Goethe: In science and technology, every tool would be used to maximize the power of human being.

03 Jun

3860333930_e45c9a47d5_oThe introduction to the paper I wrote as a foundation for my library technology presentation.  In the future I will probably post a couple other parts as well.  Much broader application than just libraries….

Gaal Dornick, using mathematical concepts, has defined psychohistory to be that branch of mathematics which deals with the reactions of human conglomerates to fixed social and economical stimuli…. – Isaac Asimov, Foundation[i]

This paper is concerned with the role of technology in libraries – especially particular modern forms of technology. Of even greater concern however, are the philosophies that underlie the use [and certainly in some cases the creation] of these technologies. Much of this paper is devoted to exploring those philosophies in no small depth, and at some leisure, and the message, although for libraries, has broader application….

Context is king and so I proceed to set the frame. While the ancient world had some notions of order in the universe, the predominant motifs were those of chaos and fate (which has negative connotations). This is no longer the case.[ii] Now, the predominant themes, led by the “West”, are those of progress and destiny (which is similar to fate, but has largely positive connotations).

Poster for the movie version

Poster for the movie version

Many years ago, I was reading Isaac Asimov’s fictional Foundation series and was introduced to the character of Hari Seldon. This man develops a science called “psychohistory” that enables him to predict the future via probability using mathematical formulas.[iii] As an impressionable sixteen year old, this was a very new idea for me at the time and had a real impact on me – I vividly remember the time and place I read this and my subsequent wrestling with the concept: was science really progressing such that it would have abilities like these? Or if it was not,could it?[iv] Recently, I came upon what is by now a familiar theme – the universe as a machine, albeit a beautiful one – in the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret[v]. As opposed to Hari Seldon’s formula(s), which took into account contingencies (and hence probabilities), what we find in Hugo Cabret certainly seems to be a more deterministic way of looking at things. Whether or not this is the case, here I submit that the practical idea is the same: by treating the cosmos as a machine and by carefully observing it, mathematical formulas can assist in “capturing” the world and be used to make predictions about it.[vi]

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

It would perhaps seem to be the height of foolishness to deny the full truth of such a statement. Even so, it has evidently seemed to many over the years that there is a great, great cost that comes with this analogy. Noting the continual ascent of the scientific worldview in the late 18th century, the great German writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe believed that

“the Renaissance ideal of classical languages, classical literature, and classical arts would be replaced by classical mechanics, which have no place for meaning, ethics, or Bildung [that is, the “tradition of self-cultivation, wherein philosophy and education are linked in a manner that refers to a process of both personal and cultural maturation”[vii]]. In science and technology, every tool would be used to maximize the power of human being.”[viii]

What was Goethe afraid of? Why did he see things this way?[ix] How does this relate to big data? And why should libraries care?

We’ll get there. For now though, let’s start our journey by way of something that fascinates many if not all of us – robots.

Full paper here.

[i] Aiden, Erez, and Jean-Baptiste Michel. 2013. Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture. New York? : Riverhead Publishing, p. 208.

[ii] Greek philosophy brought the notion of a discernible order to the forefront, and I submit that Judeo-Christian theology – with its notion of a loving God giving us an ordered world out of His love – spurred on modern science as it gave man the confidence to discover and ever more fully harness and work with the order that God had provided for our good.

[iii] Paul Krugman said he became an economist because it was the next best thing to being a psychohistorian. Courtney Comstock, “Paul Krugman Became an Economist to Be Like His Science Fiction Hero,” Business Insider, February 22, 2010, accessed March 13, 2014, l

[iv] Even though this jolted me at the time, I would suggest that anyone familiar with the history of science should be able to get some sense of how such an idea could have taken hold in the Western world.

[v] “Smack in the middle of the 14th century, as historians of science such as Lynn White Jr have written, the weight-driven clock captured the imagination of Europe. The civic pride which expended itself in the building of towering cathedrals in cities and towns transferred quickly to the construction of enormous astronomical clocks.

And these clocks did not just track the hours.

‘No European community was able to hold up its head,’ wrote White, ‘unless in its midst the planets wheeled in cycles and epicycles, while angels trumpeted, cocks crew, and apostles, kings, and prophets marched and countermarched at the booming of the hours.’

The fascination with the great clocks presaged a change in the mindset of Europeans, White argued, a mindset that was turning away from the universe of the Greeks and beginning its journey toward the Scientific Revolution.

By 1319-20 a novel theory of impetus was emerging, transitional between that of Aristotle and Newton’s inertial motion. Under the older concept, nothing moved unless it were constantly pushed by an outside force. Under the new physical theory, things keep moving by means of forces originally imprinted on them, by vis impressa. Moreover, regularity, mathematically predictable relationships, facts quantitatively measurable, were looming larger in men’s picture of the universe.

The clockwork universe is a metaphor often attributed to Newton’s era. But it was in the same century as the clock’s invention, in the year 1382 to be precise, when Nicole Oresme, the Bishop of Lisieux (and a groundbreaking mathematician), first described the universe as a vast mechanical clock created and maintained by God.

It was, as White said, a ‘notion with a future’. The metaphor became its own metaphysics.”

John Farrell, “Scorsese’s ‘Hugo’ and the Mechanical Universe,” Forbes, January 26, 2012, accessed Mar 13, 2014, .

[vi] An interesting quote in this regard: “We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.” Laplace, Pierre Simon. 1952. A philosophical essay on probabilities. New York: Dover Publications.

In an email message to the author from November 2013 from now retired University of Chicago librarian David Bade he commented on this quote: “Laplace’s ‘demon’ (as the above intellect came to be known) is the foundation of Big Data research and rhetoric. The irony is that Big Data promises the power to manipulate and control, but is based on Laplace’s theory of an absolutely deterministic universe in which manipulation and control are the myths of creatures in a world bereft of any freedom of action, much less control over the world which determines their everything.”

[vii] Wikipedia contributors, “Bildung,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed March 15, 2014).

[viii] Noland, Martin R. 1996. Harnack’s Historicism: the Genesis, Development, and Institutionalization of Historicism and its Expression in the Thought of Adolf Von Harnack. Thesis (Ph. D.)–Union Theological Seminary, 1996, p. 176.

[ix] Is Goethe perhaps overstating the case? Speaking about how to confront the dangers of “dataveillance”, Rita Raley might have some words of caution for those who think like him today, at least in terms of making an effective critique: “Positioned as we are within the dataveilance regime, we cannot but employ the tactics of immanent critique, which depends not on an overstatement or overarticulation of totalizing control systems nor on a hyperbolized romance of the exploitation of these systems, but rather depends simply on ordinary action itself.” Italics mine, Rita Raley, 139, “Dataveillance and Countervailance”, in Gitelman, Lisa. 2013. “Raw data” is an Oxymoron. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

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