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Descartes, Skepticism & the UnNetworked Personal Computer

Rene Descartes

Rene Descartes published his Discourse on the Method in 1637. In order to create a solid foundation for the natural sciences, Descartes employed a radical skepticism. He stripped away every piece of the world around him until he was left with his doubt, his thought and a single existence. This was expressed as: “Dubito, cogito ergo sum, I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am. The thinking, doubting ego was all that was left as a certainty, a monologue echoing through the darkness. When I visualize that moment I think of Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable, or of much of his later work, Imagination Dead, Imagine, for example.

It wasn’t until I listened to a Philosophy Bites podcast with Barry Smith on the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein that I understood the willful solipsism of Descartes’ approach. Wittgenstein’s critique is simple and beautiful, the tools of doubt and thought are social. Language is social, there is no such thing as a private language. If there can be no private language, Descartes simply became a hermit. He believed he cut every tie, but the knife was borrowed from society. Billie Whitelaw demonstrates, in Beckett’s Not I, even as we are alone in the darkness; we frantically reach out to the world.

The first commercial personal computer wasn’t part of a network. There’s a sense in which it was an instantiation of Descartes’ Discourse on the Method. The software product and hardware peripheral ecosystem that developed around it reflected this disconnected state. And while from a technical point of view it was unconnected, from the human side it was always already connected to the Network. The conception that the computer was ever alone, disconnected in the darkness; computing, crunching numbers, writing to a hard disk in its own private Idaho was false at its point of origin. In the beginning, there was sneakernet.

Sneaker Net

The beginning of this train of thought began not with Descartes, but with Microsoft. The first era of Microsoft was created to supply products to the unNetworked computer. If you examine the products that provide the dominant share of revenue, Windows and Office, they don’t require the Network for purchase or use. Microsoft’s thought is deeply rooted in the image of the solitary computer. Wittgenstein once defined philosophy as the battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language. Microsoft is in the middle of a titanic struggle with the bewitchment of its intelligence. If there is to be a Ray Ozzie era of Microsoft, it will signal the shift from the solipsistic computer to the Network, the creation of roots and rhizomes spreading into the Network, and the establishment of revenue streams that are fundamentally of the Network. Microsoft’s current set of competitors are already living off the Network, the brain trust at Microsoft has had a large margin for error, but the door is closing.

There’s a wonderful story that Barry Smith tells about a conversation between Elizabeth Anscombe and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Anscombe says to Wittgenstein that she can understand why people thought that the Sun revolved around the Earth. Wittgenstein thinks for a moment, and says “and why is that?” Anscombe continues, “Well it looks that way.” Wittgenstein smiles and says, “And how would it look if the Earth revolved around the Sun?”

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