The coming of the neotechnic era

“Production with small-scale, free-standing, electrically powered machinery was the defining feature of what Lewis Mumford called the neotechnic era, which in his periodization of technological history followed the paleotechnic era of steam, coal and Dark Satanic Mills.”

Kevin Carson’s latest essay which we mentioned yesterday, contains an important argument about which form of technology is most adapted to current possibilities. In short: the availability of distributed electric power leads to the superiority of a distributed model, which has been historically derailed by the industrial model, but can no longer be stopped.

To understand it, one needs to know a little bit of Lewis Mumford’s periodization of technological history, which I have to present first. This will be followed by Carson’s argument, so please, do read on.

1. The three stages of technological history

Kevin Carson, summarizing Lewis Mumford:

The idea of resurrecting old technologies in a modern context is also suggested by Mumford’s periodization of technological history in Technics and Civilization. Mumford divided late medieval and modern technological development into three considerably overlapping periods: the eotechnic, the paleotechnic, and the neotechnic.

The original technological revolution of the late Middle Ages, the eotechnic, was associated with the skilled craftsmen of the free towns, and eventually incorporated the fruits of investigation by the early scientists. It began with agricultural innovations like the horse collar and horseshoe, and crop rotation. In mechanics, its greatest achievements were the invention of clockwork machinery, and the intensive development of water and wind power. It achieved great advances in the use of wood and glass, masonry, and paper (the latter including the printing press). The agricultural advances of the early second millennium were further built on by the innovations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, like raised bed horticulture and greenhouses.

The eotechnic revolution largely stagnated in the early modern period, being supplanted or crowded out by the paleotechnic revolution. Paleotechnic was associated with the new centralized state and its privileged economic clients, and centered on mining, iron, coal, and steam power. It culminated in the “dark satanic mills” of the nineteenth century and the giant corporations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth. Although the paleotechnic incorporated some contributions from the eotechnic period, it was a fundamental departure in direction, and involved the abandonment of a rival path of development. To a large extent, technology was developed in the interests of the new royal absolutists, mercantilist industry and the factory system that grew out of it, and the new capitalist agriculturists (especially the Whig oligarchy of England); it incorporated only those eotechnic contributions that were compatible with the new tyrannies, and abandoned the rest.

The beginning of the neotechnic period was associated, among other things, with the invention of the prerequisites for electrical power–the dynamo, the alternator, the storage cell, the electric motor–along with the development of small-scale electric production machinery suitable for the small shop and power tools suitable for household production. Electricity made possible the use of virtually any form of energy, indirectly, as a prime mover for production: combustibles of all kinds, sun, wind, water, even temperature differentials. As Ralph Borsodi showed, with electricity most goods could be produced in small shops and households with an efficiency at least competitive with that of the great factories, once the greatly reduced distribution costs of small-scale production were taken into account.

The modest increases in unit cost of production are offset not only by greatly reduced distribution costs, but by the possibility of timing production to need instead of attempting to engineer mass-consumption to the needs of production:

if the domestic grain grinder is less efficient, from a purely mechanical standpoint, than the huge flour mills of Minneapolis, it permits a nicer timing of production to need, so that it is no longer necessary to consume bolted white flours because whole wheat flours deteriorate more quickly and spoil if they are ground too long before they are sold and used.

To put it another way, if the object is to have the highest quality flour with bran and germ intact, at a reasonable cost, as opposed to nutritionally dead wallpaper paste, the small mill is the most efficient means available. The larger mills are only more “efficient” if the consumer is subordinated to the needs of large-scale production.”

2. The two phases of derailment

As it is cleary that this neotechnic age has not been fully carried out, one must ask the question why this is so.

Kevin Carson:

1. Earlier Mis-adaptation of neotechnic potential

The fulfillment of this potential, unfortunately, has been delayed. Mumford argued that the neotechnic technologies developed from the late nineteenth century on, based on the decentralizing potential of small-scale electrically powered machinery, have not been used to their full potential as the building blocks of a fundamentally new kind of economy; they have, rather, been incorporated into the preexisting paleotechnic framework. Neotechnic had not “displaced the older regime” with “speed and decisiveness,” and had not yet “developed its own form and organization.” He explained the phenomenon with reference to Spengler’s idea of the “cultural pseudomorph” (a fancy version of path dependency):

…in geology… a rock may retain its structure after certain elements have been leached out of it and been replaced by an entirely different kind of material. Since the apparent structure of the old rock remains, the new product is called a pseudomorph. A similar metamorphosis is possible in culture: new forces, activities, institutions, instead of crystallizing independently into their own appropriate forms, may creep into the structure of an existing civilization…. As a civilization, we have not yet entered the neotechnic phase…. [W]e are still living, in Matthew Arnold’s words, between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born.

…Emerging from the paleotechnic order, the neotechnic institutions have nevertheless in many cases compromised with it, given way before it, lost their identity by reason of the weight of vested interests that continued to support the obsolete instruments and the anti- social aims of the middle industrial era. Paleotechnic ideals still largely dominate the industry and the politics of the Western World…. To the extent that neotechnic industry has failed to transform the coal-and-iron complex, to the extent that it has failed to secure an adequate foundation for its humaner technology in the community as a whole, to the extent that it has lent its heightened powers to the miner, the financier, the militarist, the possibilities of disruption and chaos have increased.

The new machines followed, not their own pattern, but the pattern laid down by previous economic and technical structures.

We have merely used our new machines and energies to further processes which were begun under the auspices of capitalist and military enterprise: we have not yet utilized them to conquer these forms of enterprise and subdue them to more vital and humane purposes…. Not alone have the older forms of technics served to constrain the development of the neotechnic economy: but the new inventions and devices have been frequently used to maintain, renew, stabilize the structure of the old social order….

The present pseudomorph is, socially and technically, third-rate. It has only a fraction of the efficiency that the neotechnic civilization as a whole may possess, provided it finally produces its own institutional forms and controls and directions and patterns. At present, instead of finding these forms, we have applied our skill and invention in such a manner as to give a fresh lease of life to many of the obsolete capitalist and militarist institutions of the older period. Paleotechnic purposes with neotechnic means: that is the most obvious characteristic of the present order.”

2, Current Misuse of Neotechnic Potential

But the cultural pseudomorph is unsustainable and riddled with contradictions, in ways that Mumford did not anticipate in the pessimism of his later years. In the earlier stage of the cultural pseudomorph that Mumford remarked on, neotechnic methods were integrated into a mass-production framework fundamentally opposed to the technology’s real potential. Rather than integrating electrically powered machinery into craft production, despite the chief rationale for the large factory being gone, Sloanist production instead integrated the new machinery into the Dark Satanic Mill. As Waddell and Bodek observed, the layout of the machinery in a Sloanist factory followed the same exact pattern as if it all had to be hooked to belts running off the drive shaft from a central steam engine or water-wheel.

But since Mumford wrote, the cultural pseudomorph has entered a second, far weaker phase. Starting with the lean revolution in Japan and spreading to the U.S. from the 1970s on, mass production on the Taylor-Sloan model is being replaced by flexible, networked production with general-purpose machinery, with the production process organized along lines much closer to the neotechnic ideal. But the neotechnic, even though it has finally begun to emerge as the basis of a new, coherent production model governed by its own laws, is still distorted by the pseudomorph in a weaker form: the persistence of the corporate framework of marketing, finance and “intellectual property.”

But the corporate framework is itself unsustainable. The proliferation of even more productive small-scale machinery, like desktop digitally-controlled machine tools, combined with the unenforceability of “intellectual property” law in the digital age, and combined as well with new ways for ordinary people to pool dispersed capital, are leading to a singularity that will tear down the corporate walls. The separate terminal crises of corporate capitalism are reinforcing each other to create a perfect storm: the corporate economy’s need for subsidized inputs continues to grow exponentially, even as the collapse of the rents on intellectual property causes the base of taxable value to implode.

So long as the state successfully manages to prop up the centralized corporate economic order, libertarian and decentralist technologies and organizational forms will be incorporated into the old corporate framework. As the system approaches its limits of sustainability, those elements become increasingly destabilizing forces within the present system, and prefigure the successor system. When the system finally reaches that limit, those elements will (to paraphrase Marx) break out of their state capitalist integument and become the building blocks of a fundamentally different free market society.”

(the citation in block-quote is from: Lewis Mumford. Technics and Civilization. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1934)

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