries are distinguished for their scientific discoveries and technological inventions–yet, the “Is technology good or bad?” question still produces ambivalent responses. Mumford offers a better answer because he rejects the phrasing of the question. The potential to produce a humane society has a lot to do with technology, but this great potential is currently obstructed by the creation of technology through social power. For Mumford, the question of modern technology is mixed with the question of how human creativity can be directed towards destructive, wasteful and inhumane ends. In a power civilization, the genius and ingenuity of the human mind is not exactly a solution; rather, these qualities can be harnessed in such a way that we are pushed farther down the wrong path.