Man or Machine

Technologist, I am calling you to the mat.

Every profession comes with its own its own language. With the proliferation of human interaction with computers and the rapid adoption of ICT’s over the last 20 years, entirely new industries, new languages and consequently new cultures have been born.

Biologist Mark Pagel theorizes that humans evolved our complex system of language by copying or imitating signal-triggers–social learning. He suggests that language is a piece of “social technology” that allowed early human tribes to access a powerful new tool: cooperation. After all, thousands of years ago, the inability to communicate and thus cooperate cost you your life. Fear of death is unlimited in its ability to foster adaptation.

Startup is no different.

And while maybe we fail to agree why social technology—language—evolves, given the long history of humans working cooperatively towards the attainment of some end, perhaps we can agree on how language evolves?


Efficiency has the insidious capability of objectifying everything. Alienating even.

In case you missed it, Jack Dorsey (Twitter/ Square) recently banned the usage of the word ‘user’ in reference to Square’s customers. If you haven’t read the story, I highly suggest it, but more importantly, whether he realizes it or not, Jack has unearthed the epistemological crisis of old; as we’re led by technologists into a Brave New World, this crisis has never been more relevant.

It begs the question: What is it to try and understand human existence and action in mechanical terms, in terms that are of antecedent conditions understood as efficient causes?

A definition is the starting point of a dispute, not the settlement.  This is, of course, inefficient and often redundant.

Ever felt like a number? Efficient. To whom? How did we get here?

Data in modern culture is a folk-concept with an empirical ancestry. Data assumes experience, and from that experience, objects and statistics collected together for reference or analysis as a kind of proof in mechanical terms.

The empirical concept of experience was unknown for most of human history. In fact, experience is a cultural invention that grew up out of epistemological crises three hundred years ago; it was intended to close the gap between seems and is, between appearance and reality.  It is understandable then that most of the linguistic history is one of continual invention.  Self-anointed Empiricists had to use old words in new service support—‘idea’, ‘impression’, even ‘experience’ itself. ‘Experience’ was originally intended to mean ‘putting something to the test or trial’—a meaning that was later subscribed to ‘experiment’ and later still subscribed to some form of activity, as when we speak of “Jason having ten years of marketing experience.” This culminated in a peak term—a mouthful mindf*ck—‘sense-datum.’

This implies a dichotomy: rationalism | empiricism.

Enter Emmanuel Kant, philosophy dude.

“Kant’s aim was to move beyond the traditional dichotomy between rationalism and empiricism. The rationalists had tried to show that we can understand the world by careful use of reason; this guarantees the indubitability of our knowledge but leaves serious questions about its practical content. The empiricists, on the other hand, had argued that all of our knowledge must be firmly grounded in experience; practical content is thus secured, but it turns out that we can be certain of very little. Both approaches have failed, Kant supposed, because both are premised on the same mistaken assumption. Progress in philosophy, according to Kant, requires that we frame the epistemological problem in an entirely different way. The crucial question is not how we can bring ourselves to understand the world, but how the world comes to be understood by us. Instead of trying, by reason or experience, to make our concepts match the nature of objects, Kant held, we must allow the structure of our concepts shape our experience of objects.”

Not unlike Kant, the startup entrepreneur is compelled to show how reason determines the conditions under which experience and knowledge are possible, subsequently “predictable,” scalable and, most importantly, sustainable.

In the 17th and 18th century understanding of the matter—and in many subsequent versions, including our own—at the core of the notion of mechanical explanation is a conception of invariances specified by law-like generalizations. To cite a cause is to cite a necessary condition or a sufficient condition or a necessary and sufficient condition as the antecedent of whatever behavior is to be explained. So every mechanical causal sequence exemplifies some universal generalization and that generalization has a specifiable scope. Newton’s law of motion, which purports to be universal in scope, provides the paradigm case of such a set of generalizations. Being universal, they extend beyond was what has actually been observed in the present or in the past to what has escaped observation and to what has not yet been observed. If we know the truth of a statement expressing a genuine law, we also know the truth of a set of well-defined counterfactual conditionals, ergo Kepler’s Second Law.

Believe it or not, this “ideal” of mechanical explanation was transferred from physics to the understanding of human behavior by a number of English and French thinkers who differed a great deal among themselves over the details of their enterprise. Sound familiar? In their case it wasn’t until much later that the precise requirements such and enterprise would have to meet could be spelled out. One such requirement, and a hugely important one, was identified fairly recently by WV Quine in the 1960’s.

Quine argued that if there is to be a science of human behavior whose key expression characterizes the behavior in terms precise enough to provide us with genuine laws, those expressions must be formulated in a vocabulary which omits all reference to intentions, purposes, and reasons for action. Just as physics, to become a genuine mechanical science, had to purify its mechanical vocabulary, so must the human sciences. What is it about intentions, purposes and reasons that makes them unmentionable? It is the fact that all the expressions refer to or presuppose references to the beliefs of the agents in question. The discourse that we use to speak about beliefs has two great disadvantages from the POV of what Quine—and most of our contemporaries in startup—takes to be science. First sentences of the form ‘X believes that P’ (or, ‘X enjoys its being the case that P’ or ‘X fears that P’) have an internal complexity which is not truth functional, which is to say that they cannot be mapped on to the predicate calculus; and in this, they differ in a crucial respect from the sentences used to express the laws of physics. Secondly, the concept of a state or belief or enjoyment or fear involves too many contestable and doubtful cases to furnish the kind of evidence “we need” to confirm or disconfirm claims to have discovered a law.

Quine’s conclusion is that any genuine science of human behavior must eliminate such intentional expressions; but it is perhaps necessary to do to Quine what Marx did Hegel, that is to stand his argument on its head. For it follows from Quine’s position that if it proved impossible to eliminate references to belief and enjoyments and fears from our understanding of human behavior, that understanding could not take the form which Quine considers to be human science, namely embodiment in law-like generalization. Convenient settlement, eh? Meh.

This is the same convenient settlement when nation-states defined African slaves as chattel; when the French refused to try Dreyfus for treason because, by definition, as a Jew, he was of no country; when the Nazis defined the invasion and subsequent occupation of Poland as adoption, only to define Polish Jews as sub-human; when Monsanto defined genetic material as intellectual property via a clever semantic sleight of hand that would make Diderot and Condorcet blush; when the federal government relegated the definition of a covenant tax instrument between a man and a woman, exclusively; and to a lesser extent, when network administrators define Jack’s Mom as a user.

Defining the human experience in mechanical terms in the name of efficiency is more than a coarsening of conscience; it obliterates the categorical imperative and makes humans a means to an end. It is a devolution, not an evolution.

A definition is the starting point of a dispute, not the settlement.  This is, of course, inefficient and often redundant. But it is effective.

Technologist, I am calling you to the mat.

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