13 December 2019

Mumford -- Art and Technics (ii)

...the very growth of mechanical facilities has given people a false ideal of technical perfectionism, so that unless they can compete with the products of the machine or with those whose professional training qualifies them for such a public appearance, they are all too ready to take a back seat. (pp. 6-7)

If "professional training" has contributed to a chilling effect borne of meaninglessly inflated standards, then the technologies responsible are not the ones which automate and dehumanize the task in question but rather the technologies which enable culture to be recorded, archived, and disseminated. (Perish the thought that the last step, reception, will eventually somehow be automated too.) I would say that in music, at least, we can observe the emergence of "a false ideal of technical perfectionism" which is borne entirely of human dynamics and which predates the usual technological suspects. Eminent musical technicians have set many a new bar unaided by concurrent technological advance and without taking mechanical reproduction as their model1 2. But they have been reliant on information technology to make available relevant artifacts of the past, distant and recent alike. For temporal artists who need to gather firsthand evidence, faster travel has helped too (it could have saved Bach several weeks of walking), but in a pragmatic rather than a generative way.

So, mechanization has been the primary means of development of a mass culture which shrunk the world and accelerated change in the widest-reaching ways. Yet even today there are only a few corners of the musical universe where machines are truly admired to the point of serving as models for human musical ambitions. It seems to me that musicians fairly reliably get where they're going in this respect via the dynamic interaction of nature and nurture, and indeed that this interaction is a bit too dynamic for "compet[ing] with the products of the machine" to ever hold much interest for more than a few of us, not even when we are surrounded by machines as seductive as the iPhone and the 3-D printer. In other words, we must eventually zoom in from the bird's eye view where Mumford has perched himself, at which point it becomes clear that not everyone is inexoribly led to form such "false ideals" no matter how thoroughly such ideals surround them. Even now we still have a few evangelists for slow food, quiet music, close reading, etc. The early-period Situationists confronted the 1950s at far younger ages than did Professor Mumford, yet they certainly shared his contention that

with all our superabundance of energy, food, materials, products, there has been no commensurate improvement in the quality of our daily existence. (13)

Perhaps, then, the Situs' basic critique was not as radical as their proposed solutions. By the same token, perhaps Mumford resolves the Structure-Agency problem too one-sidedly because he is interested in interventions to which only Structure is susceptible; in reform rather than revolution. But then a sociology of technical perfectionism is needed before practical reform can be theorized, and I don't think we have that here. Later on we learn, in fact, that Mumford himself (suddenly ahead of his time rather than behind it) expects to find the social valuation of mechanization leading rather than trailing technological development itself.

men become mechanized, they themselves are transformed into mechanical, uniform, replaceable parts, or they teach themselves how to perform, with accuracy, standardized and repeatable acts, before they take the final step of inventing machines that take on these duties. The social division of labor precedes the mechanical division of labor, and the mechanical division of labor, in general, precedes the invention of complicated automatic machines. (64-65)

And he continues,

The first step is to reduce a whole human being into a magnified eye, a magnified hand, a magnified finger, subordinating every other function to that whose province is enlarged. This specialization takes place even under the handicraft system at a late stage in its development. By breaking the once unified process of work into a series of fractional operations...the output can be increased at the simple cost of taking all the fun and interest and personal responsibility out of the operation for the worker.

Those who enjoy pillorying millennials for sport can entertain themselves unpacking whether "fun" and "interest" are reasonable things to expect out of your job. For the rest of us, the phrase that leaps off the page is "personal responsibility." Here Mumford, the non-revolutionary, encapsulates in concise, plain language why mass production is not merely tedious but in fact socially destructive. Personal responsibility, this central tenet of classical conservatism, is directly countervailed by the ways neo-conservatives like to pursue economic growth. This is worth keeping in mind anytime the "anti-business" epithet is trotted out in American political warfare.

I would propose that the now-endemic corporate and governmental construct of Accountability, a superhuman human standard whose rigidity gives it a clear affinity with mechanization/automation but which clearly issues from of all kinds of forces besides machine worship, is in fact a desperate effort to re-wrest control of the post-responsibility worker, whose predictable response to a world where "fun" and "interest" take place only outside of work now creates an unsustainable level of friction within the prevailing social and economic systems. Machines are both models of accountability themselves and far superior to humans as tools for testing and imposing accountability on other humans. Plus, they don't need to have fun.

I did at one time perform (and rehearse) extensively with an ensemble where contact mics and digital tuners were de rigeur during rehearsals. I take every opportunity to relate this experience to other professional brass players and have yet to find one who thinks this is a good idea. I'm also positive that the formative events leading to this outcome in that group of people need not await the invention of even more accurate tuners in order to find full expression. Here the machine was neither competitor nor prophet; it was merely meeting an unmet psychological need. Where stakes are not so high and solutions not so elusive, meanwhile, I would expect to find very few people and institutions worshipping the machine. The self-cleaning oven is foremost about exempting us from the chore and only secondarily about doing a better job of it.

1. Daniel Wolf:
let's throw out any claims for an inevitable progression in musical history from less to more complex -- it didn't happen as we left antiquity, with its now-lost enharmonic genus and wealth of modal melodic types, it didn't happen in the way from the late 14th through the early 16th centuries, it didn't happen from the late Baroque to classicism -- successive musics focused on different issues, and the location of audible or associative complexity in musical textures moved as well. We need a more complex view of musical complexity.

2. Milo Fine:
each succeeding generation has "improved" technical wiring; which is why, for instance, contemporary composers are generally one generation ahead of people actually being able to realize what they write. This is much more inevitable than it is admirable; a natural progression of technique, but, of course, not necessarily resonance.


Stefan Kac said...

Daniel Kahneman
Thinking Fast and Slow

"Because adherence to standard operating procedures is difficult to second-guess, decision makers who expect to have their decisions scrutinized with hindsight are driven to bureaucratic solutions—and to an extreme reluctance to take risks. As malpractice litigation became more common, physicians changed their procedures in multiple ways: ordered more tests, referred more cases to specialists, applied conventional treatments even when they were unlikely to help. These actions protected the physicians more than they benefited the patients, creating the potential for conflicts of interest. Increased accountability is a mixed blessing."
(p. 204)

Stefan Kac said...


"Experts who acknowledge the full extent of their ignorance may expect to be replaced by more confident competition, who are better able to gain the trust of clients. An unbiased appreciation of uncertainty is a cornerstone of rationality—but it is not what people and organizations want."
(p. 263)

Stefan Kac said...

Christopher Lasch
The Minimal Self (1984)

"the failure to distinguish a moralistic indictment of "consumerism"...from an analysis that understands mass consumption as part of a larger pattern of dependence, disorientation, and loss of control. Instead of thinking of consumption as the antithesis of labor, as if the two activities called for completely different mental and emotional qualities, we need to see them as two sides of the same process. The social arrangements that support a system of mass production and mass consumption tend to discourage initiative and self-reliance, and to promote dependence, passivity, and a spectatorial state of mind both at work and at play. Consumerism is only the other side of the degradation of work—the elimination of playfulness and craftsmanship from the process of production."
(p. 27)

"The promotion of commodities depends, like modern mass production, on discouraging the individual from his own resources and judgment... The individual finds himself always under observation, if not by foremen and superintendents, by market researchers and pollsters who tell him what others prefer and what he too must prefer, or by doctors and psychiatrists who examine him for symptoms of disease that might escape the untrained eye."
(p. 28)

Stefan Kac said...


"Modern technology and mass production have been defended, like mass culture, on the grounds that although they may have taken some of the charm out of life, they have added immeasurably to the comforts enjoyed by ordinary men and women. "I have no quarrel with tradition," [Herbert] Gans writes. "I am in favor of washing machines over washboards, and over river banks, however." But it is precisely the democratizing effects of industrial technology that can no longer be taken for granted. If this technology reduces some of the drudgery of housekeeping, it also renders the housekeeper dependent on machinery—not merely the automatic washer and dryer but the elaborate energy system required to run these and innumerable other appliances—the breakdown of which brings housekeeping to a halt. As we have seen, modern technology undermines the self-reliance and autonomy of both workers and consumers. It expands man's collective control over his environment at the expense of individual control; and even this collective control...is beginning to prove illusory as human intervention threatens to provoke unexpected responses from nature... Nor can it be argued that advanced technology expands the range of options. ...in practice industrial technology has developed according to the principle of radical monopoly, as Ivan Illich calls it, whereby new technologies effectively eliminate older technologies even when the old ones remain demonstrably more efficient for many purposes."
(p. 43)
[SK's boldface]