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Lewis Mumford’s work Technics and Civilization is a flawed work, but a joy to read. Especially this paragraph about the invention of the clock as the herald of the industrial age:

The clock […] is a piece of power-machinery whose “product” is seconds and minutes: by its essential nature it dissociated time from human events and helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences: the special world of science. There is relatively little foundation for this belief in common human experience: throughout the year the days are of uneven duration, and not merely does the relation between day and night steadily change, but a slight journey from East to West alters astronomical time by a certain number of minutes. In terms of the human organism itself, mechanical time is even more foreign: while human life has regularities of its own, the beat of the pulse, the breathing of the lungs, these change from hour to hour with mood and action, and in the longer span of days, time is measured not by the calendar but by the events that occupy it.

Here it takes a nostalgic turn, followed by a nauseating juxtaposition of mechanical and organic time that makes more sense if you take into account that Mumford was a staunch moralist and that Technics and Civilization was originally supposed to be a cultural critique:

The shepherd measures from the time the ewes lambed; the farmer measures back to the day of sowing or forward to the harvest: if growth has its own duration and regularities, behind it are not simply matter and motion but the facts of development: in short, history. And while mechanical time is strung out in a succession of mathematically isolated instants, organic time–what Bergson calls duration–is cumulative in its effects. Though mechanical time can, in a sense, be speeded up or run backward, like the hands of a clock or the images of a moving picture, organic time moves in only one direction–through the cycle of birth, growth, development, decay, and death–and the past that is already dead remains present in the future that has still to be born.[1]

As Rosalind Williams notes, “[Mumford’s] tripartite scheme, his personification of life as an historical agent, and his organic moralism lead Mumford into all sorts of confusion about historical change.”[2] In spite of its flaws, it remains a classic and an influential book in the history of technology.


[1] Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (1934; Chicago, 2010), 15-6.
[2] http://rosalindwilliams.com/historiography/classics-revisited-lewis-mumfords-technics-and-civilization/ (Visited on August 6th 2012). Note: a very interesting critique on Technics and Civilization, worth a read.