The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   89

Authority, Liberty and Automatic Machinery in Early Modern Europe

by Otto Mayr

Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology (new series), no. 8
Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986

Politics and Pendula

Up to the twentieth century, there were two sorts of automatic machines. One sort were autonomous, pre-programmed devices, which, set in motion, went their own way without attending to the outside, exemplified by time-keepers, player pianos, wind-up dolls and, today, Windows. The other were feedback devices, which modified their behavior in response to what happened to them, generally trying to keep some quantity steady: refilling basins, thermostats, south-pointing chariots. Both types of machines have been known since ancient times, all across the Old World oecumene. The puzzle which occupies the present book is why, when early modern Europe inherited the mechanical traditions of antiquity, Islam, medieval Christendom and perhaps the Far East, it embraced autonomous devices with great fervor: if it did not invent the mechanical clock, it certainly fell in love with it in a way which no other civilization has done, and almost at once raised it to remarkable heights of technical perfection and artistic elaboration. On the other hand, feedback received almost no attention, except by artisans. Why?

Mayr's book is an interesting, competently-written, exhaustively-documented examination of this question. His answer is hinted at by his title. Early modern Europe (a vague name; here, evidently, from early in the fourteenth century to late in the eighteenth, and west of a line drawn through Stockholm and Split) was not just a highly authoritarian culture, but an increasingly authoritarian one. The medieval hodge-podge of feudal rights-and-obligations, free cities, communes, independent guilds, monastic orders, local charters and privileges --- a ramshackle construction so complicated that Europeans had to re-invent jurisprudence to make sense of it --- was being gradually but effectively simplified, regularized, and above all centralized. Sovereigns were evolving from persons the great lords agreed to obey (not feeling strong enough to take on him and all the other lords at once) into absolute monarchs, lords of all they surveyed. This development was, moreover, supported by all the most intellectually active and progressive elements of society --- that is to say, the people who have left us their views, and could afford to pay for elaborate machines.

Clockwork thus became a plausible and (apparently) useful image or emblem of authority and of authoritarian order, a point Mayr establishes by examining writings where clockwork is used figuratively, to talk about other things, as opposed to writings directly about clockwork. (This is a sound procedure.) This was all the more persuasive because clocks were not just functional time-keepers (though they were that too, helpful in running monasteries and commercial towns), but inheritors and extenders of an ancient tradition of symbolic, mechanical representations of the whole meaningful cosmos: hence their profusion of astronomical and astrological indicators, their music, and their automata, of which cuckoos are a last debased remnant. Just as, in the universe at large, power and virtue flow from the Empyrean through the celestial spheres to the Earth and its creatures, the least of whose motions is ordained by divine providence, so in the clock ``commands'' and motion come from the power-supply, weight or spring as the case may be, and the rest of the mechanism responds, wheel by wheel, down to the most minute hand or the most trifling movement of knights jousting upon the hour. So, too, does authority descend from the prince, God's anointed, to his officers and ultimately to his subjects. In this scheme, should a subordinate part deviate from its assigned and proper motion, that is not liberty, but mere breakdown, preventing the right function of the mechanism as a whole.

So here we have a practical technology which rapidly becomes an emblem and a favored, positive figure-of-thought because of its affinity with the recognized cosmology (likening the Creator to a clock-maker is almost as old as clocks themselves), and in turn used to help promote a new political ideal. Here is the really strange thing: when some men became committed to the ``new, or experimental philosophy,'' that is to say to genuine scientific investigation of nature, they also took very seriously indeed the comparison of the universe to clockwork: the experimental philosophy was also, explicitly, the mechanical philosophy. Phenomena were to be accounted for by the actions of small hard massy bits of stuff pushing and pulling each other, i.e. by mechanics: an extremely severe and, as it happens, successful ideal of explanation.

One branch of the mechanical philosophy was, notoriously, Descartes's hypothesis that animal bodies are automata. Since it was universally admitted that human beings are animals, it followed that human bodies were likewise automata. In this case, however, there was also the soul, which was quite distinct from the body, and exercised control over it --- like a watch's drive over its wheels. Descartes did not invent mind-body dualism, an honor going rather to whoever told the first ghost story, but this did make it a clear, acute problem. Moreover, application of the same line of reasoning --- only mechanisms explain --- lead first to calling the soul a ``spiritual automaton'' (Leibnitz), and eventually to openly proclaiming ``man a machine'' (La Mettrie). These were decisive steps forward in human self-understanding, though it's taking us quite a while to get used to them.

There had been other movements which pushed for empirical, naturalistic, causal inquiry, even interplay between theory and experiment, but they never got over the hump, whereas the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century did, with momentous results. Might the difference in part have been that the scientific revolutionaries were able to exploit the pre-existing prestige of one kind of machine to establish mechanism in general? (Conversely, there wasn't much in the way of successful science to point to and emulate other than mechanics...) In any case, once they did get over the hump, the scientists of early modern Europe began to down-play those aspects of mechanism which were more or less accidents of their technology --- the reliance on hard things hitting each other --- in favor of others --- regularity, universality, mathematical form, moral indifference. These features, so far from withering away, seem to be permanent ideals of explanation; but we've talked about the fortunes and future of mechanism elsewhere, and are in danger of wandering away from our subject completely. Let us simply note, with Mayr, that towards the end of the eighteenth century, even continental supporters of authoritarianism became disenchanted with clockwork, and began to turn to organic figures. Why this should be so, he hesitates to say.

So much for authority; what about liberty? Mayr identifies liberty, at least in his period, with the evolution of liberalism (which is fair enough), and liberalism with England (which is unfair to the Dutch --- but let that pass). For our present purposes, the ``peculiarities of the English'' were four. First, unlike all other European countries, its high literature features disparaging references to clocks from a very early date, the sixteenth century at least. Second, it lead the development of feedback devices, culminating, at the very end of our period, in James Watts's steam-engine governor, one of the key inventions of the industrial revolution. Third, it also developed the ideal of a self-regulating society, one ordered not by obedience to central authority but by the mutual checks and balances of its various independent parts, which included self-regulating individuals. These liberal writers on politics and economics were the first to give coherent accounts of feedback mechanisms, though they didn't call them that. Fourth, its actual society developed into a recognizable approximation of the liberal ideal. Voltaire famously quipped that liberty in England was born of the quarrels of tyrants, and this was true: none of the powers that tried to become absolute succeeded, and none of them was completely crushed and eliminated either. On the continent --- in France, for instance --- there was also violent religious dissent, and resistance to centralized political power, but the upshot of that was not checks and balances but Louis XIV. It is extremely tempting to link all this together: clockwork is bad because it is illiberal, self-regulation is good because it is the image or emblem of liberty, and may be observed in the workings of the free society, which is stabilized in part because people think it corresponds to an ideal if not inevitable form of order. Mayr cannot resist at least suggesting that these were real causal links back in the day, and not just associations in our minds.

Mayr does provide us some textual evidence that clockwork was denigrated at least in part because it was felt to be incompatible with liberty. From there on it's down hill. Feedback machines are conspicuous by their absence from the pages of the liberal authors; indeed, from all authors. The inventors of such devices, for their part, took no discernible inspiration from the liberals. Or rather: since Mayr has diligently searched all the relevant writings, if there were --- to fantasize for a moment --- any text by James Watt in which he credits the inspiration for his governor to reading Mr. Humes's essay upon the balance of trade, it would have been triumphantly displayed. (The actual genealogy of the governor seems to go back to devices which kept windmills working at a steady speed.) Worse yet, England was, with Holland, the leader of the ``horological revolution'' of +XVIII, when clocks became far more accurate, affordable and wide-spread than ever before. (This was noticed by the liberals.) Mayr does note that at least part of this revolution involved turning clocks into the plain, austere, practical devices we know today, and not the more or less literally Baroque confections the continentals found so inspiring. One wonders about Protestant influences on this iconoclasm; also why the continentals bought, and bought into, this reduction of function and simplification of form, and whether the shift mightn't have been part of why clockwork ceased to inspire. In any case, a simpler and more general hypothesis suggests itself: Britain was the leading country in many technologies, because liberal institutions encouraged it, and the progress of manufactures helped tie the powers-that-were to the liberal system, by making them much richer than they could hope otherwise to be.

Mayr intends this book not just to be a study of a specific historical problem; it rather an ``essay about the character of technology.'' He intends it to establish two theses (p. xv). One, to which my comments have mainly been addressed, is that ``the interactive relationship between technology and all other manifestations of human life and culture can be proven, even interactions as intractable and elusive as that between the political, social, economic, or religious ideas dominant in a given society and contemporary preferences and designs of technological hardware'' (his emphasis). This is the tricky and substantive thesis, to which I will return presently. The other thesis is one about which evidently Mayr feels rather strongly:

Technology as a fundamental human activity is intimately related to all other human activities [cries of ``hear, hear''] and thus is an integral [cheers], indispensable [cheers] part of all human culture [loud and prolonged cheers] and is not, as one often hears [hisses], an alien, inhuman force [hisses] unleashed upon mankind by some external agent [applause, chants of the speaker's name from the back of the hall].
My annotations are no more than half mocking: only mocking at all because I'm astonished this needs saying. Reading academic tomes on the history of technology won't persuade anyone so perfectly asinine as to deny this obvious truth, so why give it so much emphasis?

No, the really meaty and in-need-of-proof thesis is the one about being able to show what technology and various other particular aspects of social life do to each other. The simplest, most well-known and most compelling notion of these relations is technological determinism: the currently available technology sets, if not the exact social and cultural forms, then at least very narrow limits on the possible. (This is the orthodox Marxist position, at least in the long run.) Mayr seems to be arguing for something a bit different, that there are pervasive analogies or kinships between at least some technologies, ideologies and social structures. The problem is, that's not what his own evidence really shows. Let me suggest another picture --- it's too vague to call a hypothesis --- which is, I think, more in accordance with Mayr's own data. Any society which supports a literate high culture always has lots of different technologies. By a mixture of analogical aptness, luck, and tradition, the literati select some for emblematic use, make them into symbols of other things. This, however, has very little impact on the development of technologies themselves, which are influenced more by economic and political factors, and the accidents of invention. Technologies can be taken up with great enthusiasm because they mesh so nicely with (other) bits of culture (as was clockwork in absolutist Europe); or perfected by artisans in a society whose intellectuals find the values tied to them distasteful (as in the British horological revolution); or ignored by writers, though they would make very apt figures indeed (as liberals ignored feedback devices until the middle of this century).

This picture, I think, is a better likeness than Mayr's; among other things, it does not reduce us to sketching in a hazy ``causal nexus'' between British feedback machines and British liberalism, even though a diligent search turns up no sign of it. But while I think it's a good portrait of the relations between technologies and high cultures for most of the latter's history, we need a new one starting about the end of the nineteenth century. At that point people invented systematic, goal-driven research and development, and with it conscious, cultural control of technological development. Naturally, it was also when we began to worry about technological determinism, and to fear technology as an alien force.

xviii + 265 pp., numerous black-and-white figures, some black-and-white photographs
Europe / History of Science / Modern History / Politics and Political Thought
Currently in print as a paperback, US$17.95, ISBN 0-8018-3939-4, out-of-print as a hardback, ISBN 0-8018-2843-0, LoC HM221 M34
30 June 1999
Thanks to Margaret Alexander