How Crowds Make Technology: Revisiting Lewis Mumford’s Megamachine

LMScience and technology studies (STS) scholars claim that we live with the technological systems today that we, through a series of individual and collective choices, have wrought. However, save for recent public kerfuffles over GMO foods and BSE in Europe, most of us don’t take part in political activities that address the accretion of technologies in our lives, much less technology’s internal logic that has us all updating software, waiting for traffic lights, and going about our business as drone planes take aim in Afghanistan. In this light, the assertion that collective intentionality governs technology is troubling. This paper explores a foundational metaphor of how crowds in society make technology: Lewis Mumford’s concept of the megamachine, or dynamic, regimented human capacities driving sociotechnological achievement. I ask whether constructivist approaches in STS square with Mumford’s metaphor. I examine the megamachine’s component parts in relation to two pivotal works that characterize the impact of collective capacities on society and in turn, socio-technical arrangements: Bruno Latour’s Pasteurization of France and Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power. I provide a structured commentary on sociotechnical models (collective capacities and actants) and processes for transformation (innovation and abduction) in Mumford, Latour, and Canetti, accounting for power dynamics, the material, and the drive for endless and accelerated progress that connects these two. The resulting model of a “soft” megamachine suggests an alternative approach to the design and practice of technology assessment and a lens through which to view contemporary network society.