Sunday, November 23, 2014

Time and the Technological World

Check out this fascinating summary of  How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World. This particular summary looks at the part of the book that documents how our perception of time has changed, and how that has affected the modern world.

The book talks about something called the "Hummingbird Effect," which describes the way in which various inventions and technical discoveries change the world in unexpected ways. Some of you may recall James' Burke's excellent TV show Connections on BBC/PBS (These used to be available on YouTube, but JamesBurkeWeb appears to have disappeared. Still, some episodes can still be found) which covered the same ground:
Johnson points out that, much like the evolution of bees gave flowers their colors and the evolution of pollen altered the design of the hummingbird’s wings, the most remarkable thing about innovations is the way they precipitate unanticipated changes that reverberate far and wide beyond the field or discipline or problem at the epicenter of the particular innovation. Pointing to the Gutenberg press — itself already an example of the combinatorial nature of creative breakthroughs — Johnson writes:

    "Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press created a surge in demand for spectacles, as the new practice of reading made Europeans across the continent suddenly realize that they were farsighted; the market demand for spectacles encouraged a growing number of people to produce and experiment with lenses, which led to the invention of the microscope, which shortly thereafter enabled us to perceive that our bodies were made up of microscopic cells. You wouldn’t think that printing technology would have anything to do with the expansion of our vision down to the cellular scale, just as you wouldn’t have thought that the evolution of pollen would alter the design of a hummingbird’s wing. But that is the way change happens."
It starts with Galileo's observation that a pendulum always swings to-and-fro in a regular amount of time.
"But machines that could keep a reliable beat didn’t exist in Galileo’s age; the metronome wouldn’t be invented for another few centuries. So watching the altar lamp sway back and forth with such regularity planted the seed of an idea in Galileo’s young mind. As is so often the case, however, it would take decades before the seed would blossom into something useful."
The ability to accurately measure time was a departure from before when:
    "Instead of fifteen minutes, time was described as how long it would take to milk the cow or nail soles to a new pair of shoes. Instead of being paid by the hour, craftsmen were conventionally paid by the piece produced — what was commonly called “taken-work” — and their daily schedules were almost comically unregulated."
Once the regimentation of the clock was introduced, many things followed from that due to the Hummingbird Effect:
Over the century that followed, the pendulum clock, a hundred times more accurate than any preceding technology, became a staple of European life and forever changed our relationship with time. But the hummingbird’s wings continued to flap — accurate timekeeping became the imperceptible heartbeat beneath all technology of the Industrial Revolution, from scheduling the division of labor in factories to keeping steam-powered locomotives running on time. It was the invisible hand of the clock that first moved the market — a move toward unanticipated innovations in other fields. Without clocks, Johnson argues, the Industrial Revolution may have never taken off — or “at the very least, have taken much longer to reach escape velocity.” He explains:

    "Accurate clocks, thanks to their unrivaled ability to determine longitude at sea, greatly reduced the risks of global shipping networks, which gave the first industrialists a constant supply of raw materials and access to overseas markets. In the late 1600s and early 1700s, the most reliable watches in the world were manufactured in England, which created a pool of expertise with fine-tool manufacture that would prove to be incredibly handy when the demands of industrial innovation arrived, just as the glassmaking expertise producing spectacles opened the door for telescopes and microscopes. The watchmakers were the advance guard of what would become industrial engineering."
Not mentioned is the introduction of public schools, designed to take farmers used to "cow milking time" and "discipline" them into a workforce able to sit still and obey and punch a clock, a system we are still living with today. Those of us who cannot or will not conform to this ruthless discipline are severely punished:
And yet, as with most innovations, the industrialization of time came with a dark side — one Bertrand Russell so eloquently lamented in the 1920s when he asked: “What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?” Johnson writes:

    "The natural rhythms of tasks and leisure had to be forcibly replaced with an abstract grid. When you spend your whole life inside that grid, it seems like second nature, but when you are experiencing it for the first time, as the laborers of industrial England did in the second half of the eighteenth century, it arrives as a shock to the system. Timepieces were not just tools to help you coordinate the day’s events, but something more ominous: the “deadly statistical clock,” in Dickens’s Hard Times, “which measured every second with a beat like a rap upon a coffin lid.”


    "To be a Romantic at the turn of the nineteenth century was in part to break from the growing tyranny of clock time: to sleep late, ramble aimlessly through the city, refuse to live by the “statistical clocks” that governed economic life… The time discipline of the pendulum clock took the informal flow of experience and nailed it to a mathematical grid. If time is a river, the pendulum clock turned it into a canal of evenly spaced locks, engineered for the rhythms of industry."
And as clocks became ever more precise and ubiquitous, things flowed from that - more regimentation, more standardization (village clocks used to be set by the sun's position, but this introduced inaccuracies in railroad timetables - thus two inventions, one steam-powered and one not, are bound up together), and entirely new scientific discoveries which led to new inventions such as the computers that now rule over our lives:
Johnson goes on to trace the hummingbird flutterings to the emergence of pocket watches, the democratization of time through the implementation of Standard Time, and the invention of the first quartz clock in 1928, which boasted the unprecedented accuracy of losing or gaining only one thousandth of a second per day...But the most groundbreaking effect of the quartz clock — the most unpredictable manifestation of the hummingbird effect in the story of time — was that it gave rise to modern computing and the Information Age. Johnson writes:

    "Computer chips are masters of time discipline… Instead of thousands of operations per minute, the microprocessor is executing billions of calculations per second, while shuffling information in and out of other microchips on the circuit board. Those operations are all coordinated by a master clock, now almost without exception made of quartz… A modern computer is the assemblage of many different technologies and modes of knowledge: the symbolic logic of programming languages, the electrical engineering of the circuit board, the visual language of interface design. But without the microsecond accuracy of a quartz clock, modern computers would be useless."
And once the computer is invented - note that it becomes the new mega-metaphor taking over from the steam engine - the brain as "neural network" that can be simulated, the economy as a perfect "information processing machine" via the price mechanism and humans as "rational utility maximizers"of Neoliberal economics, and recasting the analog world as binary one of ones and zeros - art, music, literature, etc. that can be simulated through sufficiently complex algorithms. All this flows from our view of the world, which in turn is dictated by our technology.

The Hummingbird Effect: How Galileo Invented Time and Gave Rise to the Modern Tyranny of the Clock (Brain Pickings)

More at the link. It's worth noting that this entire thesis was laid out by Lewis Mumford as far back in the 1930's in Technics and Society, and this book looks like it covers much the same ground.

Mumford's these is that the Industrial Revolution did not spring forth fully-formed from nowhere, but came forth from changes in the human perception of the world and man's relationship to nature that had been occurring for centuries beforehand. He called this the Eotechnic period, and points out that it needs to be understood to see how the modern world emerged. He classified the subsequent periods as Paleotechnic (centered around the stream engine, iron and coal), and the Neotechnic (centered around electricity and the scientific method). He stressed how much our perception of the natural world and human nature dictate the nature of our science and social organization.

Several intellectual revolutions had to take place in order to get us to the Industrial Revolution. One, as noted above and emphasized by Mumford, was the accurate measurement of time. Another was the increasing control over motive forces exemplified by the windmill and watermill. Another was individual perception, as indicated by the use of perspective in painting. Another was the increasing standardization, political centralization and bureaucracy. Another was the discovery of the New World of which the ancients had no knowledge or precedent. Another was the increasing use of the abstraction of money for trade. But perhaps the biggest one of all was recasting the natural world as a machine that could be analyzed and understood. These changes were all formative to the Industrial Revolution, which could not have come about without them.

Mumford writes extensively about the Medieval period, and how that period increasingly used technology to control the environment but in a genuinely humane way, one designed to enhance human needs and desires rather than control or eliminate them. Think of the medieval clock-making guild as opposed to the deskilled factory worker for example. The decentralized and localized nature of the Medieval period is what allowed technology to be used in this way.

But, beginning in the seventeenth century with the rise of the nation-state and the consolation of Europe's kingdoms into large, centralized states with standards and bureaucracy (much of it due to the emergence of gunpowder and artillery, against which castles and mounted knights were useless), all that began to to change. Technology became increasingly tyrannical, and man was more and more forced into the "logic of the machine." Consider the armies that emerged identical uniforms, identical weapons with interchangeable parts and drilled, regimented training designed to turn men into interchangeable parts themselves. Military training was the precursor to the disciplined workforce of the Industrial Revolution, which is why the connection between business and military discipline remains to this day (corporations today are run on the top-down hierarchical military model). Since battles were won by sheer numbers of "citizens" with rifles rather than an aristocratic warrior class who owned horses, the social relations changed, and the common man emerged with more importance. Population growth equaled national strength in the new order. Man's rationality became celebrated, all other values were discounted. Productivity and technological "progress" became goals in the themselves rather than means to an end. Pursuit of growth and profit became all-consuming, human needs be damned.

In contrast to the Medieval period, today's technology is dehumanizing, submitting man to centralized control, and seeing him as nothing more than a machine. Mumford envisioned a society where human values could once again take center stage instead of the productivist logic of "the myth of the machine" Thus Mumford was not anti-technology; rather he wanted a world in which technology served profoundly different values than in our present time. The brutal regulation of time, rather than the human time of being in the world - the difference between chronos and kairos, or the subjective and the objective - is one of the best illustrations of this difference. Just because we can measure time down to the nanosecond does not mean we have to be enslaved to it. That is a social choice, as Mumford would quickly remind us.

1 comment:

  1. "Pursuit of growth and profit became all-consuming, human needs be damned."

    Explains our world where nothing is an end in itself, rather a means or connection to something else. Stuck on a tread mill wanting, always working for want.


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