Lewis Mumford (October 19, 1895 – January 26, 1990)

*Image: Fallingwater, Pennsylvania. “Fallingwater is a house designed in 1935 by renowned American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) for the Kaufmann family, owners of Pittsburgh’s largest department store…Fallingwater is the only major Wright work to come into the public domain with its setting, artwork and original Wright-designed furnishings intact.”

From Wikipedia:

“Lewis Mumford was an American historian, sociologist, philosopher of technology, and literary critic. Particularly noted for his study of cities and urban architecture, he had a broad career as a writer. Mumford made signal contributions to social philosophy, American literary and cultural history and the history of technology. Mumford was influenced by the work of Scottish theorist Sir Patrick Geddes and worked closely with his associate the British sociologist Victor Branford.
Mumford was also a contemporary and friend of *Frank Lloyd Wright, Clarence Stein, Frederic Osborn, Edmund N. Bacon, and Vannevar Bush…

…In his book The Condition of Man, published in 1944, Mumford characterized his orientation toward the study of humanity as “organic humanism”. The term is an important one because it sets limits on human possibilities, limits that are aligned with the nature of the human body. Mumford never forgot the importance of air quality, of food availability, of the quality of water, or the comfort of spaces, because all these things had to be respected if people were to thrive. Technology and progress could never become a runaway train in his reasoning, so long as organic humanism was there to act as a brake.

Indeed, Mumford considered the human brain from this perspective, characterizing it as hyperactive, a good thing in that it allowed humanity to conquer many of nature’s threats, but potentially a bad thing if it were not occupied in ways that stimulated it meaningfully. Mumford’s respect for human “nature”, that is to say, the natural characteristics of being human, provided him with a platform from which to assess technologies, and technics in general. Thus his criticism and counsel with respect to the city and with respect to the implementation of technology was fundamentally organized around the organic humanism to which he ascribed.

It was from the perspective of organic humanism that Mumford eventually launched a critical assessment of Marshall McLuhan, who argued that the technology, not the natural environment, would ultimately shape the nature of humankind, a possibility that Mumford recognized, but only as a nightmare scenario.

Mumford believed that what defined humanity, what set human beings apart from other animals, was not primarily our use of tools (technology) but our use of language (symbols). He was convinced that the sharing of information and ideas amongst participants of primitive societies was completely natural to early humanity, and had obviously been the foundation of society as it became more sophisticated and complex. He had hopes for a continuation of this process of information “pooling” in the world as humanity moved into the future.

Mumford’s choice of the word “technics” throughout his work was deliberate. For Mumford, technology is one part of technics. Using the broader definition of the Greek tekhne, which means not only technology but also art, skill, and dexterity, technics refers to the interplay of social milieu and technological innovation—the “wishes, habits, ideas, goals” as well as “industrial processes” of a society. As Mumford writes at the beginning of Technics and Civilization, “other civilizations reached a high degree of technical proficiency without, apparently, being profoundly influenced by the methods and aims of technics.”

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