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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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The Precise Ambiguity of @megfowler ‘s definition of Twitter

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Meg Fowler threw up her hands and finally said, “This is what I do.” She was trying to explain how Twitter goes to some new users. It’s a question that surfaces naturally with the uninitiated. They examine the “rules” and the capabilities, and then answer the question “What are you doing?” But somehow that doesn’t seem to adequately represent the buzz of talk surrounding Twitter.

The first thing new users observe, once they start following veteran users is that the question about what one is doing is only occasionally answered. What are the rules they ask, what are the rules about what to put in to those 140 characters, if you’re not answering the question?

This is where words begin to fail us. How to explain all that is not answering a question? How to explain who hears and who doesn’t? How to explain the river of talk that one follows? To explain one’s experience of Twitter, is to explain one’s self. Everyone’s experience is slightly different.

Meg Fowler’s description brought to mind Ludwig Wittgenstein’s discussion of how we learn and use language in his book Philosophical Investigations. Certainly we can talk about rules when we speak of language. But that’s not how we learn and eventually use language. Rather than learning a set of rules, it’s more a case of “this is what I do,” and you must do what you do.

Asking what one should fill the 140 characters with is like asking what words one should fill one’s voice with. Many social network sites attempt to provide context and set the rules of engagement. Following rules is what machines do, not what people do. I’ve often thought of human-computer interaction as the encounter between a world purged of ambiguity with a world filled with ambiguity. Twitter thrives on the ambiguity of its purpose, it’s a machine that leaves room for the human.

And Meg Fowler, why look to her as an authoritative voice? In a medium where most of use are finding our way and learning the landscape, Ms. Fowler has filled in those 140 characters more than 11,646 times.

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How would it look if the earth revolved around the sun?

Ludwig Wittgenstein

I liked this podcast so much, I listened to it twice. And I may listen to it again. It’s a beautiful discussion about the philosophy and impact of Ludwig Wittgenstein. You can find this gem on the Philosophy Bites site. Regular hosts Dave Edmonds and Nigel Warburton discuss Wittgenstein with Barry Smith of Birkbeck College London.

I particularly like the discussion of Wittgenstein’s later work and the Philosophical Investigations. Although they even made the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus sound interesting. There’s a great story recounted about Elizabeth Anscombe saying to Wittgenstein, that she can “understand why people thought that the sun revolves around the earth.” Ludwig asks, “why?” Anscombe says, “Well, it looks that way.” Wittgenstein responds, “and how would it look if the earth revolved around the sun?”

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