Mayr provides a neat summation of his thesis in almost the last sentence
of his book:
...if a technological innovation displays in structure and functioning an unmistakable analogy to the structure that a society prefers to give its various practical and theoretical systems, if it reflects the various mentalities and attitudes that shape public life, in short, if it matches and reinforces the prevailing conception of order, it will be received more warmly, regardless of its technical merits, than other inventions. (199)
Mayr's thesis suggests an interesting question: we can see that after creation machines can be, and frequently are invested with new meanings through new analogies -- but are they not all "born," or invented in relation to some analogy? That is to say, the mind of the inventor was stimulated by something other than the machine in question in order to create the new machine. So might it not be problematic to say that a machine intrinsically already had one "unmistakable" analogy that the culture --(look at that!)-- discovered? The culture, by its existence, by its effect on the mind of the inventor, also and already invested the machine with some meaning. However, while leaving aside as somewhat-too-large the problem of the origins of meaning, it is surely correct to find a connection between the ready acceptance of a machine and the ways that it can -- with relative ease -- be positioned for meaning in religious thought, in scientific explorations, in the politics of war. (see Haraway's meditation on the immune system) Mayr is interested specifically feedback systems, and why they disappear from the Middle Ages through the Baroque (Introduction xv). He asks "Why were feedback devices ignored and rejected in Continental Europe well into the eighteenth century? And why, at the same time, were they cultivated and appreciated in Britain?" (xvi)
By analyzing the ways Continental and British writers used metaphors,
Mayr hopes to tap attitudes about machines that could not be written down
because they were not known to be attitudes. "What is necessary is to find
out how contemporaries not only spoke but also thought and felt about clocks.
What we need is access to their un- and subconscious minds." (27)
Why clocks? He starts with clocks because they were, in the 1350s, the sum of the highest intellectual progress and ingenuity. They absorbed best technological talent and also the funds of the community. Clocks "made possible the tighter coordinator of the activities of increasingly complex communities." (26) They represented the known universe; they were a repository of information, a teaching tool, an astrological accessory...(26) Chapter 1 presents the early history of clocks, the variety of beautiful and ingenious models, and the early divergence in uses.
In Mayer's own summation, "Chapter 2 deals collectively with the early period when clock metaphors were not yet too frequent or specialized." (28) The clock slowly became a part of Temperantia's accoutrements, along with a bridle in her mouth, glasses in her hand, rowel spurs on her feet, and beneath her feet a windmill. Temperantia was the bourgeois queen of the virtues, guiding all the others by her moderate regulation. The clock also took on the attributes of the ideal ruler, who was regular in all his ways. In the same way that the dial shows the hours, so the ruler was to be an example of virtue. Another set of writings linked clocks to automata. Bodies, could be taken apart or built up like clocks. When a person died, he or she was "set aside for repairs." A short step away is God the clockmaker, and the universe as his machine. This particular metaphor, turned around, lingered on as a proof that the universe, so precise a machine, must have been made by Someone miraculously (and mechanically) inclined. But Mayr notes that in England, the clock metaphor began to take on negative connotations. Clocks were discordant, dishonest, scolding, and (worst of all) foreign.
Chapters Three and Four discuss the clock metaphor as it was used in natural philosophy and political thought. Descartes launched controversy around clock metaphor again: he was fascinated by automata, and equated the bodies of animals with machines (an early appearance of cybernetics, according to Mayr). Simplifying a lot, philosophers arguing against and after Descartes were divided on the question of determinism and design. Those that saw the universe as a clock saw God as omniscient, with no need to interfere in his own plans. God was absent because He had arranged not to need to be present. Others saw God as omnipotent -- able and willing to interfered as needed -- and so were more cautious to in applying the clock metaphor wholeheartedly. Maybe more importantly, clocks suggested that the universe was a running system, and that the component parts could be analyzed. Turning to political considerations, the clock as "regular" ruler became the ruler as clock mainspring. All order, and all action, sprung from the center. Everything in the system was necessary, but nothing in the system was free to operate in any other way than as originally designated. (Note to self -- quite a few philosophers besides Descartes, e.g. Huygens, Leibnitz, Hooke canvassed in this chapter. Maybe I should give more detail?)
Gathering up the threads of discussion for Britain, Mayr says
[c]lockwork metaphors in British seventeenth century natural philosophy concentrated on certain favorite themes: the new approach to solving the riddles of nature, the characteristics of the mechanical philosophy, mechanical aspects of nature phenomena, and the relationship between nature and its Creator. While partisans of such a broadly based and many-featured movement as the new science were bound to have diverging ideas on its definition and goals, they had little difficulty in agreeing on what they were against. Their principal enemy was the Aristotelian scholasticism that had dominated the teaching and practice philosophy for centuries. (82-83)
As the work unfolds, Mayr presents a contrast: the value of authority versus the value of liberty. England allowed and developed the feedback mechanism because it incorporated balance, self-regulation, dynamic equilibrium, checks and balances, supply and demand into its political and economic systems. "In Britain, it seems then, the clock metaphor was rejected for precisely the same reason it was cherished on the Continent: as a symbol of authority, it was inevitably also a symbol of regimentation and oppression." (126) Somewhat cautiously, Mayr advances the theory that the Continent missed developing the feedback mechanism, and so, also, lost the lead in the Industrial Revolution. He includes the Watt engine, which has a centrifugal governor, in his closing arguments. The idea is intriguing, if not entirely convincing. However, only considering my own research, Mayr's p. 199 thesis has given me a really good short summary of the link between technology and society that I hope to trace out in other fields.