In Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History, Siegfried Giedion studies the history of the mechanization of everyday life to determine how mechanization has affected human beings and what the political limits of mechanization might be with regard to humans. In doing so, he creates an “anonymous history,” a study of “our mode of life as affected by mechanization – its impact on our dwellings, our food, our future,” as well as links between industrial methods and extra-industrial practices in art and literature. This book is thus an early (1948) cultural history of technology, with which Giedion intends to restore faith in human agency by revealing how human “work and… innovation – whether they know it or not – are continually shaping and reshaping the patterns of life.”
Working from a wide range of sources, including models, manufacturing records, catalogues, advertising leaflets, etc. (he was frustrated to find that most inventors and businesses did not keep records of failed inventions), Giedion traces the development of mechanization in Western history, from ancient and medieval times to the mid-20th century, with an emphasis on the 19th and 20th century. The books is arranged first thematically and then chronologically, and technologies, photography, painting, and business history are all intermingled, so that the reader can get a sense of the social and cultural context of different kinds of technologies in addition to a general sketch of their development. For instance, his section on movement includes Oresmi’s 15th century diagrams of planets in motion, Marey’s 19th century photographic studies of birds in flight, Muybridge’s photos of men at work and Gilbreth’s abstract lines of time and motion studies; as movement becomes more abstract, representations of it (Joyce, Picasso) become more fragmented and sad about the loss of human continuity. Perhaps mechanization, as linked to this rationalization of living movement, separates thought and feeling?
Giedion uses this vast and rather fragmented anonymous history of technology to caution against the “illusion” of progress, arguing that we have never had so many tools to abolish slavery, but all we show for it is an inability to organize the world or even ourselves. We live in age of “mechanized barbarism, the most repulsive barbarism of all,” where a fragmented, mechanized view of the world has prevented us from seeing the whole picture even as revolutions in art and culture since the 20th century have tried to head in a more holistic direction, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Giedion argues that in order to achieve an equilibrium between humans and technology, we need to reconnect some of the fragments: individual with community, thinking with feeling, specialized knowledges with one another, and the human body with “cosmic forces,” or both man-made AND organic environments.
Basically, we need to become human again, and take a more holistic, contextual approach to technological development. In the wake of WWII and the atomic bomb and fears of nuclear annihilation, this book must have been a welcome relief to those who read it.