Friday, 26 October 2018

Jeremy Naydler's prehistory of computers, reviewed

Published in the current issue of Oxford Magazine – by Bruce G Charlton

Review of: Jeremy Naydler. In the shadow of the machine: the prehistory of the computer and the evolution of consciousness. Temple Lodge Publishing: Forest Row, Sussex, 2018 pp xi, 373.

Oxford residents might have come-across Jeremy Naydler; since he often guides tours of the city and has given lectures to a wide range of local groups over recent decades. He is also a Fellow of the Temenos Academy, and teaches at their London headquarters. Or perhaps you have come-across him looking after flowers and vegetables in the suburbs? Because Naydler’s main lifetime job has been as a gardener.

He read PPE in the nineteen seventies and then pursued scholarly interests independently before completing a PhD in middle age; on the subject of the pyramid texts of Ancient Egypt. Since publishing books on this subject and on Goethe’s science in 1996; Jeremy Naydler has become, in my judgment, one of the most interesting and original living writers in Britain.

Naydler’s central concern is the interaction between human consciousness and human culture; and he is of the opinion (which I share) that changes in human consciousness have been a driving factor in cultural evolution; as well as cultural evolution having affected human consciousness. Hence the subtitle of this book: The prehistory of the computer and the evolution of consciousness.

What makes this book distinctive is that it is a prehistory of computers. In other words, it is about the stepwise change in human thinking and technology that led, over a span of thousands of years, to the situation in the late 20th century in which - suddenly – computers became first possible, then developed with astonishing speed, and then swiftly took-over first the material world and, increasingly, human thinking. For this progression to happen in just three generations from the first electronic computers until today, was possible only because all the necessary pieces were already in-place.

In the Shadow of the Machine is thus a work in the genre History of Ideas, and as such it is exceptionally thorough and carefully argued. The argument is broadly chronological, describing many steps in the development of each significant component necessary for the computers of today. And as well as describing the specifics of the technological changes; these are related to the necessary conceptual change in the people involved, without which the technological progression could not have happened, and would neither have been understood nor implemented.

Naydler starts with some of the most simple of technologies from the oldest societies of which we have record; such as the Ancient Egyptian methods for raising water; or, as another example, medieval clocks and renaissance calculating devices. He explains why there were periods when apparently-valuable technologies were known-about but not used; then quite rapidly, something changed and the technologies became widespread.

But computers are software as well as hardware; so Naydler also lists and discusses the changes in symbolic notation, language, numbers, logic and so forth – and how these were implemented in physical form – via cogs, punched cards, switches etc.

Then there is electricity; without which computers would have remained exceedingly simple and slow. One of the most fascinating themes of this book is the discussion of the mysterious nature of electricity (and electricity turns-out to be much stranger, and much less well understood, than commonly realised); and the way that its ‘reputation’ began as something dark sinister, alien, inhuman – but later took on increasingly positive connotations until it became so pervasive as to be all-but invisible.

In the Shadow of the Machine takes up right up to the early years of modern computers and the threshold of our current era, and concludes with some wise words about the implications of computers for the way we think – and the established and increasing degree to which our own thinking is entrained to being computer-compatible; such that we habitually think like machines, and tend to disregard any thinking that does not conform to this reduced mode.

In sum; this is a book of ancient history that is of crucial importance for the present and future.