In the shadow of the machine – review

I’m delighted to have permission to post my long review of Jeremy Naydler’s book published in the Temenos Academy Review 2019.

In the Shadow of the Machine: The Prehistory of the Computer and the Evolution of Consciousness by Jeremy Naydler. Forest Row: Temple Lodge, 2018. 376 pp. £22.50.

The question of what is unravelling in our times – be that environmentally, politically or spiritually – is pressing. Jeremy Naydler’s answer in this fascinating, wide-ranging, extensively researched and highly readable history of the rise of the machine might be summarised in this way: we have renounced close contact with the deities and intelligences that previously orientated humanity’s understanding of itself and the cosmos.

It is a loss of sight and light that has created a vacuum of meaning, filled by an infatuation with technology and reason. Both technology and reason existed before the modern period, of course, and in remarkably sophisticated forms. But the difference today is that they have ceased to operate in ways that unveil the divine domains that enlightened our forebears. It is the fundamental nature of this shift that Naydler brings out so strongly. He does not just tell the story of technological advance and the development of machines but achieves the more profound goal of illuminating the modifications to human experience and vision required to bring that about.

The book is a portrait of the mindset that places its hopes and longings in the idea of machines, which is the context in which we now live and move and have our being. Naydler insists that it is vital to have as full a feel for it as possible. If you are worried about it, Ludditism is not sufficient. Ignorance is not bliss. We must gain an understanding of the extent of the contemporary worldview if we are to perceive its edges and limitations.

He begins in deep antiquity with a subject he has studied in previous books, the participative consciousness found in ancient Egypt. He highlights its qualities by drawing arresting contrasts with ancient Mesopotamia. For example, in the latter region, between the Tigris and Euphrates, levers were used to lift water out of lakes and rivers for a thousand years before they were adopted by the people living alongside the Nile. The Egyptians must have known about the shaduf, as it is called, as they must have also known about another piece of technology based on the same principles, the wheel. And yet, they resisted them. The reason seems to have been a fear that these devices would inveigle themselves into the relationship ancient Egyptians enjoyed with the living deity of the Nile’s life-giving flow.

The nature of electricity is another crucial theme in Naydler’s book and, again, he traces attitudes towards it back to ancient peoples. They handled thunder, lightning and the fiery spirit of these phenomena with immense caution. It was a central concern of the mystery rites of the times, the initiate learning to approach the underworld gods of electricity with understanding and awareness, perhaps so as to gain an awareness of how light and life could prevail against them. The aim was to share inwardly in electricity’s nature, not merely observe, control and use it, as has become the habit now.

But things began to change. The early signs appear in the first millennium BC. Take the story of Odysseus and his blinding the Cyclopes, Polyphemus. It became a popular subject in Greek art and, as Naydler puts it, “should be regarded as a key incident in the mythical prehistory of the computer”. Odysseus is a crafty character. Polyphemus is a member of a race that lives in intimate contact with nature. It was a brutal existence, though close to the gods and seems to have included clairvoyant abilities, symbolised by the Cyclopes’ single eye. So, when Odysseus twists the rod of hot olive wood into it, he inflicts a devastating blow. Thereafter, human craftiness need not be tied to spiritual craft. Human understanding could follow paths of its own, though also leave individuals like Odysseus homeless and wandering. The story is a kind of ancient Greek version of the Fall.

The first philosophers emerge in its aftermath. But figures like Plato and Aristotle are careful to direct and contain the new forms of reason and logic. In their different ways, they strove to ensure philosophy was orientated towards the truths that mythic consciousness had long perceived. Plato was, therefore, a great poet and deployer of myths as well as conductor of arguments, and Aristotle delighted in the way the human mind fits the cosmic mind, insisting that the happiest life knows the unconditioned freedom of this divine contemplation.

Inner illumination, prompted by spiritual light, mattered. It was a consciousness that showed up in unexpected ways. Archimedes, for example, is remembered now for his contraptions and inventions, though the man himself felt that practical engineering was a lesser calling compared with the discovery of abstract mathematical and geometric principles. Pure knowledge was nobler because closer to the light.

Alternatively, there is the first century BCE Antikythera mechanism that was rediscovered on the Mediterranean seabed. It demonstrates a knowledge of clockwork and gears for making astronomical calculations that wasn’t surpassed until Pascal designed his calculating machine in the seventeenth century.

In other words, steam engines, watermills and possibly batteries existed in antiquity and yet there was no industrial revolution. The reason, Naydler proposes, is that there wasn’t the mindset for it. Gods and spirits were directly experienced in the rivers and skies that the machines engaged with, too, and so long as that awareness persisted, it did not occur to people that machines could overwrite and replace divine realities. Instead, they must work with them.

The balance was maintained in the medieval period. In particular, reason and contemplation, or ratio and intellectus, were designated as two related modes of understanding. Ratio dealt with the transient world of material life. Intellectus, which is close in meaning to our word ‘intuition’, could catch sight of eternity. They worked together, though asymmetrically: ratio had value in its own right but was also in the service of intellectus as it could clarify the mind and ready it to receive the higher insights of spiritual illumination.

The function of language became crucial, too. It was held to be a co-creation of human beings and God. Human words were, therefore, expressions of the divine Word, when correctly used. This is why the trivium of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric formed the basis of an education. It ensured that the mind stayed connected to the upper registers of reality.

But things began to change once more in the thirteenth century. Naydler explores the impact of the rise of the universities in Europe. They moved education out of the monasteries that were shaped by practices of contemplation. Disputation for its own sake became a matter of interest, as well as logic’s capacity to suggest rules and necessities that require no relationship to anything other than itself. The changes were captured in the doctrines of nominalism. William of Ockham, for example, proposed that human ideas have no intrinsic connection to wider reality. They create themselves and do not exist outside of the human mind. People could begin to experience their inner life without feeling it reflected the inner life of the universe.

This is the kind of consciousness within which machines could thrive and, sure enough, from the thirteenth century onwards, they start regularly to appear in everyday life. Watermills provide a case in point, becoming widespread as the technology of the cam integrated abstract logic and practical mechanics. Clocks become a feature of shared, public spaces too, and are particularly potent because of their psychological and spiritual impact. They change the experience people have of the day and its hours – the hour, for example, no longer being determined by the season and the quality of the light between sunrise and sunset and, instead, being fixed by the steady, regularity of the clockwork.

There is a more subtle reason for the revolutionary impact of clocks that Naydler explains. They could be seen to control and regulate themselves by harnessing gravity via the steady fall of a weight. It is hard, now, to regain a sense of how startling this technology would have seemed. Before machines like clocks, gravity was understood to be one of two basic forces in nature, alongside levity. Gravity caused things to fall to the Earth and the material pole of life, and levity moved them towards the heavens to connect with the spiritual dimensions of existence. The rising force was as crucial as the falling as it expressed the understanding that reality depends upon the upper domain. But then there appeared a machine that could be observed to operate without that link. It ran on gravity and gravity alone. That was a shock. It implied that the Earth might operate independently, too.

It is why the abolition of levity became an obsession for Galileo. He dropped weights from the leaning tower of Pisa to demonstrate its redundancy and, more generally, the new science was premised not only on heliocentrism but the related idea that the upper domain could be written out of accounts of the movement of the planets and objects on Earth.

From now on, in Naydler’s tale, the paradigmatic changes come thick and fast. Material objects no longer needed to have inherent qualities to explain their behaviour, the formal and final causes articulated by Aristotle. Similarly, they no longer needed to be placed in relation to a wider whole. Instead, the world could be explained in fragments. Reductionism was born.

Alternatively, understanding was no longer about participating in the spiritual light that pervades all things but was instead solely about forging propositions that describe appearances. What is objective, or external, became valued more highly than what is subjective, or internal. Meaning, quality and connection with the world soul were abandoned in favour of exactitude, quantity and control of the world.

Electricity became as important as machinery as the scientific worldview developed. Like the clock, it helped undo the bonds that medieval people felt they had with spiritual reality. A seminal early conclusion was that magnetism was not a property of the heavens that earthly materials may share, by possessing magnetic virtues. Instead, William Gilbert, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, proposed that the Earth is itself a magnet and magnetic materials align themselves with its sublunary forces.

At about the same time it was shown that substances that transmit electricity don’t possess the electric virtues of the underworld, but transmit some kind of self-contained electrical material or fluid. Electricity was secularised as well. Further, it was realised that it could break substances like water into component chemical parts, and with that came another even more awesome possibility. It was proposed that electricity could facilitate the fragmentation of thought, too – what Naydler calls an “electrolysis of language”.

Early modern philosophers such as Pascal and before him, Francis Bacon, had dreamt of devising means of thinking that did not depend upon the ambiguities of language. Instead, they sought to create codes that could run according to strict systems of logic. With them, they hoped, thinking would be done by machines and the human mind, with all its flaws, could be removed from the process. However, it proved hard to build these mechanisms. But with electricity, language could be turned into codes based upon binary numerical systems and then processed by machines that operated in corresponding modes of “off” and “on”. They were easier to build than the mechanical calculating machines that Bacon, Pascal and others had devised, and they could be scaled up. The complex calculations required fully to imitate human thought could be performed simply by adding more electrical switches.

It was now possible to imagine nature as a machine and thinking as machine-like. The further step, of seeing human beings as machines, came next. Naydler shows how the idea of the ‘man-machine’ gained a vitality of its own, paradoxically becoming quite as powerful as people in antiquity had experienced the life of spirits and gods. It still has us in its grip.

The rest of the story, to the present day, is perhaps broadly familiar, though it is worth engaging with Naydler’s account because he so clearly unpacks the ideas that shape our consciousness. I have wondered whether reading his book and contemplating its implications is a bit like undergoing an ancient mystery rite: it reveals the inward nature and living spirit of machines and electricity, as opposed merely to relating how they were developed, controlled and deployed. There is also the witness of those who resisted changes, including figures such as Pascal, who knew that the spiritual organ of the heart has reasons only it can understand, as well as Romantics like Wordsworth and Coleridge.

Today, there are some struggling against the mental tyranny of electricity and the machine, as well. My sense is that the popularity of nature writing stems from a desire for cosmic re-enchantment. Alternatively, concern can be expressed amongst scientists, on occasion. The prominent mathematician, Michael Atiyah, who died earlier this year, gave a prophetic speech in 2000. He feared that twentieth century science had entered a Faustian pact. ‘The devil says: “I will give you this powerful machine, and it will answer any question you like,”’ he said, before adding: ‘“All you need to do is give me your soul.”’

He was right. But if we are to discover a new way of relating to the world and the cosmos, which would mean a further revolution in the way we experience ourselves, we must attend to the origins and character of our state of mind now. Jeremy Naydler’s book is, therefore, of the utmost importance. I hope it is widely read.