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Perspective on knowledge: What works is how things work

This article appears in the issue July/August 2016, [Volume 25, Issue 7]

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What works is how things work.

At least this seems to be the fundamental assumption we make. It helps explain how our tools affect our ideas about the world. It is not, however, the whole story.

For example, imagine you come from an early sailing culture. You are at the mercy of invisible winds. Your path to success comes from learning how to move in the direction of those forces. That’s what works. From this you learn something about how the world itself works: It is under the control of capricious creatures larger than you. That is why you’ve had to adopt your sailing techniques.

Or, if what works is generating steam and converting it into a force that can be turned into movement in any direction, then the world seems to work via hidden energies that can be tapped. Humans can now harvest some of the universe’s immense energy, and the universe itself starts to look like a system of energy conversions.

What works when

When the centrifugal governor is invented—a component of a steam engine that regulates the flow of steam, keeping the system at a constant speed—the universe begins to look like a self-regulating system.

If you are Sigmund Freud, steam-driven municipal systems start to work, and so the human psyche begins to look like it might work the same way: Pressures build up, people release those pressures in sometimes inappropriate ways when their internal governors fail. Sometimes we just “vent.” Just as steam engines convert an outward thrust into the movement of components in any direction we want—up, down, back and forth—so does the outward thrust (so to speak) of human libido get converted into movements, some of which are not always helpful.

In the Computer Age, what worked? The reduction of information, its conversion into normalized forms that strip out individuality, and its logical transformation via processing. That works for computers, and corporations begin to take on the properties of computers: a reduction of individuality and an increased emphasis on nailing down the business processes. As computers enable us to do game-like simulations of global worries such as Cold War strategy, human behavior begins to look like a game, as in the 1964 best-seller Games People Play.

So, in the Internet Age what works? The Internet itself works because it scales, and it scales because it is unmanaged. It lowers the cost of failure, so iteration now is a good tactic. It works by making available resources without first figuring out exactly who is going to need what. This begins to look like how the universe itself works: an essentially unpredictable process that generates more noise than signal, but that’s OK because there’s still more than enough signal for things like consciousness to evolve.

So, what works turns into how we think things—the universe, the future—work.

What constitutes "works"?

But of course the story isn’t that simple because we get to decide what constitutes “works.” Does primitive sailing work? Only if you’re willing to pay the cost of risky voyages and lots of ships at the bottom of the ocean. Does the steam engine work? Sure, so long as disrupting agrarian economies and spewing massive amounts of carbon into the air count as working. Does the Internet work? Absolutely, if you’re willing to ignore [insert every Internet objection here].

Then there’s the fact that we only try to get certain things to work because we have a culture that values what they might do, so it’s certainly not the tools and tech that set the agenda. We liked the steam engine because we were already traversing the land and seas, and were already extracting coal from the ground. We liked computers because we were already doing calculations, and because in World War II we needed some of our calculations to occur fast enough that we could shoot down moving airplanes. We build what we need based upon our idea of needs. What we build is based on what we’ve already understood about how the world works. So, it’s far more complex than “What works is how things work” expresses.

But there is a powerful benefit we gain from moving from “what works” to “how things work,” for it keeps our view of how the world works at least a little bit tethered to practicalities. Animism as a philosophy—everything has its own mind and will—fades quickly as we learn how to make things happen.

Which makes inevitable the question of how views of the world that have little pragmatic confirmation arise. For example, prayer that asks for divine intercession—and not all religions view prayer this way—generally has no confirmable effect, yet a belief in a world overseen by deities that respond to prayer persists. A cynic might say that this shows that what doesn’t work is how things work. A believer might point to the power of faith to overcome that gap.

Personally, I truly don’t know.

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