Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Design of the Megamachine -- Review

I've been talking too much about myself lately, (and I have about five minutes before I host a wild pset party in my room,) so tonight, I have nothing for you but a review/summary I wrote recently of an essay called "The Design of the Megamachine" by Lewis Mumford. I may have mentioned him in a recent post, and I find his ideas interesting.


The megamachine draws its strength from the authority of the kingship. Only a powerful ruler, often abetted by tools of social control such as religion and the military, can mobilize the requisite number of people in an organized enough way. The megamachine is often used to produce more tangible works, such as the pyramids of Egypt or the Roman roads, but is itself invisible because the components—the ordinary people who, through joining the megamachine, lose their individual identity— can disperse to their own pursuits when the authority is no longer strong enough to direct them.

At the top of the hierarchical structure is a mind with a purpose: a king. Behind the king stands the threat of coercive power. The king works through bureaucrats, lines of communication, and other administrative structures to transmit his will to labor units which are at once specialized and interchangeable. He directs action at a distance, and ensures fidelity of will-transmission through writing down orders and putting into place systems for accountability. The holder of this role needs a suite of design skills: the ability to abstract into the future (conceptualizing the goal—he must be a “visionary”), the ability to foresee which steps need to occur to achieve that goal, consummate skill in organizing systems (mostly of people; logistical concerns may, perhaps, be delegated to a skilled underling), and practical instinct (can this really be done?). The worker must have complementary traits: obedience, patience, and precision.

Between the king and the workers are, as mentioned, other systems. First, the megamachine requires a body of knowledge, practical and otherwise. In the ancient world this was embodied in the priesthood, and the exclusiveness thereof contributed to the power of those who were educated. Knowledge of science, astronomy in particular, allowed the priests to solidify their spiritual authority. Second, the megamachine needs a structure for executing orders. This is the bureaucracy or the administration, and consists of several parts: communications corps such as scribes and messengers who move information around the structure, directors and managers such as stewards, and finally, specialized workers.

Some invisible machines are the military, labor forces, and the bureaucracy. They can, of course, join forces or in some cases overlap.

The ancient human megamachine was intended to use labor; the modern mechanical equivalents instead seek to save labor. But both sought efficiency and exactitude.

Of course the megamachine glorifies the king and reinforces his power; but what, if anything, do ordinary people get out of it? The works of the megamachine often include useful public infrastructure such as roads and aqueducts. Beyond that, being part of the megamachine integrates people with respect to society, bringing people together in pursuit of a common goal. Thus the megamachine is a force for law and order in society, and a source of pride and identity for its components. It leads to an urban mindset, one of concentrated and consciously directed action, of expanded human possibility and imagination. Kingly egotism may benefit society.


Relevant music:

Everybody Wants to Rule the World - Lorde

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