The Megamachine: Lewis Mumford’s Vision of Technological Society and Implications for (participatory) Technology Assessment

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I will talk about my research to develop a theoretical framework that 1) Defines the sociotechnical in terms of crowd aggregates that contain both human beings, technologies and other material objects 2) I claim that sociotechnical crowds have qualities and talents that amount to more than the sum of individual choices. 3) I am going to talk briefly about the implication of these insights about sociotechnical crowds for technology assessment that includes public participation. This is work in progress and I look forward to evolving it by taking this discussion into account.

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My recent research has explored a prominent metaphor created by American humanist and philosopher of technology, Lewis Mumford, called the megamachine.  Mumford’s thirty books on literature, culture, architecture, urban planning, and technology amount to a grand narrative that digests the industrial revolution almost in its entirety. Mumford’s vision of a technological society developed over the course of many books from a “soft determinism,” where technologies and the material define social changes in human history, to a more interwoven and interdependent concept of the megamachine, “a system made up of interchangeable parts, inanimate and animate, human, mechanical, and institutional, centrally organized and controlled”(Thomas Parke Hughes and Hughes 1990a, 10).

My look at Mumford’s work refocuses attention on the path of this evolution to show that the material retains a persistent and iterative influence on the sociotechnical and can be detected in the behavior of aggregates, or what I will call collective capacities or “the crowd.”

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The pyramid is an artifact of the “first megamachine”. What makes it the ultimate example for Mumford is that it was constructed without sophisticated technologies by a labor force that erected a gigantic structure with extreme precision driven by a king with divine attributes (Mumford 1966b). This collective human labor force is one example of the megamachine at work, where collective capacities drive innovation. By collective capacities I mean to consider all the forces that can be exerted by groups in concert with their environments and the material conditions in them.

While a particular capacity might be held or carried out by an individual, following Mumford’s lead I assert that the capacity of the collective, or what I am referring to as “the crowd,” has a unique impact on environments that add up to more than an accretion of individual efforts. This view of the nature of collectives and their actions turns away from the description of individual agency, or rational actors, and instead focuses on qualities and patterns that emerge from the behavior of groups, societies, systems, and ecologies.

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The megamachine metaphor accounts for the interaction of people, ideas and institutions or what authors of the book Social Construction of Technological Systems refer to as a ‘seamless web’ (Thomas Parke Hughes 1993, 140). This metaphor is the progenitor of the now well-established concept of ‘the sociotechnical,’ a term that has become central to analysis in science and technology studies.

I want to suggest that STS could take a fresh look at the sociotechnical by focusing on collective capacities for innovation, what I am calling crowds, and the influence of technologies and the material on these entities.

I assert that a new understanding of crowds can provide a framework for the analysis of and design for technology assessment practices to place the focus on emergent capabilities.

I align key concerns in two pivotal works that help amplify and give shape to the aspects of the megamachine and destabilize established ideas about how components in a sociotechnical system behave in the aggregate: Bruno Latour’s Pasteurization of France (1988) and Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power (1962).

As I create a model of collective capacities in the sociotechnical according to the parameters of Mumford’s megamachine, I reinterpret two established ideas about the behavior of crowds and about the undue influence of technological systems on human behavior, also known as technological determinism.

The first idea is the dominant notion in social theory that crowds are monolithic and a harbinger of violence that needs to be suppressed. The second is an all but notion of technological determinism, a theory that presumes that a society’s technology drives the formation of its social structure and cultural values.

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With the help of Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power, I establish crowds as a distinct unit of social analysis and demonstrate that crowds have a multiplicity of motivations and emotions. Canetti writes a natural history of crowds that immediately veers away from the dominant treatment of crowds by Le Bon and others who theorize crowds as monolithic, as the irrational precursor to violent mobs, revolution and destruction. For Len Bon crowds in their irrationality necessitate authority and control. “Indeed, behind the fear and hate of crowds as politically destabilizing phenomena, there lies a much deeper concern, namely the fact that the crowd is a type of social entity that inherently threatens the physical and psychic boundaries of the individual. Not only is the crowd a dangerous political subject, it is also an outrageous epistemological object” (Brighenti 2010). It is precisely this treatment of the crowd as an epistemic entity that brings Canetti’s thinking in line with Mumford’s project to call out and critique a particular type of crowd that gets wrought through the megamachine.

I argue, with Mumford, that the crowd behaviors, or collective capacities, that give us the terms for scientific and technological innovation under the highly mechanized megamachine marginalize other ways that crowds, as a metaphor for an innovating sociotechnical society, can behave and innovate.

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Latour’s philosophy, still unfolding at the time of writing Pasteurization of France is a radical reinterpretation of the metaphysics held by prominent philosophers of modernity. While Latour’s method has many facets, the most important aspect for aiding the interpretation of Mumford’s megamachine is the systematic discussion of why “there are more of us than we thought”: in this case unseen microbes as important actors in shaping society. This assertion opens the door to a different sort of accounting of the influence of collectives and material technologies on the shape of society. I apply this by thinking specifically about the influence of non-human aggregates like large cities, nuclear power plants, for example. Latour would disagree with me that non-human aggregates have a special potentiality, but I want to argue that large-scale technological systems or ecologies shore up influence that perpetuates sociotechnical arrangements that constitute the megamachine. Technology does not drive history, but technologies have persistent presence that matters and is continually recategorized.

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I aim to show how collective capacities that take seriously the influence of things can be responsible for a condition that Mumford called the megamachine. I synthesize Mumford’s tactics with those of Canetti and Latour to propose a new focus in STS on crowds as a meaningful unit of social measure and on crowd behaviors as a function of interaction with the material as significant beyond the simple equation of crowd power is equal to the sum of individual wills standing together.

I am going to close by suggesting tactics for investigating alternate forms of those sociotechnical capacities in the context of technology assessment. And I will point out what I think are some theoretical challenges and opportunities that will take the field of social construction forward.

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This theoretical framework leads me to ask “How can a focus on the characteristics and components of collective human capacities in sociotechnical systems impact the design and performance of technology assessment as a governance mechanism for innovation?” By technology assessment (TA) I mean formal practices that engage experts and sometimes lay people in the evaluation of issues associated with complex scientific and technical issues. The majority of contemporary TA is designed with framework privileging individual agency, rational discourse, and evaluated by its immediate policy relevance. I propose a new model of technology assessment that includes broader public participation and recognizes the interrelationship between the material, experience and affect in mediating the innovation process and mitigating the influence of expert assessment as an input to TA processes.

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Briefly, in a recent project I organized with the Center for Nanotechnology in Society was an exploratory TA called Futurescape City Tours. Funded by the National Science Foundation under the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), Futurescape City Tours are interactive, community engagement projects where participants explore how emerging technologies could change their city and their lives in the near future.

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Local residents, stakeholders, scientists and engineers tour their neighborhoods and talk about how new technologies like nanotechnology may change buildings, transportation, food, healthcare, energy use and more. In the tours participants set the agenda and capture and interpret their experiences through photography to bring in affect, experience and their tacit knowledge.

pTA techniques that incorporate material and experiential elements enact Mumford’s idea of innovation as a function of human parts rather than of technologies. pTA processes attentive to tacit knowledge and affect can flag underlying public values that often go unarticulated. pTA of this kind fosters an iterative process wherein public values evolve in direct relation to probing the material and experiential.

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To conclude I was a bit provocative with my abstract to suggest that SCOT scholarship does not fully account for the persistence of a particular science/technology relationship Mumford critiqued by defining the megamachine. I believe that a focus on crowds as I have defined them can further thinking about the concepts of social groups and of interpretive flexibility in the context of SCOT. Overall this work can contribute to theory about the science/technology relationship. This is developing work and I welcome your thoughts and questions.