Friday 12 October 2018

Review of Jeremy Naydler's In the shadow of the machine: the prehistory of the computer and the evolution of consciousness

Published in the current issue of Oxford Magazine – by Bruce G Charlton

Review of: Jeremy Naydler. In the shadow of the machine: the prehistory of the computer and the evolution of consciousness. Temple Lodge Publishing: Forest Row, Sussex, 2018 pp xi, 373.

Oxford residents might have come-across Jeremy Naydler; since he often guides tours of the city and has given lectures to a wide range of local groups over recent decades. He is also a Fellow of the Temenos Academy, and teaches at their London headquarters. Or perhaps you have come-across him looking after flowers and vegetables in the suburbs? Because Naydler’s main lifetime job has been as a gardener.

He read PPE in the nineteen seventies and then pursued scholarly interests independently before completing a PhD in middle age; on the subject of the pyramid texts of Ancient Egypt. Since publishing books on this subject and on Goethe’s science in 1996; Jeremy Naydler has become, in my judgment, one of the most interesting and original living writers in Britain.

Naydler’s central concern is the interaction between human consciousness and human culture; and he is of the opinion (which I share) that changes in human consciousness have been a driving factor in cultural evolution; as well as cultural evolution having affected human consciousness. Hence the subtitle of this book: The prehistory of the computer and the evolution of consciousness.

What makes this book distinctive is that it is a prehistory of computers. In other words, it is about the stepwise change in human thinking and technology that led, over a span of thousands of years, to the situation in the late 20th century in which - suddenly – computers became first possible, then developed with astonishing speed, and then swiftly took-over first the material world and, increasingly, human thinking. For this progression to happen in just three generations from the first electronic computers until today, was possible only because all the necessary pieces were already in-place.

In the Shadow of the Machine is thus a work in the genre History of Ideas, and as such it is exceptionally thorough and carefully argued. The argument is broadly chronological, describing many steps in the development of each significant component necessary for the computers of today. And as well as describing the specifics of the technological changes; these are related to the necessary conceptual change in the people involved, without which the technological progression could not have happened, and would neither have been understood nor implemented.

Naydler starts with some of the most simple of technologies from the oldest societies of which we have record; such as the Ancient Egyptian methods for raising water; or, as another example, medieval clocks and renaissance calculating devices. He explains why there were periods when apparently-valuable technologies were known-about but not used; then quite rapidly, something changed and the technologies became widespread.

But computers are software as well as hardware; so Naydler also lists and discusses the changes in symbolic notation, language, numbers, logic and so forth – and how these were implemented in physical form – via cogs, punched cards, switches etc.

Then there is electricity; without which computers would have remained exceedingly simple and slow. One of the most fascinating themes of this book is the discussion of the mysterious nature of electricity (and electricity turns-out to be much stranger, and much less well understood, than commonly realised); and the way that its ‘reputation’ began as something dark sinister, alien, inhuman – but later took on increasingly positive connotations until it became so pervasive as to be all-but invisible.

In the Shadow of the Machine takes us right up to the early years of modern computers and the threshold of our current era, and concludes with some wise words about the implications of computers for the way we think – and the established and increasing degree to which our own thinking is entrained to being computer-compatible; such that we habitually think like machines, and tend to disregard any thinking that does not conform to this reduced mode.

In sum; this is a book of ancient history that is of crucial importance for the present and future.

1 comment:

Chiu ChunLing said...

One thing that is essential is understanding the difference between the type of conceptual framework required to invent a technology and the conceptual framework necessary to be impressed by that technology.

These are not the same, and in some cases may be contradictory. In those cases where one implies (or could be called a contained subset) of the other, it is the concepts required to invent technology that is a subset of those that will lead to being impressed with the result. But much invention takes place in the conceptual space where the invention could be regarded as inconsequential even by the inventor, and no capacity of invention can be logically derived from the fact that a given mindset would find that invention impressive.

To be aware of the technology of modern computers at the level of a competent programmer or engineer is to be ever presently aware of the immutable fact that it is impossible to think like a computer because computers do not think or carry out any activity that can be usefully analogized to thought. To one who understands the technology at the engineering level rather than the user interface, "think like a computer" simply means to not think at all.

The dream of inventing a way for a computer to carry out some kind of thought process is just that, a dream. It has not happened. Not that all such processes have turned out to be useless, but that they have not been thought regardless of how useful they might be.

Of course, many humans don't think, at least not very often. And this is in some degree a result of civilization, since one of the measures of civilization is making it possible for people to survive without needing to think. But even in a state of nature there is room in the typical human society for at least some people who generally don't think (and whose thoughts are not expected to ever be useful). It isn't a complete novelty of the computer age. But it is unlikely there have ever been so many people who unthinkingly assume that they think (and do so usefully) when in fact they do not.