Silicon Valley’s Obsession with the Future Is Older Than You Think

Magdeburg Cathedral, where Pope Sylvester II built the first mechanical clock. Photo: Getty

In 996 AD, a Benedictine monk named Father Gerbert, who would later become Pope Sylvester II, created the first modern mechanical clock. It was a weight-driven device, likely powered by water. Sundials and water clocks were built in ancient Egypt, Asia, and Greece, but the technology had scattered after the fall of the Roman Empire. In Technics and Civilization (1934)Lewis Mumford describes Gerbert’s reassembly of this knowledge as the defining moment that gave birth to capitalism and the mechanical world:

“[I]n looking upon the Benedictines, the great working order, [they are] perhaps the original founders of modern capitalism…So one is not straining the facts when one suggests that the monasteries…helped give human enterprise the regular collective beat and rhythm of the machine; for the clock is not merely a means of keeping track of the hours, but of synchronizing the actions of men.”

“Synchronizing the actions of men.” That sounds a lot like something you would hear from Eric Schmidt or Elon Musk, the latter recently calling for the eventual “merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence.”

In our fast-paced, consumer-focused world, it is easy to conflate the relationships we have with men like Schmidt and Musk. On one hand, these new prophets of the future replace philosophers — they deliver to us the daily machinations of the utopian will: those things we absolutely need to promote a better world. On the other (sleight of) hand, they manage or oversee vast sums of money — billions of dollars, in fact — whose vested interest is in you buying their bull, both proverbial and product.

That is not to say these gentlemen and many others lack a fundamental philosophy; quite the opposite. The ethos of Silicon Valley has a frighteningly dangerous philosophy that stretches back thousands of years and is propped up by rampant consumerism. It is a philosophy brought into existence by many schools of thought — from Epicurus’ maximization of pleasure through Marx’s epiphenomenalism as a focus on materialism.

Notwithstanding the philosophical complexity (which I will steer clear of), technological supremacy is a brash and misguided understanding of the human condition that, as C.S Lewis so brilliantly articulates, seeks “the abolition of Man.”

A History of the Future

To understand how we arrived at our current dilemma, we must look to history — particularly our ancient tradition of adopting the most modern technology as metaphor to interpret ourselves. In his book, In Our Own Image (2015), artificial intelligence expert George Zarkadakis describes six major paradigm shifts in the human understanding of the brain and mind — what he calls “our tendency to anthropomorphize” our technologies to explain the human condition:

  1. Mud: The first, from Genesis and early agrarian cultures, was the metaphor of the human body built from clay or dirt. This guided an appreciation for the land via harvests and farming. The mud was believed to be infused with life force, and life force moved all things.
  2. Hydraulic or Pneumatic Systems: These systems, built of waterwheels and early tech, drove the idea of a body as a pump or gear. Zarkadakis says, “[F]rom the third century BC, life is increasingly described not as static mud animated by divine will, but in terms of dynamically moving fluids within a mechanical body.” This metaphor would last for 1,600 years.
  3. Mechanical Parts and Clocks: The Enlightenment ushered in an age of springs and gears, a metaphor René Descartes used to interpret our bodies as no more than complex machines. Though the metaphor would quickly fade, Descartes’ resulting mind-body dualism lasts to this day.
  4. Electricity and Chemistry: By the 1700s, new advances in technology led to eccentric views of human power—vitalism and mesmerism. Both sought to explain the great electrical mystery of the human mind.
  5. Mass Communication: German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz compared the brain to a telegraph and described the movements of the brain as information moving across a neural superhighway.
  6. Computer Processing: Last but not least, the widely accepted metaphor we now live with was born of the 1940s: that our brains are like complex computer systems, neural networks (or software) passing information along axons and dendrites (our hardware).

You can see that each metaphor of the human condition simply mimicked the most advanced technology of the time — whether right or wrong. “Because we always tend to think through metaphor,” Zarkadakis says, “it is too easy to confuse the metaphorical with the actual.” So too now, computers and networks have become the accepted metaphor for how we see ourselves—more specifically, our minds.

Without any burden of proof, today’s entrepreneurs and futurists continue to load this prevailing philosophy into their sales pitches. “Of course you need to be hooked up to everything! Your brain is basically a squishy computer,” echo Musk and the Palo Alto crew. However, the truth could be further away than we’d like to believe.

If the metaphor is right, then integration is inevitable. But if the metaphor is wrong, as we have seen throughout history, then there is no telling what the unintended consequences might be. In 100 years, what will our version of bloodletting be?

The Clock’s Subjugation

While different technologies have tucked and skewed our perceptions of the mind and body, one particular invention has had arguably more impact on today’s prevailing technological philosophy than any of the others combined: the stopwatch.

In 1878, Frederick Winslow Taylor brought Father Gerbert’s mechanical clock — now much smaller and more complex — onto the steel-mill floor to track, sequence, and optimize the individual actions of his employees. Taylor’s goal was to create the most efficient algorithm possible for his workers’ time and labor — what we now affectionately call the assembly line. It was in this very first act that industrialization would find its calling and from which the philosophical foundation for Silicon Valley, automation, would emerge.

Taylor set his findings in stone in The Principles of Scientific Management (1911), which would become the 10 commandments for modern industry. Here, in Technopoly (1993), Neil Postman reflects on Taylor’s commandments:

“[T]hat the primary, if not the only, goal of human labor and thought is efficiency; that technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment; that in fact human judgment cannot be trusted, because it is plagued by laxity, ambiguity, and unnecessary complexity; that subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking; that what cannot be measured either does not exist or is of no value; and that the affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts.”

Using the very clock Father Gerbert made to bring a “collective beat” to men’s days, Taylor deconstructed, optimized, and subverted the human condition. He brought automation to bear with human weakness, and it was in this monumental act where we first collectively decided that the human substance was less important than the efficiency of the outcome.

Underpinning the technological paradigm we now observe is the Taylorist philosophy that the human condition is outmoded or faulty — that we are incapable of advancing human progress without the aid of machines.Technology companies are now constantly seeking new ways to remove human beings from the equation — whether through a $400 juicer or a driverless semi-truck. Nicholas Carr illustrates in The Shallows (2011) how the internet has gleefully followed in the footsteps of Taylor’s tradition:

“[A century later] Taylor’s system of measurement and optimization is still very much with us; it remains one of the underpinnings of industrial manufacturing. And now…Taylor’s ethic is beginning to govern the realm of the mind as well. The Internet is a machine designed for the efficient, automated collection, transmission, and manipulation of information, and its legions of programmers are intent on finding the ‘one best way’ — the perfect algorithm — to carry out the mental movements of what we’ve come to describe as knowledge work.”

Taylor’s legacy is alive and well in Silicon Valley, and his philosophy of efficiency has brought technology to the forefront of all our daily activities. But in the same way Taylorism subjugates the human person, digital technologies seek to render the mind dispensable.

Mind Be Damned

The mind is an incredible, precious organ, full of mystery and complexity. But the accommodations we are making to speed up the convergence of the human body and digital technology may have questionable effects. Carr points to Google, a company he calls “the Internet’s high church” of Taylorism, as a prime example of the numbing effect of automation:

“Google acknowledges that it has even seen a dumbing-down effect among the general public as it has made its search engine more responsive and solicitous…We might assume that as Google gets better at helping us refine our searching, we would learn from its example…But according to the company’s top search engineer, Amit Singhal, the opposite is the case…‘Presumably,’ the journalist remarked, ‘we have got more precise in our search terms the more we have used Google.’ Singhal sighed and, ‘somewhat wearily,’ corrected the reporter: ‘Actually, it works the other way. The more accurate the machine gets, the lazier the questions become.’”

This should worry us. If, in seeking to become smarter and more efficient, we instead become dumber and hollow our expertise, what is the point of our newfound luxuries? To steal a line from Lewis’ Abolition of Man (1943), “such is the tragi-comedy of our situation — we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible.”

The swift emergence of technological supremacy has little patience for careful study nor any concern for the unintended consequences of our habits. Built on the rigid foundations of Taylorism and the flawed metaphor of our brain as a computer, there is great reason to agonize over our consumer addiction to the next best thing.

We have a duty — Postman would beg of us anunfailing awareness — to challenge the concepts we are sold by our technological prophets and to conclude on our own what is true and good. But trapped by the constant threat of social anxiety for those who do not quickly conform and adopt, we often allow major trends to push us down the path of least resistance. We don’t ask hard questions for fear of missing out.

The Future Is Tempting

We know almost certainly that the metaphor for the human mind we currently observe is wrong. It is likely wrong because all the metaphors that came before it were wrong. It becomes more clearly wrong as neuroscience reveals the discrepancies between our brains and machines, and we observe the negative consequences of our machinations.

Computers store and retrieve exact data. They can replicate a famous painting or song with the stroke of a key. They can crunch and execute algorithms. The human brain, on the other hand, does none of these things. You can’t even remember what you ate yesterday, let alone regurgitate a perfect replica of a Rembrandt. Ask a friend to draw a picture of his own hand (without tracing), and you’ll quickly realize the structural limitations of the brain versus the computer. Algorithms do not guide everything we do, even while Silicon Valley voraciously applies Taylorist algorithms to the human person.

Poised to relegate human labor under the thumb of the machine, we need to ask ourselves what automation accomplishes for us, aside from an increase in raw outcomes. If the technological metaphor is wrong and our brains cannot be wed to steps and algorithms, then our fascination with Taylorism is just one more chuckle in the grand scheme of history.

But if a widely misunderstood philosophy that promises leisure and ease instead supplants human wisdom and expertise, do we not have a moral obligation to thwart it, or at least learn more about its effects? It may be years before studies can help us truly grasp the effects of our media-rich, tech-first economy. But at the very least, understanding the underlying philosophy that propels modern prophets (of every age) to profit can help us rein in our historical addiction to futurism.

(This was originally published on Medium: )