Thursday, October 25, 2007

Seeking the sweet spot

It must have been some sense of deja vu that caused me to pull down from the library shelf Lewis Mumford's The Myth of the Machine. And, sure enough, on the check-out card in the pocket at the back there was no one's name but my own, not once, not twice, but eight times, extending over the period 1973-1987. Was I really so taken with Mumford and his urgent anxieties about technological civilization?

Mumford (1895-1990) was a scholar of remarkable breadth: literary critic, architecture critic, historian of cities, and -- here and in his book Technics and Civilization -- a commentator on humankind's fraught relationship with tools and technology. Did I learn to be wary of technology from Mumford, or was I attracted to him because of my own evolving love-hate relationship with machines?

Humans have been called "the tool-making animal," no doubt because the oldest remains of our species are often found with flint blades. Mumford took issue with this designation; after all, what is more likely to endure than flint. He wrote: "With man's persistent exploration of his own organic capabilities, nose, eyes, ears, tongue, lips, and sexual organs were given new roles to play. Even the hand was no mere horny specialized work-tool: it stroked a lover's body, held a baby close to the breast, made significant gestures, or expressed in shared ritual and ordered dance some otherwise inexpressible sentiment about life or death, a remembered past, or an anxious future. Tool-technics, in fact, is but a fragment of biotechnics; man's total equipment for life." It is sharing and communication that makes us human, he said, and he feared the dehumanizing effects of what he called "megatechnic," in which humans become mere cogs in a vast mechanical system driven by greed and lust for power.

As Leo Marx pointed out in The Machine In the Garden (1964), Americans have long been torn between fascination with machines and a longing for the organic, and I suppose that makes me a typical American. My idea of a perfect moment is sitting in the October woods with my beautiful MacBook laptop.

This much is sure: Technology is not going away. I read somewhere that more than 90 percent of the stuff made in America today ends up in a landfill within one year of the time it's produced. I can't vouch for that statistic, but even if it's only approximately correct it dramatizes the unsustainability of our present way of life. Somehow we have to find a way to bend technology to organic purpose, rather than the other way around.

Robert Frenay (Pulse: The Coming Age of Systems and Machines Inspired by Living Things, 2006) plumps for a global economy modeled on ecological principles -- bioeconomics, he calls it -- a "feedback culture" that, as in organic systems, drives the future towards a "sweet spot of adaptability" between order and chaos. Whether we have the will or the ability -- as a civilization -- to impose a direction on technology remains to be seen. In the meantime, each of us can create our own "sweet spots". If enough of us tend to them with attention and care, the future may not be so bleak as the techno-pessimists presume.