Travel,  Nature,  Naturalization,  Philosophy,  Poetry, Photography, Website Development

A Discourse on Technology and Control

By Walter Muma
August 2, 1985

[March 2004: Please note that this essay is at best only a cursory treatment of the topic. Many major points are only touched upon, others are omitted altogether. The essay was written for a college level course called "Culture", and thus was limited in how long it could be.
This essay was written in the days prior to widespread use of gender-neutral language. Thus I use the terms "Man" and "Mankind" to refer to Humans as a whole, and the word "he" and "his" usually refer to "him and her", "his and hers".
This essay was inspired by the writings of Lewis Mumford, in particular his book, "Technics and Civilization."]

Author's Note

Throughout this essay I have striven to give proper credit to the sources from which I obtained ideas. However, during many years of reading I have forgotten the original source and stimulus of some of the ideas that I have formulated and expressed herein. Over the years they have been assimilated into my consciousness where I have turned them over, digested them, and used them as bases for new thought. During the course of writing this essay I have drawn upon fresh sources and these have enabled me to bring many of these thoughts together into a coherent whole. To the sources which I most recently used and give credit to in this essay, I offer thanks. To those whom I have forgotten due to the passage of time and volume of material, I offer my apologies.

Due to the vastness of the topic, this essay is necessarily brief and concise in certain areas. Therefore I invite the reader to expand further upon the ideas in this essay on his or her own.


During the past three hundred years the world has seen an increasing use of machines and technology by Man. In fact, today we live in a world that is dominated by machines, particularly in the industrialized nations. This use of machines by Mankind has given him unprecedented control over his environment. Control here refers to the ability of Mankind to structure, manipulate, and guide his environment to his own ends. Yet, paradoxically, while he has gained this heightened collective control over his environment through the use of technology, there has also been a considerable amount of control lost due to this same technology. This is because of the fact that such large scale technological control requires an even larger superstructure, or social system, to support it. The largeness and complexity of this system has caused parts of it to get out of society's control, and we see the effects of this in things such as pollution and the arms race. As well as this, the individual in society has also lost a certain amount of control, becoming a mere "cog in the machine," with diminishing control over his or her destiny, subjugated to the needs of the system. The outcome of this has been alienation from basic human values, frustration, and separativeness from others.

In this essay, the term "technology" refers to the conception, construction and refinement of tools and machines and the techniques involved in using them. "Environment" refers mainly to the natural environment of the Earth, but also includes the environment of society.

Why and How is Control Pursued by Mankind?

From the very beginning of his time upon Earth, Mankind has sought to exercise control, over his environment. In fact, it has been the only way for him to survive. Relatively defenseless physically, his only protection against the natural forces that sought to destroy him, such as animals and the weather, was to attempt to either control them directly or to defend himself against them (which is also a form of control).

To do this, early Man utilized his relatively large brain capacity and his creativity to develop extensions of himself. These extensions were the various tools that he developed to achieve his ends. For example, to protect himself against predators, Man developed weapons, and protective enclosures such as caves and walls. For protection against the weather, Man lived under roofs and made warm and waterproof clothing. In order to secure reliable food and water supplies he started farming and dug wells. In order to accomplish all of this, he needed constant and reliable supplies of materials, such as wood and stone. His tools required their own further supply of materials for their construction. Through these methods of control, Mankind ensured his survival against all kinds of odds, and has been remarkably successful on this planet in terms of species survival.

However, during the past few centuries this control has been extended far beyond Mankind's needs for survival. Today, Mankind uses not only tools, but machines. This is an important thing to note in terms of loss of control. A tool is not able to function except as a direct extension of a person, under his or her direct control. A hammer, for example, lies inert until someone lifts it, holds onto it, and swings it. A machine, on the other hand, is able to function on its own, away from the direct and constant supervision of Man. Thus it is independent and distinct from Man. Computerized and roboticized machines are able to operate even more independently. A tool cannot get out of Man's control, whereas a machine, because it can function on its own, can.(1)

Today, the people of all industrialized nations are literally surrounded by things produced by man's tools and machines which are not necessary for their survival. In order to produce these things, Man has had to exert tremendous and far-reaching control over his environment. This control has become so great and extensive that "domination" would be a much more appropriate word for it. This domination, fueled by the power of technology, is made all the more pronounced by Mankind's large numbers.

A question that needs to be asked is, "Why has control extended so far beyond Man's needs for survival?" Could it be derived from his love of power and domination, fueled by his large ego? Or is the source of it his strong selfishness and greed? Or could it be a longing for comfort and a desire to provide this comfort for loved ones? Most likely it is a combination of all of these aspects of human nature. A comprehensive investigation of this question is beyond the scope of the present work.

Sources and Causes of Loss of Control

The aforementioned elements of human nature have manifested through various factors contributing to a loss of control during the past few centuries. Some of the more significant factors are: the Cartesian world-view, the role of the Protestant Church and the profit motive, the nature of machines, and the insertion of machines into the human-to-human exchange. It is these factors which have both enabled an excess of control and a subsequent loss of control to take place.

Cartesian World-View

Perhaps the most fundamental factors leading to the loss of control by society were the philosophies of Rene Descartes and Sir Isaac Newton of the seventeenth century. These views, known collectively as the Cartesian/Newtonian view, compartmentalized the universe into many different little parts, all somehow related. The universe was regarded as a gigantic "machine," running along on its own like clockwork. Every part of it could be split off from the whole and examined on its own to determine its function. The parts of the whole were regarded as being important, rather than the whole itself; "wholes" were merely made up of "parts." According to this view, everything in the universe was quantifiable and measurable, reducible to Man's measurements and numbers.(2)  Even Man himself was so regarded. The human body was a "machine," composed of many parts which in some mysterious way were interrelated to form a functioning person.

Although the Cartesian view is an excellent tool for analysis of large systems, this view of the world was accepted as being the "true" model of how the universe was constructed and ran, and so it came to dominate the world view of Mankind. Since the seventeenth century there has been widespread adoption of this philosophy in every aspect of Man's existence. People's lives are now seen as being composed of events that they experience and participate in, and lifetimes as being composed of periods that they go through. The Cartesian attitude of separativeness has had a tremendous effect on people's attitudes towards each other, as well as on Man's attitude towards his environment. Prior to the adoption of this world-view, Man felt himself to be living with the land, rather than on it. He lived as a member of a People, rather than as an individual in society. In the Cartesian world-view, people are seen as being distinctly separate from each other.

The Cartesian view of a mechanistic universe also provided the justification for Man's mechanization of the Earth and of himself. Since the universe ran like a machine and was composed of "parts," so also was the Earth. Thus Man felt quite justified in splitting off little pieces of the Earth to use for his own ends, which were seen as further extensions of the "universe machine."

Role of the Protestant Church

The world-view of the Protestant Church has had a profound influence in the development of conditions leading to the loss of control by Mankind over his environment. Most significantly, the Church taught that there was virtue in success in the material world. To amass wealth, to work hard, to expand and conquer were held as admirable ambitions, looked upon favourably by God and the Church.(3)  From this the well-known Protestant Work Ethic evolved, a philosophy that has dominated the European intrusion into, and growth in, North America.

Coupled with this was the regimentation imposed by the Church upon the life of society, particularly that of structured time. The Church propagated the measurement of time through the use of bells in its monasteries and churches. These bells rang regularly at set times throughout the day, thus dividing the day into distinct segments. As people started to order their day according to these segments, the Church became the regulator of all of society's events.(4)  In order to emulate this, and to more accurately keep track of the passing of time, the clock was invented, refined, and made available to everyone. Thus began the widespread use of the clock in society, and all of the artificial structure associated with the measurement of time. This was a significant factor in the removal of Man from his natural flow with Nature. A natural day is not composed of individual events put together into a whole. Rather, it flows smoothly from sunrise, past high noon, into sunset, through night and into another sunrise. It is one continuous, unbroken whole. The clock subdivided this continuum into parts, consistent with the Cartesian world-view. This structuring and division was very important in the extension of Man's control over his environment. Not only the physical world, but time itself was split into parts, quantified, and used to his own ends. Another effect of this was the change from a cyclical (whole) view to a linear view of time. Because of this division into parts, a day "started" and "ended," and each day was separate and distinct from every other. This alienated Mankind even further from a "whole" view of life and the universe.

From these basic concepts arose two subsidiary factors which fundamentally influence society today. These were the profit motive and the concept of work. The Divine blessing given by the Church of the pursuit of material gain gave rise to the profit motive in commerce. Instead of serving their fellowmen, people strove to take as much as possible from each other in business dealings. This created an atmosphere of "every man for himself," rather than, "every man for society." The eagerness with which this was pursued caused runaway control of the environment to take place in the pursuit of self-gain.

The concept of work was initiated by this pursuit of material wealth coupled with the Cartesian separation of life into "parts." People went to "work," a distinct and separate activity. If people were to acquire material wealth, it was necessary for them to devote time to this pursuit, and time thus spent came to be known as "work." So-called primitive peoples, living with the natural flow of Nature, do not have a word for "work." What we regard as "work" they regarded as part of the flow of life, necessary in order to continue living, and it was a joyous activity. Their control extended only to what they required to live: excess was unknown.(5)  The acquisition of material wealth went beyond the needs of survival; people had to "work" for it. Thus, in the development of the concept of "work" there was already appearing an excess of control, leading into loss of control.

Accompanying this separation of "work" from "living" was a loss of respect for the natural environment. So-called primitive peoples have an immense respect for their environment. In fact, they respected all of the universe, since they regarded themselves as an inseparable part of that whole. Through the separation of "work" from "living," Man lost this respect. he no longer regarded himself a part of the whole of life, working along with it, but as something different, distinct from it, doing things to it. With this view, people became able to ignore any effects of their actions that "spilled over" into other "parts" of the environment. Economists today continue to conveniently ignore these effects by dismissing them as "externalities."(6)

The final expression of the Protestant Work Ethic and profit motive is found in the rise and present day continuance of capitalism. This system encourages the all-out pursuit of material wealth at almost any cost. This is one of the strongest elements in the loss of control presently experienced by mankind.

Increase in Abstraction

Another important factor contributing to the loss of control by Man has been the increase in the abstraction of real, functional things. The most obvious and influential example of this is money, which has come to mean more than that which it represents. It is in this way that Man has placed value in things that do not functionally exist, removing him a step away from direct interaction with things of functional value.(7)  Money, of itself, is completely worthless and nonfunctional -- an abstraction of what it represents. It only becomes functional when it is exchanged for something "real." In placing such a high value in an abstraction, great potential exists for loss of control because of this removal from the "real."

Insertion of Machines Into the Human-to-Human Exchange

Whenever two or more people interact, whether socially or in commerce, verbally or visually, there is an exchange between them. As machines become used more and more in society, they become inserted into this exchange. Examples of this in our society abound: the telephone inserted into the person-to-person verbal communication exchange, the typewriter to write letters, the cash register to place value on goods, and computerized banking machines that take the place of a live person, to name a few. Whenever there is a machine inserted into this exchange, a part of the element of human contact is lost. As society becomes used to these intrusions, human values start to erode because of increasing distance between people. Loss of these values, as well as having functions taken over by machines, leads to a loss of control, especially by the individual over his or her environment.

The extreme case of this process of machines taking over human functions is the personalization of and identification with machines. People's identification with their automobiles and the universal personification of machines as being female are well-known examples of this. This is presently being made even more pervasive by the computer, which can be programmed to simulate human voices and behavior. Through the process of identification and personification, the machine is brought to the human level, becoming less of a cold, independent object in the process. On one hand, it would seem that this would bring the machine more under Man's control, and it does. But on the other hand, since Man becomes identified with the machine, he is no longer separate from it, and he starts to lose his sense of self. A person who loses his or her sense of self experiences a loss of control, since it is that sense of self which gives a person direction. So, although the control is won, it is, on the other hand, lost to an even greater degree.

It must be noted, however, that in and of itself, technology and machines are harmless, neutral. It is the use to which they are put that causes them to be harmful or beneficial. It is the attitude towards them that allows Man to either lose or preserve control over his environment.(8)

Loss of Control


The increasing use and predominance of machines and technology by Man has given him unprecedented control over his environment. He has been able to structure the natural world to suit his ends and to protect himself from harm to an extent never before possible. Yet at the same time, the vast and complex system that supports these machines and technology has acquired a life of its own, and has started to drift out of Man's control. The system that was created by Man to function as a tool has turned into an independently running machine.

Society has become structured around the functioning of this system and the individuals in society have been caught up in it, becoming "cogs in the machine." The smooth functioning of the system has become more important than the fate of the individual. It is in this manner that people have lost control over their individual lives and destinies.

Loss of Control on the Individual Level

After material wealth and profit were proclaimed as being virtuous by the Church, people threw themselves into their pursuit. With development of more advanced technologies and machines and the rise of commercialism, this rush for material possessions became even more pervasive. As more and more commercial links developed and transactions became more complex, a system developed to facilitate this commercialism. Soon, the individual became part of this system, dedicated to the pursuit of its goals. With this identification came a corresponding loss of identification with one's self and human values, giving rise to a sense of separateness and alienation of people from one another. The removal of people from a life spent working with the land and natural things to a life spent working with non-natural things has also contributed to this. Value became placed on things which were abstract and not functionally valuable, such as money.

Cut adrift from real, human values, and caught up in an impersonal, compartmentalized system, people experience feelings of helplessness and passivity when they realize that they have lost control over their own destinies. They become "dead" inside. They must serve the system in order to survive. The separation of people's lives into 'work" and other compartmentalized activities reinforces these feelings. Added to this is the regimentation imposed by time and its associated machine, the clock. Society itself reinforces all of this regimentation by holding up expectations and values that the individual within it must adopt. This especially apparent in large urban centres which are dedicated to the functioning of this system. Another way in which control has been lost by the individual is through specialization. Machines perform specific tasks, and it is cheaper and more efficient to have people perform specific tasks as well. Through specialization, general skills are lost, and individuals become les able to adapt to alternate circumstances. This also contributes to a narrowing of outlook, and therefore unwillingness to change. Also, when people work more with machines than with people and other natural things, they tend to identify with the machines that they work with. In these ways a large measure of control has been lost by the individual.

Loss of Control on the Collective Level

The most obvious sign that this technological, material-producing, profit-motivated system has gotten out of Man's control is the widespread pollution of the environment caused mainly by technological processes. Systems which are under control do not discharge unmanageable and harmful effluents into their environments. The only reason that this situation is accepted by Man is because of the compartmentalized Cartesian world-view of the Earth. Technological production is seen as happening in one particular place, and the waste products are seen as going "elsewhere" (the economists' "externalities"). This pollution later surfaces in one's "own backyard." An ongoing example of this is the pollution experienced in the Great Lakes (of southern Ontario, Canada), which surfaces on their beaches.

Mankind as a whole seems to have an implicit faith in technology to solve any problem. Man has moved from having faith in the real, himself, to having faith in the abstract, technology. This causes a further loss of control, since the technological system functions relatively independently of Man.

Control is also lost by the manipulation of individual and collective thought and behavior by the system. In order that society continue to serve the system, it must be reminded to do so through the media. This is evident in the large amount of advertising that takes place in urban centres, as well as in the media. Everywhere that one looks, there are large posters and billboards reminding us to purchase things that the system has produced in order to keep the system going. Thus the individual and collective will is pushed aside by the will of the system.

One very obvious way in which this has happened is the international arms race. Governments of the world's most powerful nations continue to build powerful destructive weapons even while their citizens almost universally want to live out their lives in peace. This is another manifestation of the separativeness which is encouraged by the Cartesian world-view; the separation of the people from their government, and of nation from nation.

Finally, it must be borne in mind that a society is made up of the individuals who comprise it. If the individuals of a society lose control over their environment and destiny, then that society loses a measure of collective control.

The Future

Looking towards the future, one cannot help wondering what further changes in society technology will bring about. With the current widespread growth of computers, which are extremely advanced, almost completely self-functioning machines, it seems as though technology and its system will finally be able to permeate every facet of our lives and existence. This will herald the final loss of control and the ultimate "inside death" of human life, and of human values and control. Yet, on the other hand, computer could just as easily free people from enslavement to the machine and technology, as they take over more and more aspects of production. Freed from this work, people would then be able to renew and pursue human-to-human interactions to their fullest once again.

Thus the future appears to be either utterly bleak or a radiant sunrise of renewal of human purpose. What actually transpires is at present only speculation.


From the very beginning, Man has exercised control over his environment in order to survive. During the past century this control has far exceeded Man's requirements for survival. In developing and propagating technology and its accompanying system, Man has actually lost a fair amount of control over his environment, both individually and collectively. This loss of control has caused many difficulties and problems in present day society.

Properly utilized, technology and its system may be able to bring these problems under control. But left to itself, this system could very well destroy itself and humans society along with it. We can choose to passively carry on as we have up to the present, continuing to lose control in our overall quest to gain more control. We can also choose to stand up now and again take charge of our individual destinies as well as the collective destiny of society and Mankind. This is the more difficult, yet infinitely more rewarding path. Which path shall we take? The choice is ours to make.


Capra, Fritjof. The Tao of Physics. New York: Bantam Books, 1977

Henderson, Hazel. The Politics of the Solar Age. New York: Anchor Books, 1981.

Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1934.

Shallis, Michael. The Silicon Idol: The Micro Revolution and its Social Implications. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Suzuki, David. A Planet for the Taking. Toronto: CBC Television, 1985.



(1) Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1934), p. 10

(2) Fritjof Capra, Teh Tao of Physics (New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1977), p. 9

(3) Mumford, pp. 42-43

(4) Mumford, pp. 12-18

(5) David Suzuki, A Plant for the Taking (Toronto: CBC Television, 1985)

(6) Hazel Henderson, The Politics of the Solar Age (New York: Anchor Books, 1981), p. 12

(7) Mumford, pp. 24-35

(8) Mumford, p.27


The material on this page is copyright © by the original author/artist/photographer. This website is created, maintained & copyright © by Walter Muma
Please respect this copyright and ask permission before using or saving any of the content of this page for any purpose

Thank you for visiting!