The Paradox of Automation

Lewis Mumford“We face now the great paradox of automation, put once and for all in Goethe’s fable of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Our civilization has found a magic formula for setting industrial and academic brooms and pails of water to work by themselves, in ever increasing quantities at ever increasing speed. But we have lost the Master Magician’s spell for altering the tempo of this process or halting it when it ceases to serve human functions and purposes, though this formula (foresight and feedback) is written plainly on every organic process.

As a result we are already, like the apprentice, beginning to drown in the flood. The moral should be plain: unless one has the power to stop an automatic process–and if necessary reverse it–one had better not start it. To spare ourselves humiliation over our failure to control automation, many of us now pretend that the process conforms exactly to our purposes and alone meets all our needs– or to speak more accurately, we cast away those qualifying human traits that would impede the process. And as our knowledge of isolatable segments and fragments becomes infinitely refined and microscopic, our ability to interrelate the parts and to bring them to a focus in rational activities continues to disappear.”

“The Power of the Pentagon,” Lewis Mumford, Horizon, Autumn, 1970, Volume XII, Number 4.

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