Technology and the Baroque Unconscious

This entry is part 5 of 15 in the series Psychohistory

Engineering romantics fall in love with the work of Jorge Luis Borges early in their careers.  Long after Douglas Hofstadter is forgotten for his own work in AI (which seems dated today), he will be remembered with gratitude for introducing Borges to generations of technologists.

Borges once wrote:

“I should define the baroque as that style which deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) all its own  possibilities and which borders on its own parody…I would say that the final stage of all styles is baroque when that style only too obviously exhibits or overdoes its own tricks.”

The baroque in Borges’ sense is self-consciously humorous. Borges’ own work in this sense is a baroque exploration of the processes of  thought. As one critic (see the footnote on this page) noted, Borges writings “serve to dramatize the process of thought in the apprehension of truth.”

Unlike art, complex and mature technology (not all technology) is baroque without being self-conscious. At best there is a collective sensibility informing its design that can be called a baroque unconscious.

This post is a sequel of sorts to The Gollum Effect. You can read it stand-alone, but you will probably get more out of it if you read that first. Within the Lord of the Rings metaphor I developed in that post, “baroque unconscious” is basically my answer to the question, if extreme consumers are Gollums, who is Sauron?

This idea of a baroque unconscious helps clarify things about the phenomenon of technological refinement that have been bothering me for a while. In particular, it helps distinguish among three kinds of refinement in technological artifacts: refinement that is useful to the user, refinement (often exploitative) that is useful to somebody besides the user, and refinement that benefits nobody at all.

It is this last characteristic that interests me.  Refinement that benefits nobody — anything that attracts the adjective overwrought  — is what I attribute to the workings of the baroque unconscious. And I write this fully aware of the irony that this kind of post, might be viewed as overwrought analysis by some.

Interestingly though, viewed from this perspective, the other two kinds of apparently intentional refinement can be seen as opportunistic exploitation. They arise  through manipulation of those elements of the workings of the baroque unconscious that happen to be consciously recognized.

In other words, I am arguing that the collective unconscious component in the evolution of technology is primary. The conscious component is peripheral.

Or to borrow another idea from art, it is technology for technology’s sake. And unlike in art, there is no primary artist.

The Baroque in Art

There is no such thing as the baroque unconscious in art.

When art exhausts its own possibilities unintentionally we generally characterize it as camp (what Susan Sontag aptly called “failed seriousness” in Notes on Camp). The baroque element in the work is evident to observers, even if the creator lacks the self-awareness to recognize it.

When art exhausts its own possibilities as a side-effect, while pursuing other objectives, we do not call it baroque. We call it either cynical or tasteless. The auteur theory of art applies well enough that if we cannot reasonably impute baroque intentions to the artist, we feel safe assuming that artist was aware of the baroque consequences of his/her decisions. Michael Bay’s Transformers movies (especially the last installment) are examples. They are both tasteless and cynical, but they are not campy or baroque.

Technology is generally more complex and collaborative than even the most collaborative kinds of art, such as movies. The process can create things that exhaust certain possibilities, with no single creator or observer being fully conscious of it. Yet, we cannot call such things campy, cynical or tasteless.

To understand this, suspend for a moment your default idea of what it means for something to be baroque. You are probably thinking of European architecture of a certain period with an exaggerated and visible sort of drama on the surface. That prototypical idea of the baroque is what we tend to apply, in unreconstructed form, to technology: clunky user interfaces and a degree of featuritis that has us groaning.

This is a narrow sense of the baroque. The original architectural instances  served a specific function: to impress and intimidate commoners with a display of awe-inspiring grandeur (some art historians have argued that the original examples of baroque were therefore not baroque at all, but cynical). The exhaustion of possibilities in that kind of baroque is all on the surface.

But things can be baroque without being visibly so, depending on the audience for the original function. The key is that the governing aesthetic must seek to self-consciously exhaust its own possibilities.

Invisible, but still intentional baroque is particularly common in modern American pop culture. Most viewers of The Simpsons for instance, miss the bulk of the hidden pop-culture references in the show. A loyal subculture of fans devotedly mines these references and discusses them online. While this sort of thing is often cynical (deliberate creation of baroque plots to create addiction, as in the show Lost), in the case of The Simpsons, I suspect the writers genuinely seek to exhaust the possibilities of the artistic technique of reference, without annoying the mainstream audience.

The Baroque in Technology

In technology, Apple’s products border on the baroque in their exaggerated simplicity. Once the iPad achieves the edge-to-edge display and maximal technically feasible thinness for instance, it is hard to imagine how one would parody it — there is no room left for exaggeration in the physical form at least. Certain possibilities will have been exhausted.

This sort of intentional (and therefore artistic) baroque in technology, however, is not really what interests me. What fascinates me is technology that grows baroque without anyone consciously intending to exhaust any design possibilities. Social forces, such as the competitive pressures of an arms race, or the demands of extreme lead customers, don’t seem to be sufficient explanations.

Art is usually the outcome of a singular vision. But technology, even the auteur form of technology practiced by Steve Jobs, is deeply collectivist. Engineering real things is far too hard for one mind to impose a singular vision on all but the simplest of products. When a piece of technology appears to be the work of a single mind and possesses the dense layers of coherent complexity that can only be the product of a large team, it is evidence of a deep coherence in the team itself. In such a team, individuals trust the collective to the point that  they feel comfortable narrowing their domain of conscious concern to their own work.

The baroque sensibility resides in the collective unconscious of the team that produces it. The baroque in the whole is greater than the sum of the baroque accounted for by the self-awareness of the many individuals.

Moderately obsessive-compulsive attention to detail at the level of individuals oblivious to larger purposes, eventually turns into baroque exhaustion of possibilities at the level of the whole product.

This brings us to the idea of refinement, and the question of when, why and how wrought keels over into overwrought.

Refinement and the Baroque

When I first started thinking about refinement, in the context of addictive consumption (as in, refined cocaine), I had examples such as American fast food in mind: precisely engineered concoctions of key refined substances (salt, sugar and fat) designed to cause addictive over-consumption.

The pathologies of consumerism can be traced to an entire universe of such refined goods. I offered the term gollumized to describe humans who end up being entirely defined by a pattern of such consumptive behavior, much like the character of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings, with his addictive, enslaving attachment to the One Ring: a highly refined, pure essence.

Something bothered me however, about the implicit equation of refinement with pathological addictive dependence on the one hand, and cynical exploitation on the other.

The refinement in the construction of something like the space shuttle does not seem pathological. It seems necessary.

A highly refined kitchen knife  that plays a role in your creative self-expression as a chef seems somehow different from a McDonald’s hamburger or an expensive wine, both of which are consumption-addiction refined in their own ways.

Even with hamburgers, while acknowledging that they are effectively exploitative and addictive foods designed to enrich the food industry by ruining the health of consumers, it is clearly farfetched to believe that there is some vast conspiracy that includes every biochemist.

The idea that the creation and sale of such foods is more a matter of cynical opportunism is more reasonable. You could accuse the industry of carefully engineering high-fructose corn syrup as a way to make money off corn surpluses, but the industry didn’t create the necessary biochemistry knowledge or surplus-creating agricultural advances with the idea of eventually selling cheap and addictive burgers (for one thing, the evolutionary processes took longer than the lifetime of any individual involved in the story).  You could say that the existence of HFCS is 10% intentional and 90% a consequence of the baroque unconscious driving food technology.

In other words, the existence of a Gollum does not imply the existence of a Gollumizer. Sauron in the The Lord of the Rings is at best a personification of the baroque unconscious (with Saruman being one of the cynical exploiters — an HFSC creator so to speak).

But let’s figure out what refinement in technology really means. Consider the following senses of the word refinement:

  1. Refinement as in purity or purification of substances: ore, oil, drugs, foods
  2. Refinement in the sense of highly developed and cultivated sensibilities, as in refined palate
  3. Refinement in the sense of elaborate sophistication of mature or declining cultures
  4. Refinement in the sense of detailed, attentive design in advanced technologies
  5. Refinement in the sense of an Apple product (or any other possibility-exhausting product aesthetic)

How do these different senses of the idea of refinement relate to each other and to the baroque? What distinguishes the space shuttle, quality kitchen knife from an iPad, an expensive wine, or a McDonald’s hamburger?

The Sword, the Nail and the Machine Gun

I found a key clue when Greg Rader decided (to my slight discomfort) to overload this sense of refinement with an economic meaning in his 2×2 model of types of economies.

In Greg’s model, the economic role of refinement is to make it easy to value artifacts in an impersonal way, in a cash economy. Unrefined artifacts get you attention or help build social capital in relationships. Refined artifacts help you earn money or participate in the gift economy.

But why should refinement lead to easier valuation and thence to exchange for money.

The crucial missing piece is the role of interchangeability in mass production. As Joseph Ellis writes in The Social History of the Machine Gun:

It was always theoretically possible to conceive of a gun that would spew out vast numbers of bullets or whatever in a short period of time…manufacturing techniques [were not] sufficiently well-advanced to allow individual craftsmen to work to the fractional tolerances demanded for every part of such a complex gun.

The key point here is often lost in discussions of industrialization that use Adam Smith’s simple example of a nail to highlight the division of labor aspect of industrial production. Nail manufacture illustrates the reductionist capacities of industrialization, but it is the integration capacity of industrialization that drives refinement.

The machine gun illustrates the dynamics of integration. It is a complex machine, and as such, liable to break down more easily. Reliability involves network effects within a complex artifact. Roughly speaking, in a design with no redundancy, the more parts you have, and the more complex and fast-moving the linkages among them, the less reliable the machine.

Unless you find an opposed network effect that can scale at least as fast, machines will get less reliable as they scale.

The opposed network effect that was discovered late in the industrial revolution was interchangeability. Interchangeability creates a network effect between artifacts. Crucially, they need not be functionally similar. They only need share a structural language. A machine gun can be cannibalized to repair a telescope for instance.

The significance of Ellis’ point about fractional tolerances has to do with replacement and cannibalization. Craftsmen are capable of very refined work, but the work tends to be unique. It involves fitting this hilt on this sword with great precision. You can get away with this because craft also tends to involve fewer parts, static linkages and performance regimes where breakdowns are infrequent.

With interchangeability comes the possibility of easy valuation, since it is possible to talk of supply and demand at the level of many non-unique parts that can be compared to each other. That helps connect the dots to Greg’s economic hypotheses.

But we still haven’t fingerprinted the essence of refinement itself.

Replacement and Repair

The first key threshold crossed on the road to industrialization was the replacement of human, animal and uncontrolled inanimate power (wind or water) with controlled inanimate power: coal and oil. Much of the attention in attempts to characterize industrialization is given over to the study of this threshold-crossing.

The second key threshold crossed was the shift from repair to replacement. When breakdowns became frequent enough that anticipatory manufacture of replacement parts became cheaper than reactive repair or replacement, the network effects of industrialization truly kicked in.

The network effects of reliability in a sword are not strong enough that you need to counteract them with interchangeability effects. In fact, much of the complexity in a sword may well be in baroque artistic elements that serve no purpose (a sword that loses a diamond from its hilt is still equally effective on the battlefield).

Even early industrial-age artifacts, do not have enough complexity and speed to really require interchangeability. This is one reason I find elaborate steampunk fantasies fundamentally uninteresting. They involve imagined machines that come across as laughably Rube Goldberg-esque precisely because they don’t comprehend reliability problems, and the methods actually created during the industrial age to mitigate them.

When you get to something like a machine gun though, where breakdowns are frequent and waiting for custom replacement parts is hugely expensive, you must meet absolute tolerances, so that any replacement part can replace any broken part (and equally crucially, so that two broken, complex assemblies can be cannibalized to produce at least one working assembly).

So we can conclude that:

  1. Refinement in craft based on relative tolerances leads to uniqueness.
  2. Refinement in manufacturing based on absolute tolerances leads to interchangeability.

From these two basic kinds of refinement, we get the five connotations of the word I listed earlier. This happens via the appearance of a refinement surplus.

The Refinement Surplus

Interchangeable parts based on absolute tolerances solve the reliability problem and then some. The network effects of interchangeability turn out to be stronger than the network effect of increasing unreliability in individual complex artifacts.

What’s more, since interchangeability limits the need for communication among collaborating makers, refinement of component technologies can progress much faster (as Adam Smith noted). This is what we call “specialization.” It happened in physical engineering before object-oriented programing ported the idea to software engineering.

You could say that work previously achieved by communication among makers is now achieved via communication among artifacts.  This is most obvious with software objects, but the core idea is present even when you shift from a custom-made nut-bolt pair to a standardized pair that “communicates” via numerical absolute tolerances.

So interchangeability creates a social network of (say) machine guns. There are functional linkages within complex artifacts that make them useful, and substitution and reuse linkages between them that make them reliable (redundancy inside an artifact is merely a semantic distinction: think of it as carrying interchangeable spare parts inside the boundary of the artifact, with the capacity to automatically switch out broken parts). Interchangeability and standardization make every machine gun less unique, and more a part of a sort of hive-machine-gun beast.

Dramatic as this effect is, it pales in comparison to the effect of commonalities across the needs of different types of complex systems. This connects all complex artifacts into a giant social network. The One Machine.

A high-tolerance part can serve a low-tolerance function, but not vice versa. Economies of scale then kick in and dictate that many components become more refined than they need to be, for typical artifacts that make use of them. The result is that systems gradually get more refined than they functionally need to based on immediate intentions. The needs of a few artifacts drive the refinement levels in all technologies.

This creates a refinement surplus. Industrial technology, unlike craft work, runs a continuous refinement surplus. The surplus was initially triggered by the need for interchangeability to solve the reliability problem, but that turned out to be a case of using a sledgehammer to kill a fly.

Or so it might seem if you only look at individual artifacts. I’ll argue in a future post that once software and the Internet kick in, reliability problems can once again overtake what interchangeability can mitigate. As the One Machine gets increasingly interconnected, the unreliability network effect may overtake the interchangeability network effect, hence the fundamental Singularity-vs.-Collapse debate.

The possibilities represented by limiting refinement levels are always greater than the universe of artifacts in existence at any given time.

Exploitation of this refinement surplus is fundamentally what creates the predictable “growth” in industrial age Schumpeterian creative destruction. But it isn’t the intent to exploit that drives the evolution. It is a collective unconscious drive to exhaust possibilities and find limits, independent of any specific need.

The Platonic Baroque

The Lord of the Rings captures artistic anxieties about engineering: the “good” races create beautiful craft, the “evil” ones engineer ugly things.

Where LOTR goes wrong is in focusing on beauty in craft as the distinguishing factor (there is a line in The Hobbit which goes something like “the Goblins create many clever things, but few beautiful ones”).

In LOTR, evil engineering artifacts are crude, unrefined and possess little symmetry. Good ones made with craft are intricate, refined and highly symmetric.

This is obviously the exact opposite of what actually happens.

Open up a laptop and compare what you see to (say) a beautiful hand-crafted necklace. Not only is the inside of the laptop more intricate than the necklace, it is more intricate than you can even see. You would need electron microscopes to get a sense of how unbelievably intricate, refined and symmetric a laptop is.

The technological landscape is defined by two kinds of beauty. On the one hand, you have the possibility-exhausting conscious baroque artifacts that we view as “pushing the envelope.” Both the iPad and the space shuttle belong on this end of the spectrum. One contains chips at the limit of fabrication technology, the other contains materials that can handle enormous heat and cold, produce unimaginable levels of thrust, and so on.

On the other hand you have things that are not at the edge of technological capability, but manufactured out of component and process technologies created for those leading edge technologies. And I don’t just mean obviously over-engineered things like space pens that write upside down (which you can buy at NASA museums). I mean everything. Regular Bics included.

In this category, makers strive to exhaust the possibilities, but always lag  behind. The surplus refinement potential shows up in the unnecessarily clean lines of modernism. Unused bits. Unbroken symmetries. Blank engineering canvases that expand faster than designers and technicians can paint.

The interaction of the two kinds of beauty is what creates the texture of the modern technological landscape. I call it platonic baroque. This may seem like a contradiction in terms, but bear with me for a moment. 

The baroque unconscious is the force that drives technological evolution: a force whose potential increases faster than it can be exploited.

Recall that the baroque seeks to exhaust its own possibilities. It is a technical exercise in exploring process limits, not an exercise in expressing ideas or creating utility. But this process needs ideas to fuel it.

In the days when royalty and religion loomed large in the minds of creators, it was natural to exhaust possibilities by filling them up with the content of the mythology associated with the power and money that drove their work. It was natural to fill up blank walls with gargoyles and cherubs, popes and princes.

But when the power and money come from a force whose main characteristic is vast and featureless potential, the baroque aesthetic seeks to exhaust possibilities by expressing that emptiness with platonic forms.

So  the Bauhaus chair is not a rejection of the baroque. The modernist designer merely seeks to build cathedrals to his new master: a vast emptiness of possibility within the refinement surplus. This possibility is the father of industrial invention, a restless, paternalist force that replaces necessity, the mother of craft-like invention.

I am tempted to explore that male/female symbolism further, but I’ll limit myself to one overwrought metaphor. This unexploited possibility that is the father of industrial invention is at once a Dark Lord and engineering Dark Matter.

Maker Addiction and Exponential Technology

Where there is surplus, it will be exploited. Possibility, rather than necessity, drives invention. When ideas for exploitation lag the potential to be exploited you get baroque unconscious design.

Why would somebody build something simply because it is possible?

Both craft and engineering are driven by an addiction to making. It does not matter whether needs or possibilities enable the making. Makers will make. What determines how fast they make is whether they are able to focus on their strengths or whether they are limited by their weaknesses.

This is the shift in maker psychology due to industrialization: from deliberative craft work limited by individual weaknesses, to reactive engineering work that is not limited in this way, thanks to specialization.

Need-driven making requires a focus on function and utility. Non-functional making in craft is easily recognized as artistic embellishment.

The idealized craftsman — and it was usually a he — was a deliberate and mindful creator. He made the whole, and he made the parts. When things broke, he made repairs or crafted new parts. Each whole was unique. When craftspeople collaborated on larger projects — stone-masons making blocks for cathedrals say — assembly itself became a craft that was limited by the skill of the best (if you look at the history of masonry, you can see an obvious and gradual progression from rough-hewn blocks carefully fitted together, to more refined blocks that look increasingly interchangeable in late pre-modern architecture).

In industrial artifacts based on interchangeability, however, the role of craftsman bifurcates into the twin roles of technician and engineer-designer (for now, we can safely conflate engineer and designer). Both are reactive roles where function and utility take a backseat to sheer maker addiction.

The technician reacts to component work defined in terms of absolute tolerances by pushing the boundaries of process capabilities and component quality with addictive urgency. I explored this earlier in my post, The Turpentine Effect (though I didn’t connect the dots until now). The result is Six Sigma, an explosion of process tools, and the dominance of an intrinsic and abstract notion of potential future value over an extrinsic and specific notion of realizable current value. Somebody will use this in the future beats nobody can use this right now.  By and large, this trust is justified: increasing demands for refinement from the most demanding applications keep up with the possibilities.

In this process of reactive design, refinement in available components and processes starts to drive refinement levels in complete artifacts that have already been invented, and suggests new inventions. A positive feedback loop is set in motion: increasing component and process refinement overtakes application needs as individual artifacts mature, but then new applications emerge as pace-setters. Design bottlenecks migrate freely across the entire technological landscape, via the coupled technological web, instead of remaining confined within the design space of individual artifacts.

For those of you who are familiar with the S-curve models of technology maturation and disruption, imagine disruption S-curves bleeding across unrelated artifact categories via shared components and processes, creating an overall exponential technology evolution curve of the sort that both Singularity and Collapsonomics watchers like to obsess about, and that I will obsess about in future posts.

Across the fence from the technician, the engineer-designer loses mindfulness by shifting from deliberately dreaming up useful ideas to reacting to the possibilities of available component and process sophistication levels.

A perfect example is Moore’s Law: semiconductor companies began pushing fabrication technology to extremes before applications for the increased capability became clear.

On the other end we have Alan Kay’s reaction to Moore’s Law in the early 70s: the idea that computing should strive to “waste bits” in anticipation of decreasing cost. Computer design shifted from fundamentally deliberative before PARC to fundamentally reactive after.

Effects, Large and Small

So the net effect of maker addiction faced with refinement surplus is that existing artifacts get pulled into a baroque stage of their evolution and new artifacts appear to exploit possibilities rather than respond to necessities. I am not sure this is much better than Gollumizing consumption.

The One Machine gets increasingly integrated, and takes on an eerily coherent appearance due to uniform refinement levels and the operation of the platonic baroque aesthetic at the level of individual artifact design. Design bottlenecks drift around within this technological body politic, making it more coherent, more eerily platonic-baroque over time.

If the creation of unrealized refinement potential ever slows, and exploitation starts to catch up, you can expect the platonic baroque to become less platonic and more visibly overwrought. The blank canvas will start to fill up.

Thanks to this eerie collectively created aesthetic coherence, the One Machine takes on the appearance of subsuming intelligence and intentionality that suggests visions of a Singularity-AI to some.  Whether this is a case of anthropomorphic projection onto a smooth facade beneath which unreliability-driven collapse lurks, or whether there is an emerging systemic intelligence to the process, is something I still haven’t made up my mind about. If you’ve been following my writing, you know that at the moment, I lean towards the collapse interpretation. Darwinian evolution as refined complexity created by a blind watchmaker is too much of a precedent to ignore.

At more mundane levels, the baroque unconscious creates a critical shift in the nature of engineering: the pull of under-exploited refinement surplus is so strong that nominally less useful things that exploit the surplus can diffuse far faster, and suck away resources, far faster than nominally more useful things that ignore it.

All you need is a human behavior with potential for escalating addiction. You can then move as fast as the refinement surplus will allow. I explored this idea in The Milo Criterion.

Ignoring this leads to the classic entrepreneurial mistake: attempting to build useful things instead of things that exploit refinement surplus. The most high-impact technologies of the day are almost never whatever the wisdom of the day identifies as the most potentially useful ones. They are the ones that can spread most rapidly through The One Machine, mopping up refinement surplus.

So the best and brightest flock to Facebook or Google, and cancer remains uncured. Again, I am not sure whether this a good thing or not.  Perhaps from the perspective of the Dark Lord, optimizing the One Machine, now is simply not the right time to cure cancer. One day perhaps, the design bottlenecks will drift to that corner of the technological Web. Until then, we’ll have to content ourselves with doctors who tweet during surgeries and webcast the proceedings, but still cannot cure cancer.

I’ll stop here for now. This post has been something of a stream of conscious expression of my own baroque-unconscious addicted-maker tendencies. But then, I figure I can allow myself one of these self-indulgent posts every once in a while.  Especially since my birthday is coming up in a couple of days.

Series Navigation<< Hacking the Non-Disposable PlanetThe Abundances of Ages >>

Get Ribbonfarm in your inbox

Get new post updates by email

New post updates are sent out once a week

About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Patrick Dugan says

    Sounds like you’re exploring Bruce Sterling’s concepts of “gothic high tech” in this post, and in some way touching on the favela chic in the other.

    These principles have a lot to do with, best case scenario, cookie fascist, mind-controlled descent into a highly bifurcated socio-economic fabric (bifurcated like that one Chernobyl baby whose cleft lip ran through his nose and forehead, I leave you to google that if so inclined). Worst-case scenario, they leave you with a euthanized population dying of stomach cancers, succeeded by a race of machines organized around niches of novelty rather than any comprehensive, unifying design.

    I guess collapsonomics is the optimistic view, taking that into account.

    • I think I am trying to explore an orthogonal notion of why both FC and GHT might arise from a fundamental feature of complex technologies. Sterling sees it as a human failing that both views are reactive rather than progressive. A progressive view of technology may now be impossible due to complexity. All we can do is follow the beast in one way or another, we can’t lead it anywhere.

  2. There is no gollumizer? Of course there is: the ring is the gollumizer! Just because there was no individual orchestrating the refinement of the hamburger doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think of the fast-food industry as an entity which has the goal of growing its own power, and uses refinement of hamburgers (and restaurant experience) as a means to that end.

    Why think of the industry as the collective unconscious of its members, when the industry has different goals and methods than its individual component members do?

    Did you really mean to say that you consider laptops “evil” engineering artifacts, and neclaces and other non-interchangable crafts virtuous ones? Take a look at these terms. The laptop’s design was driven by an industry consciousness, the neclace design was driven by an individual consciousness. Human consciousness is rarely opposed to human interests, but non-human consciousness might be. Industry consciousness might view humans only as makers and gollums. Is that why it’s evil?

    • I don’t like the use of the term “unconscious” either but not only because it mystifies manifest interests, which are not too hard to uncover, but the way how it acts on language and meaning.

      Just look at a term like “addiction”. It’s a pretty strong claim that technologists and other makers are “addicted” to making, instead of just liking what they do and what they are good at, while being still able to relax. So in order to maintain this claim we can obtain that their addiction is “unconscious”. There are forces acting on them that are withdrawn from their view and contradictions to this view can be explained by “resistance” against dissolving the fable of the self-driven and self-sustained subject. So the use of “unconscious” is memetic in the original way Dawkins used the term. K.Popper called this “immunization” and I do think he was right about it.

      “Collective unconsciousness” is even more problematic because it isn’t ontologically sound. I do think “exhaustion of possibilities” or “producing for an open network of things” ( e.g. by means of industrial standards that were invented in the 19th century, enforced within new nation states like the German Empire and soon provided competitive advantages of national economies ) doesn’t require a recurse to psychology.

      • It’s a pretty strong claim that technologists and other makers are “addicted” to making, instead of just liking what they do and what they are good at, while being still able to relax.

        On the other hand…

        “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb. ”
        -Robert Oppenheimer

        I think Venkat does have his hands on something that’s just hard to articulate. Maybe a sort of Murphy’s law of technology: if it can be done someone will do it. That’s not quite right, but I think it’s pushing towards the right idea. I know Richard Feynman justified working at Los Alamos by telling himself if he didn’t some German physicist would do it for Hitler. Oppenheimer could apparently be completely honest about it.

        So maybe it’s a little bit of ego (I CAN solve this problem!), maybe it’s a little bit of competition for priority and legacy (I can solve it first!), maybe some of it’s pure love of the craft, but it all pushes in the same direction which is exploring the space of possibilities for the system. In evolutionary terms, what Venkat calls “maker addiction” might be like the tendency for intraspecies arms races to develop. The genetic reasons why one buck might have bigger antlers than another is irrelevant to the competitive advantage they grant the buck in terms of reproduction. Similarly, the intention behind designing an addictive hamburger is irrelevant to its effects in the market.

      • Actually, collective unconsciousness is more plausible than you think; if the various distributed mind theories are correct, there is an extent to which are a part of my unconscious, and I yours. (or at least we may be, depending on circumstances)

        To make an example, I “know” far more members of my extended family than I actually know personally, because I outsource a lot of my familiarity with them to my parents and grandparents. When my parents used to say “oh you, know auntie ____ who lives _____” I used to consider that as a convenient fiction, but there is an extent to which it is literally true, because I would have fragments of knowledge about them in my head, which in conjunction with that reminder, result in being able to recreate a mental picture of them and how I relate to them. There was a sense to which I did know them, but only when assisted by my parents.

        In the same way people can have various parts of their day to day functioning and motivation outsourced to various inanimate objects, or even to people. Know someone who whenever they see you says “that reminds me, I need to do this”? If they’re not just avoiding you, they may be using you as a scheduling system, only thinking about certain things they need to do when around you, and so avoiding spending too much time on them. In fact linking something you would spend too much time on to someone you tend to avoid can be quite a good low-effort self-balancing mechanism.

        There are various other ways in which a real conscious person, including their thoughts, can work as part of your autonomic neural functioning. A collective unconsciousness can then be thought of as a net of these webs of default delegation, like the root systems of multiple entangled plants making up the structure of a soil.

        This way, you can keep some of the timeless elements of Jungs early theory as just being about structural features of certain patterns of inter-reliance among thinking people. Also, as a nice bonus, it allows you to make claims that are not immunised against falsification, because people could find patterns of relationship that are structurally similar but do not share the same functional psychological effects.

        I’d go into what I think the main structural features are in Venkat’s model, but I think this comment is long enough!

  3. Hi Venkat,

    Good post. Much to chew on.

    A particular insight from austrian economics is that in the later part of this century, interest rates have been unusually low. Has this facilitated a faster than usual refinement and overinvestment in capital?

    How different might have the trajectory of technology been if there hadn’t been tonnes of capital to back it up?

    • I tend to the view that the dynamics of capital are derivative rather than fundamental, since for the last couple of centuries, technology has been the source of capital creation (rather than say, land).

      So I am not sure I understand how to respond to the counterfactual, since it does not involve an independent variable.

  4. The conceptualisation of technology as “The One Machine” running on interchangeable parts is brilliant, but I don’t think I agree with the framing of the rest of your post. Namely, I do not think that the shift from pre-industrial craftsmanship to industrial specialisation was so much a shift in the fundamentals, as in the manifestations thereof, primarily brought about by the ever-improving capacities of our tool and our ever-expanding knowledge running into the hard limits of our bodies and our brains. As such, I would argue that it is not so much specialisation that brought about complexity, but complexity that brought about specialisation. For instance, if there was any humanely-possible way for Steve Jobs to create the iPad alone somewhere, craftsman-like (ideally from mining the ore onwards), he would certainly have tried to do it that way. It was not, so he did not. If someone could, like Gauss, command the entire current body of knowledge about mathematics, physics, and chemistry, they would do so. Unfortunately, no one can.

    If I understand your “baroque” concept correctly, I think that it is something whose prevalence has been great throughout human history, but as the result of two separate causes, one of which is much more useful than the other. The one that is useful is very much in-line with your ideals-driven, craftsperson image. Person has a vision of something, technology does not yet have the capacity to live up to that vision, person sustains the pursuit of that vision through offering a directed evolution of fully-functional intermediary forms as he waits for the technology to catch up. At any given point, SOME of the features of the artefact will always be bleeding edge (and heading in a seemingly further exaggerated direction), while others quite notably will not be. Here only the ‘final’ technology originally envisaged clearly serves a ‘need’ – the ‘need’ of the intermediary steps is to help arrived at that final technology.

    The second I would call the Top Trumps effect (after the schoolyard card game of the 1980s-1990s). The lineage, I think, is pretty clear. Since the best male gets the female(s), social monkeys need ways to rank their troupes, cavemen try to determine whose… ahh… club is bigger, pharaohs build pyramids and obelisks, kings erect cathedrals and statues, emperors commission canons and ships, and dictators obsess about tanks, factories, and missiles. Thing is, that as the artefacts get more and more complex (i.e. increase in the number of dimensions in which their performance can be measured), comparing them becomes more and more difficult because increasing performance in one dimension becomes ever more likely to decrease performance along another. Nevertheless, as in the Top Trumps game, the animal desire is to have maximal performance across all dimensions. Artefacts generated through this motivation will aim to have ALL of their components be bleeding-edge, and the contradiction inherent in applying this ‘no-compromise’ desire towards increasingly complex, multi-dimensional artefacts will actually result in ‘all-compromise’, overwrought messes.

    All of this leads me to my final point – how do the two aforementioned motivations interact with one another, and what is their role in human progress. For this, I would argue, the key concept is that of path dependency. How we act today depends on how we acted yesterday, and how we will act tomorrow will depend on how we act today. In turn, this means that an actor with a clean slate will always be more flexible than an actor with significant history/experience/baggage (and, of course, greater complexity), though at the expense of experience and inductive knowledge. Because of this we benefit from periodically wiping the slate clean and see the same pattern over and over. From (off the top of my head, there are certainly more) Kondratieff Cycles, to Schumpeterian creative disruption and leapfrogging, to Straus-Howe generational theory, we se revolutions which start out pretty simple but rough, which then get polished and optimised (both stages more vision driven), which then get over-optimised (Top Trumps driven since the original vision gets hidden under the initial layers of optimisation), all of which, finally, collapses because of complexity, internal contradictions, and the inability to adapt existing infrastructure to a design that would make much more sense given current advancements. And then it all repeats, though, since we learn new things over each cycle, the long-term trend is always one of progress.

    As far as I can reason, the cycle, despite the inevitable idiocy of its final step, is a good and necessary process. As particular system frameworks mature, their edge gets further and further away from their core, but optimisation is an edge and not a core process. So it’s like a reverse growing onion with the oldest layers at the centre… At the final stage, therefore, it often turns into a very broad and diverse free-for-all, unanchored from the original intent. But it is by looking at this free-for-all with fresh eyes that the up-and-coming revolutionaries can assemble the next vision. The cure for cancer, in other words, unfortunately requires doctors to tweet about their lunch.

    Hmm… seems to have come out much longer than I thought it would be. Sorry for the rant…

    • Not sure I parsed all that, but much to chew on :).

      I think we actually agree more than you seem to think. I don’t think I said specialization leads to complexity or vice-versa. There’s clearly a chicken-egg positive feedback loop in there somewhere.

      The biological analogy occured to me as well… baroque technology is like peacocking (kinda like your Top Trumps analogy). But I suspect that is only one of the forces (showing up in the form of arms races with competitors or customers). I think there is a stronger force than that driving the evolution of technology.

  5. Russell L. Carter says

    Humans don’t innovate unless they have enough mental, social, and economic space in which to indulge their maker urges. Refinement reverses when (it’s always been ‘when’) those spaces contract. All through historical times until about two centuries ago, refinement contractions were regional. Since the enlightenment, the global net effect has always been progress/refinement. The next contraction (collapse?) might be global.

    • Interesting, I hadn’t thought of the interaction of globalization and cyclic effects. I suppose because the progressive view of technology assumes a fundamental secular (i.e. monotonic) component of technological evolution. But I can see what you’re saying… the effects of increasing global integration could be mistaken for secular effects of technology evolution.

  6. Following up on my comment above, we have a situation where the One Machine provides a sort of template or platform for the invention of new products. Makers just naturally try to explore the space of possibilities of the One Machine system for a variety of reasons but the reasons themselves aren’t important. What’s important is that some products create positive feedback — that is, people buy a lot of it. Of course, the products that most efficiently create positive feedback are addictive Gollum goods.

    After that, the market creates incentives for makers to refine the most addictive products. Food engineers are respected professionals usually making quite good money. They’re ultimately doing something pretty bad when they make hamburgers more addictive but part of the incentive is to decouple the profession from the work in a number of ways. That won’t fool certain people, perhaps a food engineer has some progressive friends that are down on his new job. But this creates a pressure to find new friends, ones who respect the engineer’s chosen profession. In return he may overlook the less ethical aspects of their professions.

    So how I’m seeing Sauron at this point is the tendency for the market to create incentives for makers to refine Gollum goods. Saruman illustrates this perfectly. Remember, he had been Saruman the White, the top wizard in middle earth and with all the best intentions. He became a villain by striking a bargain with Sauron — he turns is engineering skills towards Sauron’s aims and in return he gets better tools (like the Palantir — an object with the same sort of effect on Pippin that the ring had on Gollum) and more power. He even convinces himself he’s not doing evil by telling himself he can outsmart Sauron in the end game (maybe echoes of “I can do more good working within the system”?).

    I think you noticed a problem with the LotR analogy in your post, that the evil machines in the trilogy are not good examples of standardized parts. I think this comes back to the biggest manichaean theme in Tolkein’s works, that change is evil and stasis is good (hence symmetry is good and asymmetry, representing a sort of dynamism, is evil). The kingdom of Gondor, when we find it in the books, has been overseen by a steward rather than a king for hundreds of years — the whole place is under glass. It would be interesting to try to apply an analogy from a work with the inverse theme, like Grant Morrison’s “Invisibles” comics series. Standardized parts and the One Machine are ideas that fit in quite nicely with his conception of evil as a totalizing homogeneity like a hive of insects or the borg. The heroes in the series are inevitably misfits and radicals using improvised means and Gordian knot solutions to fight the assimilation of human beings into the clockwork insect hive.

    • Thanks, this is a useful elaboration. It’s gotten me thinking that there is room for an alternative telling of the LOTR story, kinda like “Wicked” for the Wizard of Oz.

      The Gondor “under glass” aspect is especially intriguing. At least as depicted in the movie (though not so much in the book), the stasis-stewardship comes across as vaguely evil in the same sense as Miss Havisham in Great Expectations.

      • I am pleased to inform you (there doesn’t seem to be any mention of it on here according to a google search), that this story does indeed exist:

        I am afraid I am quite spoiled for the original LOTR now, and I suspect that you might too develop an instant sympathy for the poets and engineers of Mordor; having refused to accept their lot at the bottom of a world crystallised by magic, clumsily stepping forward into an age of technological leverage (and interchangeable parts).

  7. Well done Venkat, I feel like one of those fishermen who sees a big fish go past their boat, assumes they’ve got it, only to come to shore and find someone else netted it and is proudly displaying it (or does that fisherman pride not apply to trawling?).

    Anyway, spotted some of the same stuff! To me the crucial element is in abstracted customers which are specifications to be optimised and developed upon, rather than people. Interoperability standards are really powerful versions of this that allow people to avoid thinking about the social element of their technology and simply to design more and more specialised configurations of forces and symmetries. It is in a very real sense like a computer game, in that it has the same combination of formally bounded but temporally unbounded semi-goal-directed play.

    It’s quite interesting to compare the “two machines” of the middle of the cold war, where both sides tried to encourage this kind of technology thing to show the “superiority” of their system of government. This intensified the existing tendencies and led to the situation in russia where military parts could be found in all kinds of normal machines, and the situation in america where everyone was drinking and eating the same food, which is in a very real sense the same kind of thing, except that the primary drivers were not weapons manufacturers but agrochemists. There’re a few Andy warhol quotes about how wonderful it was that everyone was unified under the same mass culture, drinking the same coke and watching the same films.

    It occurs to me that in the same way as in my old example someone might put on “a nice dinner” and then try to convince you that it is nice, or even force you to pretend it is nice, rather than building off what you actually like, you can see the soviet and western models of accommodating people to this development machine; create marketing that claims it is a solution to their desires (has anyone ever actually designed a car on the basis of experiments in how sexy it will make it’s driver appear?) or a necessary part of their destiny/duty.

    Perhaps if we want to get a cure to cancer, we should set up a mutliplayer biochemical game in an adjacent space, like the space race was in structural material science, from which we can siphon technologies.

  8. I always found Steampunk entertaining precisely because it removes the industrial Raison d’être while keeping the (exaggerated) aesthetic. It’s absurd on purpose.

    Though I really enjoyed this piece, I do think there is something missing. The notion of increasing yields is just as essential to industrial / technological development as tightening tolerances (for the sake of interchangeability or performance). The two have a peculiar relationship, which varies depending on whether you’re looking at the industrial *system* or just a particular artifact. It’s in this tension between the two that you could say the fun really happens.

  9. Jordan Peacock says

    Are you absolutely sure you’ve not studied object-oriented ontology? I was doing double-takes during reading of the entire post.