The Machine

Lewis Mumford defines a machine as a “combination of resistant parts, each specialized in function, operating under human control, to utilize energy and to perform work,”[73] and makes a compelling case that the first machines were built not of metal or wood but of human beings. Though this was an “invisible” machine because of the spatial separation of its human components, it was in all the above respects the model for every machine built since, as these components, “though made of human bone, nerve, and muscle, were reduced to their bare mechanical elements and rigidly standardized for the performance of their limited tasks.” The products of these proto-machines are still visible today, most famously in the pyramids of Egypt.

The Machine enabled a new and profound expansion of the human ambition to dominate, subjugate, and eventually transcend nature. Agriculture set the stage for this ambition, it is true, but at the scale of the primitive farming village or herding tribe, humans were not really producing anything new under the sun. Ants, after all, engage in farming, and all creatures develop symbiotic partnerships with other species. Agriculture fostered the mentality of domination and laid the foundation for the division of labor, and it is these developments that transformed humanity into a new force of nature, or perhaps, not of nature. In the pyramids was evidence that humans could perform superhuman—that is, godlike—feats such as raising a mountain. And better than a mountain—a geometric shape of perfect precision.

New-age pyramidologists who think that the ancient megaliths must have required the technology of an extraterrestrial or Atlantean civilization are right about one thing: only through the mindset and method of machine civilization could they have been built. Yes, the pyramids were built by machines—machines built not of metal or wood but of human beings, fueled by the surpluses of riparian agriculture and molded by the forms of civilization into the standardized parts any machine requires. The specialization of labor in ancient Egypt was impressive even by modern standards: mining expeditions alone employed over fifty different qualities and grades of officials and laborers.[74]

Truly, only a machine could build a structure nearly five hundred feet tall out of fifty-ton blocks transported from distant quarries. “Blocks of stone were set together with seams of considerable length, showing joints of one ten-thousandth of an inch; while the dimensions of the sides at the base differ by only 7.9 inches in a structure that covers acres.”[75] The base of the Great Pyramid is just half an inch from true level, and the sides are in near-perfect alignment with true north, south, east and west. “In short, fine measurement, undeviating mechanical precision, and flawless perfection are no monopolies of the modern age.”[76] The tremendous physical energy to accomplish this feat, the specialization of function, the coordination of parts, and the requisite socio-technological infrastructure are the hallmark of the machine.

Because the operator of such a machine could perform godlike feats, it is no wonder that in ancient civilizations from Egypt to China to Mesoamerica, the king was accorded divine status. The ancient megaliths were proof that the king was not subject to the ordinary constraints of nature. Who else but a god could raise a mountain or change the course of a river?

Of course, as long as human beings formed the parts of the machine, these divine powers, the power to transcend nature, accorded only to its operator, the king. But later, as new machines were built along the same principles and logic as the prototypical labor machines, a new possibility arose in the minds of philosophers: maybe someday everyone will be a king, with the equivalent of hundreds or thousands of manpower at our command. At the same time, as one after another natural limit was transcended, the idea also emerged that we could all in some sense be gods. It is amazing how the characteristics of the gods of the Greek pantheon so closely resemble the ambitions of technological utopia: they possessed immortality, eternal youth, and flawless physical beauty; they could travel at incredible speeds and fly through the air; and they possessed lordship over the processes of nature. As presaged by the semidivinity of the Chinese emperors and Egyptian pharaohs, today we aspire through our technology to the status of gods.

As we have seen, this ambition was implicit already in the drive to create the perfect image, as well as to reduce the world to representations—names and numbers—susceptible to control by finitary means. The machine vastly accelerated these embryonic strivings, which were nonetheless crucial prerequisites for the development of mechanical technology. Prior to language, number, time, and other forms of symbolic representation, no one could even have conceived of a machine, which requires as a conceptual fundament—and then vastly accelerates—the objectification of the world.

The regularity, standardization, and functional specialization of these flesh-and-blood machines constituted a huge step away from nature, which admits to none of these qualities. The world-wide age of the builders confirmed in the human mind that we were something different under the sun, producing works and utilizing methods found nowhere else in nature. True, this paradigm shift started with the first stone hand-axe, which we recognize today as being in some sense an unnatural object (thereby confirming the prejudice that human is separate from nature), but machines take the out-separation of human beings to a qualitatively different plane by producing artifacts beyond individual human capacity.

Ensuing millennia saw a gradual progression of the division of labor, and thus in the complexity of the megamachine perfected in ancient times. Animal power, pulleys, screws and wheels, iron and steel all enhanced our ability to dominate, cut, and control nature. But none of these developments in any way reduced the mechanical structure of society itself, in which each individual is but a “resistant part,” “specialized in function.” “Resistant” here means discrete, and “specialized” refers to the division of labor initiated by agriculture. For a machine to run smoothly and predictably, its parts must be standard and hence replaceable, features which contribute, respectively, to modern depersonalization and anxiety. “Each standardized component… was only part of a man, condemned to work at only part of a job and live only part of a life.”[77] And as the machine realm—those aspects of life subject to specialized division of labor—grows, so the depersonalization and anxiety intensifies.

Today the realm of the machine has expanded to include almost everything. The factory system, with its emphasis on standardization of parts and mass production as a path toward efficiency, is applied far beyond manufacturing. In schools, for instance, the standardized curricula, trained operators, classification of product via “grading” are all reminiscent of the factory. The resemblance is not accidental—schools were designed by some of the same efficiency experts who designed factories—and the dehumanization is the same as well. Here the process begins of assigning to each person more and more numbers, which eventually come to define us as mere sets of data. Meanwhile in agriculture, the logic and methods of industry have been applied to the land itself, subjecting it to the same imperative of efficiency and, in effect, reconceiving the earth as itself a factory.

The Industrial Revolution that promised to make each human a king or a god also exacerbated human separation from nature. Whereas the ancient megamachine allowed works beyond individual human capacity, the steam engine allowed works beyond human biological capacity, reinforcing the idea that human beings are not actually part of nature, or perhaps that our destiny is to rise above nature. The remaining “unconquered” natural domains of old age, death, social ills, and so forth would fall before the juggernaut of science, technology, and industry, just as all the other limitations had fallen already. This, the Technological Program, received its greatest conceptual impetus from the manifestly supranatural works of industrial technology. Kirkpatrick Sale foresees grim consequences:

Imagine what happens to a culture when it becomes based on the idea of transcending limits. . . and enshrines that as the purpose of its near-global civilization. Predictably it will live in the grip of the technological imperative, devoted unceasingly to providing machinery to attack the possible. . . . Imagine then what happens to a culture when it actually develops the means to transcend limits, making it possible and therefore right to destroy custom and community, to create new rules of employment and obligation, to magnify production and consumption, to impose new means and ways of work, and to control or ignore the central forces of nature. It would no doubt exist for quite a long time, powerful and expansionary and prideful, before it had to face up to the truths that it was founded upon an illusion and that there are real limits in an ordered world, social and economic as well as natural, that ought not be transgressed, limits more important than their conquest.[78]

The Machine, then, gave us both the confidence and the wherewithal to attempt the transcendence of natural limitations, to ascend, like the Babelians, to Heaven and assume the powers of a god. Prophets, poets, and Luddites aside, it is only recently that we have begun to doubt this program, and now only because it is so evidently stalling. One reason it is stalling is foretold by the Babel story, in which a babble of mutually unintelligible languages made it impossible to coordinate the tower-building. In parallel, the fine division of labor that makes the entire technological project possible eventually generates such difficulty in managing that labor, so much chaos, that the effort collapses under its own weight. We see this too in science, where hyper-specialization renders various fields inaccessible to each other. Communication among fields becomes impossible. Each progresses toward solving its own narrowly defined problems, but systemic problems become increasingly hopeless.

The immediate result of steam-driven industry was not to make each man a god, but a slave. For the worker, the transcendence of biological limitations meant the subordination of the rhythms of flesh and blood to the rhythm of the machine: never tiring, never requiring food, sleep, or rest. Kirkpatrick Sale describes it thus: “The task for the factory owner was to make sure that workers would be disciplined to serve the needs of the machines–‘in training human beings,’ [Andrew] Ure said, ‘to renounce their desultory habits of work and to identify with the unvarying regularity of the complex automaton.'”[79] The factory marked, if not the start, a key quickening of the modern conception of work, something that we must discipline ourselves to do in denial of “desultory” biological impulses. Work became toil, of necessity repetitive and unvarying like the machine functions it served.

As it was for the labor, so it was for the products. If the early cultural technologies of label and number suggested the genericness of their objects, industry attempted to realize it through its emphasis on standardization and uniformity of product. With few exceptions, natural objects are unique, variable. Industry sought the opposite, the unnatural uniformity of its products further reinforcing the divorce between human and nature. Along with this mass scale uniformity came the disintegration of local differences, as people everywhere began to eat, wear, and use identical products and perform identical labor. We see this process culminating in the homogeneity of the early 21st-century American landscape: the generic roads, housing developments, franchises, superstores, and strip malls that comprise, in Jane Holtz Kay’s phrase, the “landscape of the exit ramp”.[80]

Finally, the standardization, homogeneity, and specialization of function that characterize the factory equally characterize the inhabitants of machine society. What began with Mumford’s megamachine has never truly disappeared, only worked itself deeper. Our specializations define us and validate our existence. Lumped together as “consumers” or “the workforce”, classified statistically into the categories of pollsters and social scientists, we humans have been made generic too, robbed of the individuality that once derived from a unique set of relationships to nature and kin.

Industry took to its conclusion the reduction of nature that started on the psychological level with symbolic culture and was projected onto the land with agriculture. Whereas these earlier developments reduced world to object, industry turned object into commodity, time into money, and human being into consumer. All the world, in other words, is being converted into money—the ultimate in anonymity, abstraction, and genericness—a story I take up in Chapter Four.

Is there then no hope, other than to undo the entire course of specialization and return to a society without division of labor? Is there no choice but to abolish all the technology that depends on it? I don’t want to leave you on a note of despair, so let me offer a sneak preview of a later chapter. In fact, there is a system in which specialization leads not to the reduction of the individual, but to her fulfillment. The model for such a system is sitting in your chair—it is the society of cells that comprises a human body. The organs of such a society are growing already, and it is this organic or ecological society that will soon supplant the dying civilization of the Machine.


[73] Mumford, Lewis The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development, Harvard/HBJ Book, 1971. p. 191


[74] Mumford, The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development, p. 193.


[75] Id., p. 196.


[76] Ibid


[77] Id., p. 212


[78] Sale, Kirkpatrick, Rebels Against the Future, Addison Wesley Publishing Company, 1996. p. 59


[79] Id., p. 36


[80] Kay, Jane Holtz. Asphalt Nation. University of California Press, 1998, p. 55.