The future of Technics and Civilisation Lewis Mumford


The Tragedy of waste

The brute fact of the matter is that our civilization is now weighted in favor of the use of mechanical instruments, because the opportunities for commercial production and for the exercise of power lie there: while all the direct human reactions or the personal arts-which require a minimum of mechanical paraphernalia are treated as negligible.

The habit of producing goods whether they are needed or not, of utilizing inventions whether they are useful or not, of applying power whether it is effective or not pervades almost every department of our present civilization. The result is that whole areas of the personality have been slighted: the telic, rather than the merely adaptive, spheres of conduct exist on sufferance.

This pervasive instrumentalism places a handicap upon vital reactions which cannot be closely tied to the machine, and it magnifies the importance of physical goods as symbols—symbols of intelligence and ability and far-sightedness—even as it tends to characterize their absence as a sign of stupidity and failure. And to the extent that this materialism is purposeless, it becomes final: the means are presently converted into an end. [If material goods need any other justification, they have it in the fact that the effort to consume them keeps the machines running.

These space-contracting, time-saving, goods-enhancing devices are likewise manifestations of modern power production: and the same paradox holds of power and power-machinery: its economies have been partly cancelled out by increasing the opportunity, indeed the very necessity, for consumption. The situation was put very neatly a long time ago by Babbage, the English mathematician.

He relates an experiment performed by a Frenchman, M. Redelet, in which a block of squared stone was taken as the subject for measuring the effort required to move it. It weighed 1080 pounds. In order to drag the stone, roughly chiseled, along the floor of the quarry, it required a force equal to 758 pounds. The same stone dragged over a floor of planks required 652 pounds; on a platform of wood, drawn over a floor of planks, it required 606 pounds. After soaping the two surfaces of wood which slid over each other it required 182 pounds. The same stone was now placed upon rollers three inches in diam-ter, when it required to put it in motion along the floor of the quarry only 34 pounds, while to drag it by these rollers over a wooden floor it needed but 22 pounds.
This is a simple illustration of the two ways open in applying power to modern production. One is to increase the expenditure of power; the other is to economize in the application of it. Many of our so-called gains in efficiency have consisted, in effect, of using power-machines to apply 758 pounds to work which could be just as efficiently accomplished by careful planning and preparation with an expenditure of 22 pounds: our illusion of superiority is based on the fact that we have had 736 pounds to waste.

This fact explains some of the grotesque miscalculations and misappraisals that have’ been made in comparing the working efficiency of past ages with the present. Some of our technologists have committed the blunder of confusing the increased load of equipment and the increased expenditure of energy with the quantity of effective work done. But & the billions of horsepower available in modern production must be balanced off against losses which are even greater than those for which Stuart Chase has made a tangible estimate in his excellent study in The Tragedy of Waste.

While a net gain can probably be shown for modern civilization, it is not nearly so great as we have imagined through our habit of looking only at one side of the balance sheet.
The fact is that an elaborate mechanical organization is often a temporary and expensive substitute for an effective social organization or for a sound biological adaptation. The secret of analyzing motions, of harnessing energies, of designing machines was discovered before we began an orderly analysis of modern society and attempted to control the unconscious drift of technic and economic forces.

Just as the ingenious mechanical restorations of teeth begun in the nineteenth century anticipated our advance in physiology and nutrition, which will reduce the need for mechanical repair, so many of our other mechanical triumphs are merely stopgaps, to serve society whilst it learns to direct its social institutions, its biological conditions, and its personal aims more effectively.

In other words, much of our mechanical apparatus is useful in the same way that a crutch is useful when a leg is injured. Inferior to the normal functioning leg, the crutch assists its user to walk about whilst bone and tissue are being repaired. The common mistake is that of fancying that a society in which everyone is equipped with crutches is thereby more efficient than one in which the majority of people walk on two legs.

Lewis Mumford The future of Technics and Civilisation p23

Social effects of motorized transport Ivon Illich