If you’re a regular reader of this column it can’t have escaped your attention that I occasionally stray rather far from matters computational, into realms of philosophy, psychology and even (gasp) politics. Such latitude is the gift of my enlightened editor (very true – Ed), but it also reflects my own personal interests, of which computing forms only one very important part.
I belong to a cohort whose experience was formed in the underground press of the late 1960s, and when we eventually had to re-enter polite society most of my friends went into either mainstream journalism or academia. I’d like to claim that I deliberately chose to go into the computer biz, but in truth it was partly accident. I was working as production director of Dennis Publishing when we acquired one of the first PC magazines, and because of my biochemistry degree I was elected House Nerd. It suited me well, because whatever computing may lack in glamour it makes up for in importance. It’s the industry of the 21st century, the one that shapes everyone’s lives, yet one of which our cultural and political elites are proud to show off their complete ignorance (with the worthy exception of Mr Fry).
I was attracted to craft very early in life. My father worked in the steel industry and I spent many happy childhood hours watching the Bessemer converter blow at Robert Hyde’s iron foundry across the road. I always loved making things – model aeroplanes, electronics – and taking things to pieces.
The grammar school I attended was alma mater to Erasmus Darwin (Charlie’s grandad) and it instilled in me a deep respect for the makers of things, engineers and scientists. I’m drawn to what the economist Thorstein Veblen once called the “instinct of workmanship”, rather than the “instinct of predation”.
Veblen, who died in 1929, is remembered mainly for his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class, which gave us the term “conspicuous consumption”. Written during the Gilded Age of US capitalism when the Rockefellers, Carnegies, and Vanderbilts were accumulating their vast fortunes, it enjoyed brief fame until Karl Marx’s ideas grabbed all the attention. I recently read Veblen’s work and was stunned by how accurately he predicted the forces that have caused our current economic crisis.
Veblen postulates that during the hunter-gatherer stage of our evolution, human societies became split between the hunters who seized their living from nature through personal prowess, and the gatherers who stayed home making pots, raising children and digging the soil. The hunters evolved what Veblen called a “predatory” mindset, while the rest developed an “industrial” mindset: we were divided into those who toiled and those who didn’t. Veblen’s predators diversified from hunting to become kings, nobles, soldiers, priests, and eventually merchant bankers and hedge-fund managers. The predatory mindset prefers animistic explanations of the world: believing in “luck”, it devises magical rites to propitiate the spirits of the prey. These developed into gods representing the forces of nature, and eventually into one God with human characteristics.
Predators are devoted to ceremony, sport and competition, and they despise drudgery. Through conspicuous consumption and conspicuous waste they demonstrate contempt for thrift, and advertise their personal prowess. The industrial mind, on the contrary, is forced by economic realities toward cooperation, and to causal rather than magical explanations of the world. It needs to make things work and so values diligence and craftsmanship, eventually leading to science rather than religion.