A deeply informed and strongly directed work, Lewis Mumford's Technics and Civilization traces the up to 1930 (the year in which it was written) the course of technology and its interplay with the civilizations it shaped and was shaped by.  He asserts that the development of technology, rather than springing up overnight, has its roots in the 1700s, and prior to that time, in the machines of the Middle Ages. He contends that the reason we find ourselves in a capitalist industrialized machine-oriented economy, whose imperfect fruits serve the majority so imperfectly, is the moral, the economic, the political choices we make, not the machines we use.
He divides the development of technology into three overlapping phases: eotechnic, paleotechnic and neotechnic.  In the first phase (1000 to 1800) Mumford starts civilized life off with the clock, to him the most important basis for the development of capitalism because time becomes fungible (thus tranferrable)1   The clock is the most important prototype for all other machines.  He contrasts the development and use of glass, wood, wind and water with the inhumanly horrific work that goes in to mining metal.  The use of all of these materials, and the development of science during the eotechnic phase, is based on the abstraction from life of the elements that could be measured, this abstraction allowing for "corduroy roads” through basic scientific problems.  He approves those people, cities and cultures who strove for a harmonious balance between the senses and the freedom from labor provided by science: "the goal of eotechnic civilization as a whole...was not more power alone but a greater intensification of life:  color, perfume, images, music, sexual ecstasy, as well as daring exploits in arms and thought and exploration."  (149).

The second phase, the paleotechnic (roughly 1700 to 1900), is "an upthrust into barbarism, aided by the very forces and interests which originally had been directed toward the conquest of the environment and the perfection of human nature." (154)  Inventions of the paleotechnic are made by men trying to solve specific problems rather than hunting for general scientific principles; in fact, scientific learning is devalued by men of business.  The invention of coal-fired factories and the installation of capital-intensive machinery leads to a necessarily gigantic round-the-clock scale of production supported by unskilled machine tenders. When labor becomes a commodity, rather than an inalienable set of skills, the laborer who tended machines, lived in slums, and was paid starvation wages, became physically stunted and socially and spiritually stultified.  Mumford notes that the death rate of urban slums compares unfavorably to the agricultural worker of the same time period, and furthermore that life in the 19th city compares unfavorably to cleanliness and standards of living available to workers in 13th centuries cities (183).  He also identifies iron as the primary building material of the paleotechnic, and skyscrapers, bridges and steamships as premiere accomplishments of the age.  War and mass sport function as a social release from mechanized life, and the hysteric duties of wartime production (or even the hysteria of a baseball team's victory) is a natural outgrowth of the tensions and structures of paleotechnic life.

In describing the neotechnic phase (1900 to Mumford's present, 1930), he focuses on the invention of electricity, freeing the factory production line from the restrictions of coal through the addition of small electric engines to individual machines, and freeing the laborer to create small but competitive factories.  Mumford presciently notes that a small producer can deliver what is needed when it is needed more efficiently.  The neotechnic phase is dominated by men of science, rather than mechanically apt machinists.  Rather than pursuing accomplishments on the scale of the Great Eastern, it is concerned with the invisible, the rare, the atomic level of change and innovation.  Compact and lightweight aluminum is the metal of the eotechnic,  and communication and information --even inflated amounts -- is the coin.  At the time of writing his eotechnic civilization had yet to fully develop, but Mumford writes hopefully about its focus on containing the machine rationally, and urges his readers to abandon the notion of the inevitability of machine dominance.  Humans decide and are responsible for the shapes of their world.

With this responsibility in mind, Mumford suggest that is necessary to understand how machines affect society and the arts and how machines must be assimilated and governed.  “What remains as the permanent contribution of the machine is the esthetic excellence of machine forms, the delicate logic of materials and forces, which has added a new cannon -- the machine cannon-- to the arts....”  (324).  What are the rules of this cannon?   Make observation directly from nature, as is found in photography, or in Whitman’s poem Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.  Measure functionality against form: eliminate extraneous lines, parts, decorations. Fine away any and all extra stimuli until nature is a neutral background: the machine itself complicates any environment in which it resides. These esthetics, concomitant with the machine itself, should be absorbed and used in service of a fuller experience of life.

Mumford concludes with strong directives on how to manage the "essentials of the economic processes in relation to energy and life."  (375)  Instead of three economic factors -- production, distribution and consumption -- he offers  four economic factors: conversion, production, consumption and creation.  His directives include increasing the available amount of energy to be converted into power (because our sources of energy are inexhaustible); controlling of the positioning and means of production at the state level (because there are too many parasitic middlemen); and restricting consumption to rational levels (no more obsolete objects).  He outlines the goals of a rational society: “Handsome bodies, fine minds, plain living, high thinking, keen perceptions, sensitive emotional responses and a group life keyed to make these things possible and to enhance them – these are some of the objectives of a normalized standard.”  (399) He advocates a basic communism (distinct from that practiced by Russia) and  the socialization of creation.  “Not work, not production for its own sake or for the sake of ulterior profit, but production for the sake of life and work as the normal expressions of a disciplined life, are the marks of a rational economic society.”  (410)

In evaluating Mumford's work one is reminded of the Encyclopedia Britannica: for certain historical subjects, nothing written later, even with the benefit of more data, offers a more scholarly, well-written, or determinedly opinionated analysis. For instance, in his well-annotated bibliography, amid polite and enthusiastic praise of other works, lie rapier-thrust one-line summations of less favored books.  Of  Oswald Spengler's Man and Technics (New York:  1932), Mumford writes:  "A book heavily burdened by a rancid mysticism, tracing back to the weaker sides of Wagner and Nietsche." (470)  The point is not merely that Mumford could write a well-turned acidulated phrase: it is his passionate and pugnacious engagement that illuminates the work, makes reading it an unforgettable encounter.

If reminiscent of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Mumford is also reminscent of H.G. Wells (whom he references), George Orwell, and G. K. Chesterton in this:  he simply tells a great world-organizing story that echoes on in the mind like a myth. On the eotechnic he seems a trifle romantic: not generally given to wooly-mindedness about things like the value of additional contact through instantaneous communication between far-flung humans, he does seem to think that the close living harmoniously artisinal cities of the 1000s-1700s had more to recommend them than they perhaps do, in light of complications like the Black Death and Barbara Tuckmans's depressing account of cities encountering ravaging armies.   Mumford on the paleotechnic has the scents and flavors of Orwell, and I would again call him a romantic (he dwells eloquently on the fogs in Whistler and the pale grimy sallow-faced populace) if I hadn't seem something of the same myself in China's developing paleotechnic cities.  If Mumford is romantic on the first two phases of life, it is inevitable that he is romantic  about eotechnic civilization, imagining clean energy, heroic men of science.  One thinks of clean new forms like the fused desert sands at the site of the Trinity blast.

Although his three stages of technology may be a myth with clear and uncomplicated outlines, he is still astonishingly right. How did he divine the course of information technology and the rise of efficient consumer-oriented manufacture?  Where in the 1920s were good examples of the clean technology that does, indeed, exist in the 1990s?  He makes no overt reference to it, but he revised this book in the middle of the apparent collapse of the capitalist system. The revival and continuance of the capitalist (and paleotechnic) system must have been a deep disappointment in later years.
Is is hard to resist comparisons with the works of other authors in this course:  Foucault, Kubler, Braudel, Vico.  He shares with Vico, Foucault and Kubler the desire to impose order, to uncover the path and reasons for the path of  human experience of technology.  Braudel, by contrast, seems less invested in imposing order as he is in lifting up the order he finds.  Foucault and Vico are most alike in their attempt to re-present the mind of "the" past human being -- a being very different than present-day man.  Bewilderingly erudite, the works of Vico and Foucault are most markedly  conversations with the echoing past;  consequently, both works feel (to a late 20th-century American woman) more feminine. They are fundamentally texts about texts.  There is almost nothing of this concern for and sensitivity to the archaeology of language as an indicator of the mind of the past in Technics and Civilization . Mumford's summation of magic, animism, and mysticism -- at once crude attempts to invoke metaphorical connections and crude approaches to the science of measuring things -- would probably exasperate Foucault as wholly missing the point of how the people of that age thought.  By contrast to these strongly contextualized works, Technics and Civilization offers few in-text references to other works, however well-annotated the bibliography.   Mumford does really proceed "as if there were no books in the world."

Mumford has perhaps most in common with Kubler who saw art forms as archetypal problems that had been solved, were currently being solved, or remained to be solved.  Mumford shares with Kubler the intent to distinguish tools from other classes of artifacts -- in Mumford's case the tool is contrasted with the machine; in Kubler's case, the tool is contrasted with the art form. More importantly, Mumford shares with Kubler the idea that human efforts (whether advanced through tools, machines, or art forms) and human society are about solving the problem of how to live best.  Mumford suggests that an ideally sense-satisfied human society is what was aimed at and missed in about 1800. Mumford differs from Kubler, and shares with Braudel, an interest in the details of everyday living for ordinary people.   Among the authors he is most focused on the breakthrough scientific discoveries that change life. (Kubler or Braudel would be second.)