Calculators All the Way Down—OfPublicInterest.01
Is the argument for technology circular, dogmatic, and infinitely regressive? Or is it altruistic?
‘Turtles all the way down’ is the idea that Earth rests on the back of a giant turtle, which rests on the back of a larger turtle, which rests on the back of an even larger turtle, and so on, all the way down to infinity. This concept, or belief (however you see it), is a demonstration of the knowledge problem of infinite regress — an infinite series of things that depend on an infinite series of predecessors that go beyond the realm of proof. Infinite regress is the child ever asking ‘why?’ where the answers inevitably run out before the questions.
Infinite regress is just one of three modes of argument under the Münchhausen trilemma, which states that it is impossible to theoretically prove any truth without asserting some level of assumption; therefore, nothing is provable, and all arguments take one of three fallible modes. The other two fallible arguments are the circular, which can only be justified by itself and therefore has no solid basis, and the dogmatic, that some indefensible rules exist as the basis of knowledge. The invention of the pocket-sized calculator seemed to be at once a demonstration of the circular, the dogmatic, and the infinite regress.
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Sir Clive Sinclair passed away last week (16th of September, 2021) and by all accounts, he was an electronics fanatic since he was a boy. Sinclair was a pioneer of consumer electronics devoted to easing the human experience through technology. His inventions, with market success or not, ranged from bringing computing and video gaming into British homes, to pioneering electric cars and bikes, to the first truly pocket-sized and affordable digital calculator.
That calculator launched in 1972 as the ‘Sinclair Executive’. But Sinclair hardly reinvented the wheel here. As with most new technologies, it was a simple tweak of an old one. What Sinclair did was simply change the way the chip (made by another company) drew power, significantly reducing consumption by nearly 18 times and, therefore, allowing the device to be much smaller and cheaper, and therefore, more accessible. Sometimes great inventions are just a slight reengineering. And that slight reengineering made GB£1.8 million of 1970’s profit for Sinclair.
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Putting aside the capitalist market imperative to create (i.e., incrementally add to) new technology, we can ask about the purpose of the pocket-sized calculator. Why did it need to be invented? Because professionals needed to be able to do quick sums on the go, carrying a larger predecessor model was too bulky. Why do we need a computer to do sums? Because of human error on paper. Why did the sums become so complicated? And we can keep asking these questions until we get back to the beginning of human technology. Why did we use anything at all?
But if we want to ask about technology all the way back, it keeps going beyond us. Humans are technologists, and if we define a technologist as a being that creates material objects to serve a purpose then termites must be technologists too. And if termites have been around for at least 110 million years longer than even the earliest hominids, then technology surely predates humans. So, we were not the first technologists. Were the termites? Were beavers? We can’t know, and it’s irrelevant to today. So, it’s a problem of infinite regress where the development of the pocket-sized calculator is the result of geological ages of technological advancements that apparently started with no knowledge at all. We could say that Clive Sinclair invented the cheap pocket calculator. But if it was just an incremental change on a technology that was at least 8 million human years in the making, then whose idea was it really? Clive was just the last to add a little bit of idea to the pile, in the name of infinite progress. But let’s leave the infinite regress of technology, for the circular.
The technologist’s argument that technology can save us is, I believe, a circular one. While I don’t think I need to remind us of what we need saving from, I think it’s useful to see how this might be seen as a circular argument. I previously asked you to put aside the economic imperative for technological advancement, to hold it purely as a knowledge exercise. But that’s a fool’s errand because we are intrinsically indentured to our knowledge based economic structures.
The very social fabric that we ‘rely on’, as far as I can tell, appears to be a bunch of meaninglessly constructed jobs that we work diligently at and can no longer live without. So, perhaps we need to ask, and bear with me, why do we panic buy toilet paper?
Firstly, do you know how many experts it takes to make a pencil? Miners, engineers, metallurgists, truckers, operations managers, designers, factory floor operators, marketers. It’s a lot. Imagine how many experts it would take to make a pocket-sized calculator. Expertise, a.k.a. specialisation, could be thought of as the severe lack of most available skills. So, if it takes an awful lot of largely unskilled people to pool the expertise to make a pencil, or a calculator, how can we possibly think that we can survive the apocalypse as largely unskilled individuals too panicked to share toilet paper?
If this novel coronavirus has shown us anything, it’s that privileged people with pointless jobs will hoard toilet paper over anything else, not because of the shame of having an unwiped arse, but because we fear a world where we are completely responsible for our own lives. Through the incremental steps of technology, we have forgotten that skillset of true responsibility.
Through the development of technology there is barely a Westerner alive that could survive on their own. There are reality TV shows nowadays that people watch with pre-packaged microwaved dinners from the comfort of their homes in sheer amazement at people doing what everybody used to know how to do — survive outside of “civilization”. The development of Western civilization was a neat thing that has, over thousands of years, propelled us into more and more specialised jobs. Jobs created for the purpose of giving jobs, none of which meet the criteria of survival skills — it’s sounding infinitely regressive. We’re effectively now a bunch of idiots with a lot of information, from a bunch of sages with a little information. So, is knowledge power or extinction? This is the circular bit.
Every new technology needs a new superseding technology so that we can, at the very least, keep our constructed economy going to put food on the table; something we’ve also largely forgotten how to do for ourselves. So, we need suitable but incremental technological advancements to keep us bound and alive inside of an inescapable socioeconomic fabric, that we’d be too fearful to leave if we could. All the while believing that the things that we do to make life better are ultimately harming our survival, yet we do it anyway.
Clive Sinclair, who paradoxically preferred not to use the internet or be surrounded by modern technologies, told the BBC, “Once you start to make machines that are rivalling and surpassing humans with intelligence, it’s going to be very difficult for us to survive. It’s just an inevitability.” Clive knew it, yet he kept inventing. Why? Partly curiosity and the quest for knowledge, and partly the bottom line. Many technologists agree that AI is going to outcompete us, yet they develop it anyway because they are people with jobs.
Whether it is climate change, AI, or a novel coronavirus (those things that I didn’t need to remind you of), the Münchhausen trilemma of technology is leaving us ever more wildly unprepared for the impending apocalypse, because the technology that keeps on needing to prove its usefulness keeps on leading to new technology to keep us getting paid, which leads us closer to the collapse and our need for the skills that they made us forget. When Sinclair increased access to calculators, he helped us to forget. The constructed economic imperative to advance technology always defeats the importance of retaining skill.
The belief that the fragility of human persistence within existence can be preserved by ever better technologies despite the looming megaliths of AI or changing climate, caused by our own technology no less, seems dogmatic. Doesn’t it? There is yet no proof that the incremental advances in our modern technologies will save us from our last breath, yet we try anyway.
But why do we try anyway? Clive Sinclair sent himself broke trying to invent things to improve life for humanity. For some inventors, it’s not always the bottom line driving them. For all the short-comings of the advanced technological age, where the calculator and the iPhone seem to be sending us to oblivion through lost skills and endless marketing for resource heavy status items, it has improved the lives of millions. I’m reminded of the people that receive hearing-aids and hear their baby breathing for the first time, or receive laser eye surgery and can wake up already in this world rather than clutching for it on the sideboard every morning, or the video call to loved ones that we’re stranded without.
Underneath us all and going back millions of years, is an imperative to make life better for each other. Humans predate the bottom line, and technology predates all of us. And it makes me think that technology has been a blessing for so many, even if through another of our evolved states, temporal short-sightedness, it may be the undoing of us all.
Until the anthropocentric apocalypse truly arrives, it certainly seems to be calculators, all the way down.
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I dedicate this essay to Clara, who prompted me to write about Clive Sinclair for the project ‘OfPublicInterest’, and also got me thinking about the meaninglessness of the job market.
Originally published on Medium.
About the author
Sometimes fictional, sometimes philosophical, sometimes biographical, but mostly as a blend. These stories are my journeys through my loves and my shames, my ego and my empathy, and my detached wormhole thoughts.