About three years ago, I was reading The Shallows. It discusses what the internet is doing to our brains. There is a section that discusses the internet as a medium and how it (unintentionally) seems to be designed to distract us. Hyperlinks are a good example. Whenever you read content online, there is quite a good chance that it contains some hyperlinks. On the one hand, they are really nice: they get you to the source of the link right away. On the other hand, they distract you from the story you are reading. Regardless of how you view a hyperlink, you must make a decision to follow it or to ignore it. It requires a little effort.
In books, it’s different. You cannot click on a link in a book. The Shallows referred to Technics and Civilizations by Lewis Mumford. It is a ~90-year-old book that discusses the impact that machines and automation have on (western) civilization. It is one of those book descriptions that just triggers me. I stored in my to-read list and waited for a moment to read it.
Why it triggered me
Ever since we (humans) invented the alphabet, and later the printing press, we have been able to store information and pass it on to future generations. It is something I find fascinating. It is what allows me to read the thoughts of generations of people that lived before me. I especially like recent-but-not-to-recent books about our times.
A part of this is what I like to call ‘vintage scifi’, like 1984 or Player Piano. Books that were written decades ago that depict a future possibility. I often find they contain a sense accuracy.
The other part contains non-fiction. The philosophical books like Understanding Media (1964) and Computing Power and Human Reason (1976) are good examples of books that are still relevant today. Technics & Civlizations is about the impact of technology and automation on people. In our current information age, that is still a very relevant topic. That’s why I decided to give this book (from 1934!) a shot.
In this post, I’ll discuss two chapters that resonated with me. Both have to do with communication and our limited attention span.
The Paradox of Communication (5.7)
This section of the book discusses the impact of the developments in communication technologies. Back then, this mostly covered the development from telegraph, to telephone, to radio and eventually television. When discussing the effects of these developments, Mumford shares two sharp observations:
What will be the outcome? Obviously, a widened range of intercourse: more numerous contacts: more numerous demands on attention and time.
And later (similar to McLuhan’s thoughts on media):
One is faced here with a magnified form of a danger common to all inventions: a tendency to use them whether or not the occasion demands.
Here we have an interesting situation. On the one hand, we have a development in technology that increases the demands on our attention and time. On the other hand, we have a tendency to use technology, regardless the value they add. If we combine these developments, we should come to a time where we are using more and more technology that consumes more and more of our time. To me, this sounds exactly like our contemporary use of the internet.
Side note: I sometimes find myself pondering new technology. For example: every year, there are new TVs with better screens; better colours; blacker blacks. But why?
Mumford refers to Plato’s limitations of the size of a city later on in the section:
[Size of a city is limited to] the number of people who could hear the voice of a single orator.
With the technology in the thirties, that range already expanded to include whole civilizations. With the internet, anyone can share their message with the whole world. The addition of recommendation engines makes sure that messages are automatically shown to people that will probably like the message. It’s a system that allows any message to get a decent-sized audience, as long as there are some internet-connected like-minded folks out there. A system in which people continuously hear exactly what they want to hear. These are what we call the filter bubbles, echo chambers, or cyber balkans. In other words: these days, anyone, and with it any thought, can reach a civilization-sized audience.
This gets me to Mumford’s final note in the section:
As with all instruments of multiplication the critical question is as to the function and quality of the object one is multiplying. There is no satisfactory answer to this on the basis of technics alone: certainly nothing to indicate […] that the results will automatically be favourable to the community.
Currently, we tend to apply new tech to solve technological challenges, for example an algorithm to automatically detect fake news. But I agree with Mumford here: the solutions to some of our technical challenges should not be provided by tech alone. The harder question to answer here is: why is fake news emerging? It’s probably not just because it’s technically possible. And if we know the reason, how do we deal with that?
Technologies extend (or multiply) human capabilities. The fact that we can is often a good feat of our human ingenuity. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it adds value to society.
Increase Conversion! (8.4)
A big section of the book is about energy. I’ll summarise a part of the story in my own words:
The rise of the steam engine and the use of fossil fuels like coal and oil give western society access to an abundance of energy. This resulted in people solving problems with that in mind: by applying more energy to a technical challenge: if we can’t move a big rock, we just need to apply more force. Back then, we often did not consider other ways to solve the problem. Another way to move a big rock may be to put it on a slippery surface that reduces the friction.
When Mumford talks about Increase Conversion he talks about this mentality of solving problems. Here, conversion means the conversion of energy into creation (e.g. a product). There are two ways to increase conversion. If ‘100 energy’ results in 10 products, then ‘200 energy’ should result in 20 products. If there is no direct limit to the energy available, increasing it is the easy way to increase conversion. The harder way is to make the system more efficient, increasing the number of products the same amount of energy input yields.
In our current times, I see something similar happing to our attention and time. There is an abundance of products and services that demand our time. Many of those services make money through advertising. So the more time we spend on a platform that makes money through advertising, the more money the platform makes. In this example, attention & time is converted into money. The easiest way to increase the money generated, is by increasing the attention we give to a platform and time we spend on it.
The positive note
The foreword of the book says that Technics & Civilizations is one of Mumford’s more positive books. At first, it wasn’t that easy to spot the positivity in his critical but accurate description of contemporary western society. But in the end, I think I got his message.
Western Civilization as a whole […] is in the condition that new pioneering countries like the United States found themselves in, once all their free lands had been taken up and their main lines of transportation and communication laid out: it must now begin to settle down and make most of what it has.
Eventually, we will have to do with what we have. Technology increase the speed at which we reach that limit. Technology is also what allows us to get more out of what we have once we are there.
Or to use a Mumford-inspired metaphor:
It is like we are playing in an [ever-growing] band and improving our play while we are already performing a live concert.
To me, the book gives an interesting view on the influence of technology on society. It offers a detailed description of the rise of machinery, the increase in available energy, and the impact that had. The last section gives suggestions on how to improve the adoption of machines in our society.
To me, it feels like the rise of information technology is a new wave, requiring us to learn a whole different game. And this wave came just a bit too quickly; before we were able to review our machine-driven world and incorporate the learnings.
Any appreciable gain in personal harmony and balance will be recorded in a decreased demand for compensatory goods and services.
Many of the current information systems demand more and more of our time and attention. That makes it harder and harder to focus on personal harmony and balance. And with it, it increases the demand for compensatory goods and services. It’s a positive feedback loop that favours production.
It’s not strange, as we have a tendency to use new technology, whether or not the occasion demands. I’m just curious to see what these times will teach our future selves. Maybe, in 90 years, there will be a person reading about the Mumford of our times and think: ‘this person made some smart observations back in 2021’.