In the Shadow of the Machine – a book review

Review: In the Shadow of the Machine: The Prehistory of the Computer and the Evolution of Consciousness, J. Naydler, 2018

Logic takes us into strange places; we grow machines from ideas now, and knowledge from machines. Naydler has come from a different world, one of inheritance, generation, seeds, long delays, germination, the timely attention needed for tending a garden.  He brings with him an orderly lucid comprehension, all-the better for the schooling.  What has he to say then about the machine-ordered world that we participate in and live by? Although we are born natively enough like any generation, we are reared and educated these days by a pervasive influence, a trained intelligence that not only mirrors but can talk back to us and promise unlimited futures.  Will we understand ourselves in this time of logical machines? This looks a timely question.

As the old joke has it, here is not the place to start if we want to get to Sligo. Naydler has travelled in an older world under a different sun. He starts the pre-history in Ancient Egypt with the many generations who cultivated the long oasis. We can see the hard limits, the order imposed either side by the sun-burned desert , imposed by the river’s essential seasons. Day and night, sun and moon, life and death, these construe a metaphysic; they demand timely attention, maintenance of order within the microcosm as it is in the macrocosm. Concentrated by the Nile, human nature kept it that way for a long time. Logic had its place, but wisdom advised caution. Here it starts though, a machine design was imported for ladling water from the river, logic inherent in the lever where one end dictates precisely to the other, either/or, binary, logical, kinetic and iterative.

Logic in its kinetic form acquired extra meaning as well as application over time. Later people were to find the cam that imparts information, which informs the machine of the correct time. It took a while to reach here, but if I look up at our mantelpiece I see a carriage clock manufactured in France for a Scottish firm more than a century ago.  Previous generations of my wife’s family wound it up and stood it on the shelf in Edinburgh for many years. A perfected industrial technology, wind it up and it still does the job.

We tend to take this recent industrial revolution as a done thing, granted to us. Recently I went back to The Jute Mill Song that I had remembered as a folk song. It is not actually so many generations since newly mechanised industry tore into society, into human arrangements, destroying, re-making with alternatives.  If we turn round, there are still dreadful images to haunt us. This was an awful entraining. The newly mechanised loom, the digitised complexity of its programmed pattern, was an exacting idea to tend and serve. Ideas became hard ideologies. Participation in those days took on special hard meanings.

Shiftin, piecin, spinnin – warp, weft and twine,
Tae feed an claith ma bairnies affen ten and nine

With the composure of insight, Naydler is very differently participatory. With him we can recapitulate ideas propagated over very long cultural time. The illustrations are terrific and the clarity of figures is very helpful. For the first time I can understand some of the intricacy, the evolving intellect embedded in devices, even comprehend a little of electricity and its control. It could all seem benign, progressive, but Naydler persists. We enter the shadow, consciousness changes.

Naydler has it right about the Underworld. His account of electricity and electromagnetic phenomena and development of theory deserves close attention, more so when he comes to illuminate the same period that our carriage clock has kept time. There is an acceleration taking place, a global doubling-time, a proliferation of mechanism. Without the emergent computer it is difficult to imagine the accelerated relocation of mountains of resources and the radically speeded up process of design and engineering that has brought the latest global iteration of manufacture – so much alteration, so much stuff. I guess that the earlier analogue control devices could not have done the trick.  These mostly have been displaced, having proved uncompetitive compared with all-purpose modular digital programming devices. Naydler has it right – binary logic … kinetic … iterative.

Now the race is on to further use this modular microcosm in its apparently limitless trillions, the new kind of ‘atom’ to make a world, to extend logic and to further mechanise intelligence. This is some loom we are tending now!

Here I pause and recap my own notes on electricity. In less than three decades China has about trebled its extraction of coal to provide fuel for electrification, and incidentally to add a large increment of energy to the global industrial economy. Coal etc. releases energy. The result has been to continue with the measure we call economic growth. It seems possible that such growth has only continued globally from 2005 because of that great new engine[ii]. China outpaces its own energy by now and hauls in more from elsewhere. The world-pack, including of course the older machines, hungrily looks at one another for energy and the resources to procure and consume.

I wrote this about electricity and energy recently: “The digitalised logic machine appears about to run out of history. Naydler has it right about electricity. Digital and electricity are indivisible. This fantasy, the intelligent mechanised world,can’t happen, can’t scale its economy. Electricity needs energy to exist and the hungrier the machine the harder it is to mobilise ancient sunlight, or enough of the weaker alternatives. Industrial civilisation is well into overshoot. To put it mildly, biophysical limits and consequences have the last say. And we have already changed the weather.”

I could be wrong. I guess enhanced digitally informed authority will make an extended last stand even as affordable material thins-out and biosphere results crash in[iii].  But just now a thought, the largest machine we have in Britain, the National Grid, is very inadequate for future expansion. It needs even now a lot of tending and attention. Because they understand machine system requirements, thoughtful engineers tell me we live in the shadow of inadequate resources, and they see diminishing return from the extraction of those that remain, or from the substitutes. This will impose severe limits on the anticipated massive increase in the use of electrical energy. It sounds a little stupid but prosaically the apps and data processing, models and constructed avatars are not much use if we cannot afford the economy to which they apply?

Modest wisdom cautioned us about the Underworld and it has proved a very strange place for humanity and for our companions in the garden.

Reading Naydler’s book has been a participatory experience, but that is the way of knowledge. It has prompted a wide range of reaction and enquiry in my mind. It is likely to do this for any reader. Your range will be different from mine. In part this for me is a text book for reference on a par with the historical context and recapitulation of thought provided by Geza Vermes ‘Christian Beginnings’.  I have gone back to these others for what seem to me relevant reading:

To Roger Penrose for the likely fundamental inadequacy of algorithms (The Emperor’s New Mind)

To CS Lewis, for the mediaeval heavens and the upper and lower bounds (The Discarded Image)

Again to Lewis for his essay The Abolition of Man; ‘Man’ as in ‘Man’s conquest of Nature’

 As usual to Alasdair MacIntyre for the missing telos and for his rigorous look at the failure of the Enlightenment Project and the Utilitarian attempt to make logical law -like generalisations, aka ‘scientific’,  a basis for social sciences, (After Virtue).  In some places, glimpsed by poets, I find Hugh and Richard of St. Victor, and serendipitously, Ivan Illich.[iv]

Thanks to Matt McNeil for the heads-up and to Chris McMahon, design engineer.

[i] The Jute Mill Song (Oh Dear Me), Mary Brooksbank, 1897 – 1978

[ii] Disorder, 2022, Prof. Helen Thompson

[iii] Global warming in the pipeline, 2022, JE Hansen et al, arXiv:2212.04474 []

[iv] In the Vineyard of the Text, a Commentary to Hugh’s Didascalicon, Ivan Illich, ( Borremans, 1993) [online]