Thursday, April 13, 2017

Our startups, ourselves

In the NYT, John Herrman recalls an astute observation made by computer scientist John Dougman in the now distant 1990 (“New Technology Is Built on a ‘Stack.’ Is That the Best Way to Understand Everything Else, Too?” “Invariably,” Dougman wrote, “the explanatory metaphors of a given era incorporate the devices and the spectacles of the day.” The ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, deployed hydraulic and pneumatic metaphors reflecting the technology they used to pump water. During the Enlightenment, the human organism was conceived as a sophisticated machine, not unlike the newly ubiquitous mechanical clocks, watches, and related mechanisms. With the spread of IT, terms borrowed from computer science – like programmed, bandwidth, or hack – become the new master metaphors. One of the trendiest among these seems to be the “stack” – a combination of elements arranged (as if) on top of each other, well integrated and assuring the smooth functioning of a company (or a human being).

Herrman wonders if the “stack” is the best metaphor for understanding the non-technological – and non-virtual – world. I am wondering, though, about something else. Could the “causal” arrow be running in the opposite direction? We develop – as a result of our immersion in the larger physical and social world – some mental tendencies. Which lead us to develop corresponding technologies. Which, in their turn, provide the images and clichés we use to rationalize our potentially bewildering experiences – and reinforce our mental proclivities. If this were the case, perhaps the IT revolution reflects an algorithmic, mechanical style of thinking – rather than merely provide a set of evocative terms and metaphors. This form of thinking, in its turn, is mightily reinforced by the spread of computers and screens – but also by social and sensory overstimulation, and by rigorous cognitive training and work.

Algorithmic thinking comes more easily to “weird” cultures and to individuals with an engineering bent. In the social sciences, this form of mechanical reasoning has become the mainstream in almost all areas. It is habitually deployed to understand social and mental trends and phenomena – and the resulting reductionist abstractions are taken as “reality.” Two years ago I published an overly long article critiquing this trend (“Out of Touch: The Analytic Misconstrual of Social Knowledge”) – but, of course, the caravan never misses a beat.