IVP - Andy Unedited - The Shallows 7: The Computer's Dream

September 2, 2010

The Shallows 7: The Computer's Dream

If we had no clocks, no time-keeping devices of any kind, what would happen? How would we know when to get to the airport? When would plays and sporting events start? For that matter, when would a basketball game end? How would lawyers know what to charge? What would the “timing belt” in my car keep track of?

If we had no clocks, society as we know it would collapse. Society might return to a more agrarian, more relational, more community-minded, more nature-conscious state—but our productivity would most definitely drop. Something would be lost and something gained. As Nicholas Carr writes in The Shallows, “Every tool imposes limitations even as it opens possibilities.” (p. 209).

Like clocks, computers are here to stay. There’s no going back. Without computers, society as we know it would cease. Just as clocks shape how we experience reality—making us into time trackers, into their own image—so computers do the same. (See here.)

I found a strange resonance between Carr’s concerns and those of Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pollan raises questions about manipulating farmland by injecting huge quantities of fertilizers and insecticides into fields, which offers massive short-term gains at the possible long-term expense of actually stripping the soil of its fertility. Pollan wonders if we wouldn’t be better off treating “farms less like machines than living organisms” (p. 130).

Carr’s questions are parallel. Has the technological revolution amped up the industrial revolution’s legacy of treating humans as machines (computerized machines in particular) rather than as living organisms?

Futurists dream of engineering humanity, of taking all the guesswork out of society itself. After all, we’ve plotted the human genome. But it would be naive to assume we could completely manipulate human behavior or experience based on that alone. Already we’re seeing that the environment as filtered by the epigenome has a much more complex role to play than we have imagined. Genes are not the end of the story. Yet the optimistic naiveté that so often courses through the veins of scientists, social scientists, journalists and commentators—the wish-dream of a species-wide upgrade—resurges with every new discovery.

The question remains: How successfully can we analyze, understand, educate, comfort, heal, forgive and love human beings as if they were machines if that is not fundamentally what we are?

Next Installment: The Shallows 8: The Future of the Book

Posted by Andy Le Peau at September 2, 2010 7:52 AM Bookmark and Share


I appreciated your wise thoughts, Andy. I haven’t read the book about which you speak but have been profitably provoked by the Pollan book you mention as well as In Defense of Food. I found the description of Joel Salatin’s farm really inspiring. May his tribe increase. If we can develop a society with much greater sensitivity to the benevolent stewardship of animals, maybe we will get some trickle up effect for humans too. Salatin (through Pollan) gave me a whole new appreciation for the good I’m doing the earth with the time I spend mowing our large but wonderfully diverse “lawn.”

Comment by: Terry Tiessen at September 2, 2010 5:16 PM

Terry, yes I was encouraged about his comments about lawn care as well. A revelation.

Comment by: Andy Le Peau at September 2, 2010 5:25 PM

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