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A rant regarding humanity and technology

June 7, 2013

What follows below is the result of too much reading during a stressful month a while back. It remains my belief, however, after reading Mumford’s Technics and Civilization, where various phases of technology are named and discussed, that civilization must look forward to the dawning of a new phase. Keep in mind that Mumford was writing in 1934 and I was writing months before the end of the Mayan calendar. I admit that I thought there would be some significance to the end of the calendar; if there has been one, though, I haven’t seen it yet. Sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees, so maybe we’re still muddling our way through to our new phase. Maybe.

Mumford’s publication took place during what he called the neotechnic phase of humanity and technology. The question becomes – where are we now?

The apogee of the neotechnic phase is the reawakening of human consciousness to the realization of the interconnectedness of humanity with the each other with the environment. In 1934, Mumford noted that “we are returning to the organic,” and that “this reawakening of the vital and the organic in every department undermines the authority of the purely mechanical” (pp. 371-372). Our reawakening to true human consciousness will shake off the Victorian views of life where we struggle to make our way through “a blind and meaningless universe” and instead embrace the understanding that we are linked in “a partnership [of] mutual aid, in which the physical structure of matter itself, and the very distribution of elements on the earth’s crust, their quantity, their solubility, their specific gravity, their distribution, and chemical combination, are life-furthering and life-sustaining” (p. 370). Having not reached this point of the neotechnic phase, it would be folly to purport that we have completed it and moved onto a new phase; it would be fair, though, that to argue that the apogee of the neotechnic phase will give rise to a new era: the ecotechnic phase. This paper explores the extent to which we are approaching the apogee of the neotechnic phase which merges with the dawn of the ecotechnic phase.
It is mere days after the death of Apple CEO Steve Jobs at the time of this writing; society’s loss of the innovator of sleek, durable, and user-friendly technology has left millions wondering who or what will be able to step in to fill the void created by his death. And yet, one cannot help but simultaneously wonder if, as we sit surrounded at work by multiple computer monitors, processors, and other various odds and ends of technology, whether perhaps such a loss will also lead to the end of an era and the birth of something new: ironically, Apple products are not the return to the organic that Mumford envisioned nearly 80 years ago. Instead, the technology has nearly made cyborgs of us, making it so that we feel as though someone has severed an arm when we forget our smart phones, our iPads, or other handheld computing devices on which we have come to depend. It seems sadly amusing that the same tools designed to make us more efficient and in touch with the world have isolated us from the truth regarding our impact on the environment. And one cannot help but wonder, too, what it will truly take for the awakening of our consciousness that will usher in this new age of technics that is characterized by the just and equitable treatment of all of humanity and the environment. For now, one can only judge the extent to which we are approaching the ecotechnic era in terms of where we stand currently in the neotechnic phase.
Region(s) of Origin
The neotechnic phase began in France, but has spread since the 1800s throughout the world. Some countries have more firmly established themselves as leaders in the era, but Mumford’s identification of the era as a pseudomorph is apt: even for regions like the United States and Europe who have firmly entrenched themselves in the era, many aspects of the paleotechnic era have remained (p. 267). In some ways, the true emergence of the neotechnic phase will be its very death: the end of this era will be marked by its height. Mumford noted in 1934 that the neotechnic phase was “third-rate,” possessing only a fraction of its possible efficiency (p. 267). As the phase began to branch into other regions, the same characteristics of a pseudomorphic entity have remained, and only slowly are we reawakening to aspects of conservation that are already hundreds of years old. It may well be that the dawn of the new ecotechnic phase has already begun, but as Mumford explained, “we cannot see its details in their ultimate relationships;” thus, perhaps countries like Finland and Germany will emerge as innovators in the ecotechnic era for their revolutionary governance regarding renewable energy and humanity. I would be entirely surprised to see the United States emerge as a region of origin in the ecotechnic phase, despite the milieu of individuals interested in permaculture; we are represented by a larger governing body which is pushing more and more toward widespread natural gas drilling despite its indisputable hazards to humans and the environment. Again, to quote Mumford, “Efficiency must begin with the utilization of the whole man; and efforts to increase mechanical performance must cease when the balance of the whole man is threatened” (p. 250). So while I cannot confidently say where the height of the neotechnic phase and the birth of the ecotechnic phase will occur, I can more confidently speculate where they will not occur.
Resources and Raw Materials
Electricity remains the primary source of energy today, but the true indicator of the neotechnic phase’s height and passage into the ecotechnic phase will be the universal use of renewable resources to produce electricity. Instead, today, we remain staunchly fixed in the paleotechnic practice of mining and drilling for natural gas and other nonrenewable resources both in the United States and abroad. In the US, we call it clean coal, failing to note that coal is never clean, and that as a result of the fracking process, there are families who can actually light their drinking water on fire because of the methane released in the process of cleansing the ore. To say that the government’s allowing of such irresponsible and harmful practices is wrong does not do justice to the truth: we have known for hundreds of years the power (no pun intended) of renewable, clean energy sources, and yet we have failed to embrace such technologies. Not long ago, the United States was the largest producer of solar panels, producing something around 40% of the world’s panels; today, we produce only 5% of the world’s panels, often selling the panels for less than it costs to produce them. We have entirely failed as a nation to embrace geothermal technology, as well, and only a few countries have made serious headway in this regard. The ecotechnic phase will bear the hallmark of resources and raw materials that are clean and wholly renewable. In our current pseudomorph, we know as a civilization what the correct next move for humanity is, but our capitalist egos prevent us from moving forward; until a true global crisis motivates society, we will continually fail to embrace the use of such materials and resources.
Generation and Utilization of Energy
In the current stage of the neotechnic phase, individuals on a local level are becoming mindful of the generation and utilization of energy, but big business, at least in the United States, owns the government; decisions mandating the generation of clean energy are made not by individuals on a local level, but by the corporate puppet masters pulling the strings of our leaders. Moreover, in today’s global economy, such a negative picture is not painted only in the United States but throughout the world. The reawakening of our consciousness will begin, I believe, from the bottom up to undermine the corporations controlling the decision makers: we will fight locally and individually against poor recycling programs, against fracking, against grass materialism, and will continue to spread the consciousness from individual to individual. The ecotechnic phase does not mandate the abandonment of technology, but it does necessarily mandate an ecologically and humane approach to coexisting with one another and with the world. The ecotechnic phase will not accept the argument that greed and power are aspects of human nature which push us to rape the rights of our fellow men and our environment; civilization in this era will recognize the rights of every man to exist harmoniously with every other and with nature, and any generation of energy that violates this fundamental right will not be allowed by the consensus of the masses. During the current phase, I am wary of a global crisis for this very reason; as we were moving away from such a reawakening and instead regressing further toward the paleotechnic phase, it may only be a global crisis that triggers our reawakening.
Forms of Production
Currently, more than ever before in the past, we are a civilization of grass materialism, unable or perhaps just unwilling to distinguish between need and want. The neotechnic phase’s apex will be choosing luxuries, but never at the expense of another individual or the environment. Truly, “be that it harm none” will be a mantra for civilization regardless of creed, ethnicity, political affiliation, age, or gender. The ecotechnic era, as the neotechnic era finally fades into the background, will demonstrate a more fully developed sense of Mumford’s claim of the neotechnic phase that “the quantitative and the mechanical have at last become life sensitive” (p. 254). The cost and environmental impact of going green must first become less than the cost and impact of continuing on with the paleo-neotechnic status quo: when production of solar panels, windmills, and geothermal energies become affordable for average consumers without doing more damage in their development to the environment than the production they are replacing, we will truly know the dawn of the ecotechnic phase.

Types of Workers
We are in a peculiar situation today with regard to the types of worker that exist in the current phase. In some aspects, we are more informed, more educated, more eager to do well, and with more opportunities than ever before to achieve all of this, particularly in first-world countries. And yet, as further discussed below, the training methods for workers consist of a most paradoxical amalgamation of early paleotechnic ignorance and critical thinking. Undoubtedly, the workforce of the modern neotechnic phase is more diverse than it ever before has been. The utopian ecotechnic phase will ideally allow all workers to explore educational opportunities not only relevant to their career choices, but also to their personal interests; one can only hope that such choices and interests significantly overlap. The availability of information through modern technology, though, is making it abundantly clear that any individual, a member of the workforce or not, cannot easily be kept in ignorance, making the paleotechnic characteristics of the worker effectively extinct, except by individual choice, a matter for another paper.
Training Methods
In this current stage of the neotechnic phase, we witness the unique blend of training methods: in some societies, individuals have sought the education desired by our forbearers, only to find a persevering paleotechnic attitude: such educated individuals cannot find jobs because of being overeducated; currently, unemployment is approximately 9% in the United States.  Paradoxically again, though, much of the 9% is unemployed because of a lack of education and experience, which only serves to highlight the confusion, Mumford’s “Empire of Muddle” perhaps, that is the pseudomorphic neotechnic phase (p. 191). Societies like the United States have slashed education budgets to unprecedented extents while privately funding education programs which wealthy patrons deem worthy.
Aptitudes Developed and Discouraged
It remains truly difficult to clearly delineate in the midst of such a confusing era which aptitudes are encouraged and which are discouraged; furthermore, the variability from society to society in the global community makes it further to speak for civilization as a whole. Certainly, the notion of globalization has spread, even in societies that have tried to suppress it. With such globalization have come the fads of social networking, blogging and video-blogging, which serve to further the early neotechnic tendency toward voyeurism: we continue to both watch and feel watched (pp. 243-244). Undoubtedly, though, the shift in educational trends has changed, albeit not always to the benefit of those receiving the education when they enter the job market.

Aspects of Social Heritage Drawn Upon and Furthered
Currently, the neotechnic phase remains a pseudomorph, some combination of the previous paleotechnic phase and of the developing ecotechnic phase. Throughout the previous stages, civilization has continued to further the notion of forward progress, often at the expense of the environment and humanity. Though we have made great strides as a civilization in human rights, in the rights of the worker, and in the conservation of the environment, not all regions have progressed simultaneously, nor has the progress been complete. Slowly, Mumford explained, we have questioned the value of the machine:

“the machine is no longer the paragon of progress… it is merely a series of instruments, which we will use in so far as they are serviceable to life at large, and which we will curtail where they infringe upon it or exist purely to support the adventitious structure of capitalism.” (p. 365)

In 1934, Mumford was careful to note the trends he witnessed in the current neotechnic phase, and such trends continue to exist in this stage of the neotechnic phase, but such trends are by no means the rule – rather they are merely the exception. In the ecotechnic phase, they will be the rule, as we slowly but surely gravitate from capitalism to humanism.
Conclusion
Perhaps it is folly to suggest that society is moving toward a technological phase which will empower the individual to be both humane and ecologically responsible, but the evidence suggests that such a phase is entirely possible and even probable. It may be, however, that such a reawakening of the human spirit is only possible in the face of a worldwide global disaster. In times of peril, any conflict theorist would explain, societies unite against the greater evil; in the face of such a worldwide global disaster, perhaps, in fact, one caused by our very own hand, civilization would unite to change the way in which we think and live at the very cores of our being. We have made, throughout history, as we developed from the eotechnic to the paleotechnic to the neotechnic phases, great progress – but not without significant setbacks.

Mumford, L. (1934). Technics and civilization. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

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