Innovation arrives from seeing something for what it could do, rather than, as most people do, seeing it for what it is supposed to do. Technology philosopher Lewis Mumford calls such divination acts of "dissociation."
The huge burst in innovation around the 16th century arose from a decoupling of the animate and the mechanical in people's minds, he wrote in his 1934 book "Technics and Civilization."
To "dissociate," in psychological terms, means to separate one's self from feelings, memories and other bits of your identity. But Mumford means it culturally, to see something outside the context culture ascribes to it. This separation leaves the viewer free to see the capabilities of the object at hand.
"The original advances in modern technics became possible only when a mechanical system could be isolated from the entire tissue of relations."
What was hanging everyone up prior to the 16th Century was animism, Mumford charges. Animism is the act of imbuing objects, in our mind anyway, with the breath of life. In doing so, we devote far greater attention on the symbolic meaning of everything around us, rather than seeing that object solely in terms of its potentially useful mechanical properties.
"In the Middle Ages, the idea of a thing which a man formed for himself was always more real than the actual thing itself, and we see why these mystical centuries had no conception of what men now call science," French art historian Émile Mâle has said.
Yet we did this through perceived necessity, Mumford argues. Early on in the book, he alludes to how man “internalizes his external world and externalizes his internal world.” Our notions of life bound beyond ourselves filling into "stones, rivers, stars, and all the natural elements," Mumford writes. So it would be only natural that it would take a life of its own within humankind’s mind.
And because these live forces could be powerful and potentially do a fearsome harm, mankind had to expend considerable effort in overcoming such fictional threats. He obsessed over the discipline of himself (with religion), or others (warfare).
All of this effort added up to a sort of blindess to the world as it actually was. "So long as every object, animate or inanimate, was looked upon as the dwelling place of a spirit, so long as one expected a tree or a ship to behave like a living creature, it was next to impossible to isolate as a mechanical sequence the special function one sought to serve," Mumford wrote.
The machine was another abstraction altogether. Machines probably date back to the dawn of the neolithic era, with the potter's wheel or fire-drill (though the idea certainly goes back to the first person who realized a log could work as a wheel).
From the beginning, however, machines have been designs of external forces that "modify the environment in such a way as to fortify and sustain" humans. "A machine is a combination of resistant bodies so arranged that by their means the mechanical forces of nature can be compelled to do work," Mumford wrote.
Mastery of machines, which grew into the sophistication of single-function organisms of a sort, could not be beckoned by appeals to the Ancient Gods, however. Those beliefs had to be set aside, at least momentarily, for a system of interlocked set of magnitudes.
"Bodies did not exist separately as absolute magnitudes; they were coordinated with other bodies within the same frame of vision and must be in the same scale," Mumford wrote.
And so the era of science commenced...From the Book:
Other Quotes and Notes
"A machine is a combination of resistant bodies so arranged that by their means the mechanical forces of nature can be compelled to do work."
"In back of the development of tools and machines lies the attempt to modify the environment in such a way as to fortify and sustain" humans.
"From the beginning the machine was a sort of minor organism, designed to perform single set of functions."
"The machine, in the form of the fire-drill or the potter's wheel, has been in existence since at least neolithic times."
"The application of quantitativemethods of thought to the study of nature had its first manifestation in the regular measurement of time."
"Within the walls of the monastery was sanctuary: under the rule of the order surprise and doubt and caprice and irregularity were put at bay."
In the 7th century Pope Sabinianus decreed "that bells of the monastary be rung seven times in the 24 hours." 40,000 monastaries under Benedictine rule followed these canonical hours
“For the clock is not merely a means of keeping track of hours, but of synchronizing the actions of men.”
The clock, not the steam engine, is the key machine of the modern age."
The clock, moreover, is a piece of power-machinery whose 'product' is seconds and minutes: by its essential nature it dissociated time from human events and helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences
The clock has been the foremost machine in modern technics: and at each period it has remained in the lead: It marks the perfection toward which other machines aspire.
The division of hours into minutes and minutes into seconds came around 1345, according to Thorndike.
"No two cultures live conceptually in the same kind of space and time."
"What the painters demonstrated in their application of perspective, the cartographers establishedin the same century in their new maps."
"Since money does not disclose what has been transformed into it, everything, whether a commodity or not, is convertible into gold. Everything becomes saleable and purchasable." -- Karl Marx
"Life, not content with its own province, had flowed incontinently into stones, rivers, stars, and all the natural elements: the external environment, because it was so immediately part of man, remained capricious, mischievous, a reflection of his own disordered urges and fears."
"Since the world seemed, in essence, animistic, and since these 'external' powers threatened man, the only method of escape that his own will-to-power could follow was either the discipline of the self or the conquest of other men: the way of religion or the way of war."
"In attempting to seize power man tended to reduce himself to an abstraction, or, what comes to almost the same thing, to eliminate every part of himself except that which was bent on seizing power."
"In the Middle Ages, the idea of a thing which a man formed for himself was always more real than the actual thing itself, and we see why these mystical centuries had no conception of what men now call science." —Emile Male
“The power that was science and the power that was money were, in final analysis, the same kind of power: the power of abstraction, measurement, quantification.”
“Whether machines would have been invented so rapidly and pushed so zealously without extra incentive of commercial profit is extremely doubtful.”
“Capitalism utilized the machine, not to further social welfare, but to increase profit.”
“Man internalizes his external world and externalizes his internal world.”
“Between the fourteenth and the seventeenth century a revolutionary change in the conception of space took place in Western Europe. Space as a hierarchy of values was replaced by space as a system of magnitudes.”