Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Hesperotechnic Phase

Lewis Mumford’s 1934 opus Technics and Civilization was one of the first major efforts to take technology seriously as a defining factor in human culture, and it still remains one of the better attempts at a broad vision of technology’s impact on civilization, light-years ahead of Marshall McLuhan’s glib generalizations or the dualistic morality plays of such current figures as John Zerzan. History has dealt harshly with Mumford’s more optimistic predictions, and the history of the next century or so will likely be even less merciful. Mumford was very much a thinker of his own time, a firm believer in the inevitability and moral value of progress, and the thought that the technological civilization of his own time might turn out to be the peak of a ballistic arc was, at least in 1934, unthinkable to him. Still, a writer who in 1934 could argue that the future belonged to sustainability rather than linear progress, and identified the restoration of balance between humanity and organic nature as a central need of his time, is hardly outdated today.

Mumford’s view of the rise of modern technics divides the process into three steps. The first step—the eotechnic phase (from Greek eos, dawn, and techne, craft)—unfolded from older handcraft traditions reshaped by advances in mathematics and pre-Newtonian physics. The technologies that typify the phase—clocks, windmills, printing presses, square-rigged sailing ships, firearms, and the like—all evolved gradually out of less effective medieval versions by the gradual buildup of small incremental changes. Like their medieval equivalents, they relied on sustainable energy resources: the same combination of wind, water, biomass, and muscle that had powered human technology since the late Neolithic.

The second or paleotechnic phase (the Greek root here is paleos, old) arrived with the first efficient coal-fired steam engines. James Watt’s invention built on more than a century of earlier work, through the same sort of incremental change that turned the hand cannons of the 14th century into the flintlock rifles of the 17th; steam-powered pumps of various types had become standard in mining, where the problem of pumping water out of deep mine shafts had driven innovation since the Middle Ages. The breakthrough was as much conceptual as technical—the vision of steam power as a prime mover for any purpose, rather than simply a mining machine, transformed society and launched the industrial revolution. Efficiencies of scale made mass production profitable as well as feasible. The sheer availability of coal, far and away the most abundant of the fossil fuels, made it almost impossible for people of the time to see the risks of a transition that made human civilization dependent on a nonrenewable resource.

It is with Mumford’s third step, the neotechnic phase (Greek neos, new, is practically an English word now), that his analysis begins to break down. In his view the neotechnic phase is the age of electricity, and represents not a further progression along paleotechnic lines but a reversal, equal and opposite, leading to Utopia. Only the fact that a great deal of paleotechnic thinking and practice remained stuck solidly in place, he argued, kept the neotechnic phase from bringing in a new mode of society, clean, humane, decentralized and liberating.

Much of his argument makes sense even today. With electrification and the internal combustion engine, the vast centralizing force of Victorian technology went into reverse and began to encourage decentralization; electric motors allowed force to be applied at a level of delicacy steam could never achieve, and mass-produced cars replaced crowded, railroad-dependent Victorian cities with the first bloom of suburbia. In 1934, when the great hydroelectric plants of the Columbia and Tennessee watersheds were still coming on line and petroleum was so cheap to produce that even federal antitrust agencies permitted open price fixing to keep the American oil industry from bankrupting itself, the neotechnic era must have offered endless vistas of hope.

Looking back from two thirds of a century later, the flaws in these gleaming prediction are all too apparent. Despite the proverb, hindsight is not invariably 20/20—the United States, for example, seems almost perversely unwilling to learn the lessons of past empires as it embraces policies that embody nearly all their most fatal mistakes—but it does tend to cast a clear light on the faultlines that separate the ideal from the real. What Mumford could not have known in 1934 was that his neotechnic phase depended on nonrenewable resources far more limited than the abundant coal that powered paleotechnic society. He was right to see the neotechnic phase as a reversion to a more organic pattern; what he missed was that this pattern was the bloom and crash of yeast in a nutrient vat.

Arguably, Mumford’s vision was blinkered here by yet another variation on the same pattern of religious myth I’ve tried to critique in the last two Archdruid Report posts. His pretechnic, eotechnic, paleotechnic, and neotechnic phases are modeled on the version of Christian sacred history central to the identity of the liberal Protestant mainstream of Mumford’s time. The pretechnic phase, full of foreshadowings of the coming technological revelation, mirrors the time before the incarnation of Jesus; the eotechnic phase is Mumford’s version of the primitive Christian church; the paleotechnic phase is his Catholicism, the whipping boy for so much Protestant rhetoric in his time; while his present, stuck temporarily between paleotechnic and neotechnic phases, echoes the view of many liberal Protestants of his time that their churches had not yet finished casting off the formalism and central control of their Romish past, and would achieve pure Christianity just as soon as this happened.

Such exact parallels are anything but uncommon in writings of Mumford’s time, or for that matter any other, very much including ours. This is no accident; most human thought might be described, without too much inaccuracy, as the art of fitting new experiences to familiar myths. The question that needs to be asked, here as elsewhere, is whether the myths we use actually fit the texture of our experience. Mumford’s phases—the eotechnic age of square-rigged ships and windmills; the paleotechnic age of coal and steam; and the neotechnic age of petroleum and electricity—make a useful typology for the last four hundred years or so of technological history. If that same history fails to support the mythic pattern he overlaid on the typology, the first question a mythically literate person might ask is whether there’s another myth that fits it better.

While I’m hardly a fan of such neoprimitivists as Daniel Quinn and John Zerzan, they deserve respect for having grasped this last point clearly. The neoprimitivist movement seeks to replace the myth of progress with a myth of fall and redemption in which technology plays the role of original sin. It’s a clear and compelling narrative, and has the advantage of recasting our current predicament as a cause for optimism. I’m far from convinced that their myth makes any more sense of our actual situation than the myth of progress does, and a myth that defines the mass death of six billion people and the loss of every trace of eight thousand years of human culture as good things has obvious problems of its own, but at least they have taken the mythic dimension seriously.

A reader of last week’s Archdruid Report post wrote to ask whether I had any myths of my own to propose as alternatives to the myth of progress, or whether I intend to limit myself to deconstruction and will leave the future to find its own myths. It’s a valid question, and too important for a glib answer. Like all intellectuals, I’m in the mythology business, and as a religious leader in a tradition that enthusiastically affirms the mythic nature of its own core narratives, I have the freedom to treat mythic narratives as such, rather than dressing them up in the borrowed clothing of some other field of thought. Over the weeks and months to come I hope to have something to say about the narratives that might help us make constructive sense of our present predicament.

Mumford’s myth offers a place to start. As we bump along the unsteady plateau at the top of the Hubbert curve, wondering how soon the plateau will turn into a slope and the toboggan ride down from today’s technological heights will begin, it seems increasingly clear that the neotechnic era is a passing phase, not the permanent achievement Mumford seems to have expected. Over the decades to come, then, we can expect to see the first major steps in the transition to a new phase. It won’t be an exact repetition of any earlier phase, but it will have certain similarities to past ages that faced similar conditions. As the saying goes, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

Borrowing a bit of Mumford’s own jargon, we can call this new technological stage the hesperotechnic phase (the Greek here is hesperos, evening)—the twilight phase of industrial technology. Just as important elements of the three earlier phases can best be understood by looking at the technologies and energy sources that drove them, at least some of the outlines of the hesperotechnic phase can be grasped by considering what technologies and energy sources human societies will have to hand once the neotechnic phase finishes fading out. Over the next few weeks I plan to make a first reconnaissance of this largely unexplored territory. As this exploration proceeds, those of my readers attentive to the language of myth may begin to get a sense of what narratives I might offer as useful tools for thinking in the coming times.


Adrynian said...

I find it intriguing that the neotechnic phase could be thought of as a decentralizing, liberating phase when in so many ways, the power - both physical and social - was just as concentrated, if not more so. You mentioned a few cases yourself, JMG, including the massive hydroelectric dams and the price fixing of oil. Capital - loosely, the power to command energy/power - is just as concentrated now as it was in the 30s, and only for a brief period around the 50s was it less so.

That more capital and energy intensive technologies could be thought of as decentralizing and liberating seems to me to be a fallacy born of utopian idealism.

norlight0 said...

I am going to have to give this one some more thought. One omission I noticed in last week's post was that Buddhism, of all the major religions, was not mentioned.
In our modern fast world we seem to be so focused on the past or the future that the present is shrunk to a thin line. Consequently, we feel rushed and harried, robbed of the ability to enjoy or appreciate the present moment. But ultimately there is no past or future. All we have to work with is the present moment. What if we stopped thinking about our post peak future, and actualized the change we wish to see in the eternal present?

John Michael Greer said...

Adrynian, no argument there -- the weakest part of Mumford's argument is its utopian dimension. He mistook decentralization of the locus of consumption for decentralization of power, and the two have no necessary relation at all.

Norlight, true enough, I haven't talked about Buddhism; it's an odd duck among living religions, most of its close equivalents having vanished quite a few centuries ago, and its approach to mythic narratives is the unique (and arguably very relevant) one of grounding them directly in the structures of consciousness. I do think it's relevant to think about the future and the past, but more attention to actualizing sustainability in the present is certainly a good idea!

Matt Cardin said...

As I indicated in my comments on a couple of your recent posts, I really appreciate the direction you're taking here, Michael. I agree that a conceptual deconstruction of the reigning Western (and now global) myth of progress and technology, coupled with the presentation of a contrasting, coherent, compelling alternative, is supremely valuable. It's interesting to see this idea getting a lot more play in recent times, as in Dimitry Orlov's essay about the "despotism of the image," which examines the ground-level, practical ways in which the denizens of modern uber-technological society suffer under the irrational rulership of a mythic image about life's proper shape and purpose that's drastically out of step with reality.

I'm sensing the possibility of a serious collective surge of scholarship, reflection, and philosophizing that will combine cogent critiques of technology with equally cogent critiques of cultural mythology and collective thought patterns in this Age of the Corporate-Controlled Image. I'm thinking of something along the lines, maybe, of Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society meets Daniel Boorstin's The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America, or maybe Theodore Roszak's Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Post-industrial Society meets Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.

So this is all to say, good show, Michael. I'll be following your upcoming writings with keen interest.

Matt Cardin said...

And of course I got so caught up in what I was writing that I called you "Michael" instead of "John." Not sure how that particular mental switch got thrown, but apologies for it.

Robin Gunston said...

Good to see that mythmaking is still in vogue. I would query whether an American could however create meaningful world applicable myths unless they are able to apply their own worldviews without being overshadowed by predominant American mainstream conditioning which has an exaggerated view of its own importance and influence. If you achieve this then something innovative and valid may come to shape some of the movement many of us in the New New World are moving to in this phase of our human development, a myth that we are able to be independent and truly sustainable as a nation or people group.

Brian Riggs Sullivan said...

I would not lump in Daniel Quinn as a neoprimitivist and would encourage you to examine his work more closely. He actually says very little about technology, per se, and about what exactly we should do with it; he almost exclusively focuses on our cultural mythology and how it led to our current predicament, contrasting it with the mythology of sustainable, indigenous cultures.

At first glance, I, too, along with many others, saw Daniel Quinn's work as a "dualistic morality play" between what he calls Taker and Leaver cultures (civilization vs. indigenous peoples). However, on closer inspection and digestion, and through the refinement of his ideas and their communication over time, I came to see that he speaks of a "New Tribal Revolution" in the way we organize ourselves socially and culturally, predicated on a return to (or a re-integration of) an animist cultural mythology (as opposed to a salvationist one). An animist cultural mythology sees humanity and all its actions (including, I submit, all the trappings of civilization) as part of the universal process(es) of nature, and, as in Daoism (which I interpret and apply in an animist way), we do best to harmonize ourselves with those universal natural processes.

One level of universal natural process includes the evolution of culture: what has come before, even as it declines, plays a vital role in fertilizing whatever is arising, and whatever is arising will alchemically make use of all that has come before (both Taker and Leaver culture, salvationism and animism). One cannot, I submit, definitively judge either civilization or indigenous culture (including "primitivism") as "better" than the other, and I think that, if we survive, the future holds something markedly different from anything in either our civilized or indigenous past. I applaud your efforts at predicting what lies ahead and I will read with interest your attempts at elucidating a cultural mythology that might lead to it.

sushil yadav said...

The link between Mind and Social / Environmental-Issues.

The fast-paced, consumerist lifestyle of Industrial Society is causing exponential rise in psychological problems besides destroying the environment. All issues are interlinked. Our Minds cannot be peaceful when attention-spans are down to nanoseconds, microseconds and milliseconds. Our Minds cannot be peaceful if we destroy Nature.

Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment.

Subject : In a fast society slow emotions become extinct.
Subject : A thinking mind cannot feel.
Subject : Scientific/ Industrial/ Financial thinking destroys the planet.
Subject : Environment can never be saved as long as cities exist.

Emotion is what we experience during gaps in our thinking.

If there are no gaps there is no emotion.

Today people are thinking all the time and are mistaking thought (words/ language) for emotion.

When society switches-over from physical work (agriculture) to mental work (scientific/ industrial/ financial/ fast visuals/ fast words ) the speed of thinking keeps on accelerating and the gaps between thinking go on decreasing.

There comes a time when there are almost no gaps.

People become incapable of experiencing/ tolerating gaps.

Emotion ends.

Man becomes machine.

A society that speeds up mentally experiences every mental slowing-down as Depression / Anxiety.

A ( travelling )society that speeds up physically experiences every physical slowing-down as Depression / Anxiety.

A society that entertains itself daily experiences every non-entertaining moment as Depression / Anxiety.





To read the complete article please follow either of these links :




John Michael Greer said...

Matt, thanks for the encouragement -- and I go by both names, so not a problem. I'm less certain, though, that the answer lies in coming up with "a contrasting, coherent, compelling alternative" -- any attempt to describe the world of our experience through a single story, I think, is mistaken.

In its day, the story of progress was exactly such a compelling alternative narrative, meant to overcome the hold of a particular kind of religious story that was causing catastrophic civil wars across Europe. It succeeded, too...and then turned into a problem in its own right.

What I'd rather see, and what I'm trying to do here, is something a bit different. I want to help people notice their own storytelling power so they can make their own stories -- and I want to encourage them to think about the implications of their stories so they miss some of the more obvious pitfalls in familiar stories like the tale of progress.

Robin, of course you're right that nobody can see out of any eyes but their own, or tell a story that takes its raw material from anything but their own experience. As my comments to Matt may suggest, I don't propose to come up with some sort of monomyth that the world ought to believe. My job is the more modest but potentially more challenging one of helping people to notice that there's room for more than one myth in the world -- a common realization a couple of thousand years ago, though it's become rare lately.

Brian, granted, I may not have given Quinn his due. I was not impressed by those writings of his that I read -- rehashed Rousseau mixed with highly selective anthropology isn't really my cup of tea, though admittedly my response may be shaped by the number of people who've insisted to me that every word of Ishmael is revealed Truth. But one shouldn't judge a writer on the basis of his fans!

Sushil, you know, if you don't like a fast-paced lifestyle it's actually not that difficult to slow down. I don't own a car, a TV, or a cell phone, and I find that the absence of these and other timewasting devices from my life allows me to live my life at the pace I prefer. Anyone else can do the same thing. I'd encourage you to give it a try.

Matt Cardin said...

It seems I must have imparted the wrong impression with my words, John, because I'm actually in line with precisely the project you describe. I'm guessing my use of the word "coherent" might have been key, since it might imply something systematic and codified.

I'm not at all interested in the development and promulgation of a new monomyth. I'd rather see a widespread recognition and conscious appropriation of what Nietzsche was getting at in his cryptic declaration that "We are all greater artists than we realize," and what the Zen koan points to when it asks, "Who is the master who makes the grass green?" and what Jean-Jacques Lyotard articulated when he said the essence of the postmodern condition is "incredulity toward metanarratives." The thing is, a kind of unwitting culture-wide absorption of this idea, as opposed to a clear-sighted understanding and embrace of it, has been intimately bound up with the spiritual malaise of the Western world for about a century now. It's just like Nietzsche foresaw: nihilism was the disease that afflicted the 20th century, and it's still raging in the 21st. In the early 20th century, the West (itself a kind of mythic psychic structure) began to realize the artificial, manufactured nature of its core storyline, but instead of understanding and embracing the epiphany, we shoved it underground and thus made it a cause for cultural schizophrenia. Even the global upsurge in recent decades of various monolithic, monomythic belief systems -- e.g., fundamentalist militant Islam, fundamentalist evangelical Christianity -- can be identified as blowback in response to the creeping nihilistic sickness.

I'm very much in favor of what you describe: not attempting to turn back time by offering an alternative metanarrative or monomyth, but working to wake people up to their storytelling power so that it becomes a source of life instead of death. That very goal itself, and the state of awareness it implies, might then serve as a valuable guiding "myth" -- not in the old sense of providing a totalizing cultural story, but in the sense of providing a general frame of reference and shared understanding of how and where we stand in the cosmos.

That's why I regard your work here as so very valuable.

Dan Gambiera said...


Sorry to use your blog for communication, but I don't have an email address for you.

This week's Time magazine has a fascinating article about the relationship between string theory geometry and chord progression music. Very trivium/quadrivium.

There is also a link to the author's page at Princeton which includes his article on the subject in Science magazine and supplementary theoretical materials.

Joe Bob Briggs says "Check it out!"

RJ said...

That Mr. Mumford wrote this book in 1934, should not go unnoticed. Surely Hypercapitalism's gestation was complete by then. The technology was in place, just awaiting the input of vast amounts of cheap,abundant, energy.

Anecdotally, I've only read "Pentagon of Power-The Myth of the Machine" so my perspecive is a bit different. By 1970, 36 years later, it had become quie apparent to Mr. Mumford that indeed Frankenstien had left the lab.

John Michael Greer said...

Matt, thanks for the clarification. I jumped to a conclusion, as you pointed out -- and readers of a certain classic children's fantasy novel will doubtless recall that when you jump to conclusions, you have to swim all the way back.

Dan, many thanks for the links! I can also be reached via AODA's contact email -- it's on our website at .
RJ, I'm working my way through Mumford as time permits -- haven't gotten to "Pentagon of Power" yet, though it's very much on the list.

Wijnandt said...

Copernicus removed mankind from the centre of our universe. Darwin eliminated mankind's claim for a divine and unique act of its creation.

Peak oil will teach us some more things.
Our modern achievements are/were made possible by the liberal amounts of available energy
We do not differ from other animals in how we relentlessy push the exploitation of available food and energy to their limits, without regard for the long-term consequences for our species and for other life forms.

It's a long and hard to swallow lesson in becoming more modest...

Thomas Mazanec said...

Did Mumford consider a hypothetical ultratechnic phase, like electronic, nano tech, space or the other tech we are seeing on the horizon (even if they are mirages)?