Post title image: Tech Romanticism vs Tech Rationalism

Tech Romanticism vs Tech Rationalism

Or, why the bicycle of the mind still needs a rider.

Desk Notes

If you buy a new car today, you’ll notice something different. Go above the speed limit, and the car fights back.

Right now, this function is optional. You can dig around the infotainment system and disengage it. But that’s not going to be the case forever.

When the laws that led to this change were passed in 2022, the intent was clear; this is just an intermediary period, and in a couple of years, we won't be able to turn it off.

This change reflects our time. The island of things humans can do better than machines shrinks by the month. And the rational response is obvious.

If machines can do x better than humans, what’s the point of indulging the inefficiencies, errors, and bad behaviour that inevitably comes when the crooked timber of humanity gets involved.

When you look - you see it everywhere. AI agents. Chatbots. Autonomous drones. Product after product built to replace the person in the system.  Call it Tech Rationalism.

After all, that’s what technology’s for.

Or is it, I thought, whilst scrolling through the response to the first Apple Vision devices going on sale this week.

Mainly the memes.Mainly the memes.

What interests me most about Apple isn’t their products, their marketing, or their scale: it’s that they approach technology from a slightly different angle to most other large tech companies out there.

At Apple’s heart is the idea that technology is a means of improving people, not replacing them.

It’s been that way from day one. As Steve Jobs put it in one of Apple’s earliest product launches:

“It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough. We believe that it's technology married with the humanities that yields us the result that makes our heart sing."

This is essentially a Romantic view of technology: of computing as a means to supporting human creativity on its journey.

The first Apple Logo was one of Isaac Newton sitting under the tree.

The inscription beneath - a line from Wordsworth - stated: “a mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought… alone.”

Alas not quite as iconic as the other one.Alas not quite as iconic as the other one.

And I think that bit of Apple’s DNA has remained to the present day.

Continuing to focus on what they’ve been doing for years: creating objects for people to desire, and use, themselves. But with the human firmly in the driving seat.

Or, to put it another way, Jobs’ bicycle of the mind should still need a rider

This is why Isaacson’s biography of Jobs is such an important book. It’s less about the man, more about the fact that creativity isn’t just the preserve of writers and artists, but of everybody: and technology can be a means of unlocking it.

Romanticism about technology is a powerful philosophy - one that’s created the most valuable company in the world - and many others as well.

Think of the success of Formula 1: of the sheer attractiveness of a sport focussed around the desire to  develop a perfect machine, to be given to a driver who began training for the role at the age of five, lapping round a karting trap in the driving rain watched by expectant parents.

Or take this brilliant essay about the movie Aliens, that ends with this summary that is pure Tech Romanticism:

“That’s what technology is. It’s the world of things, some impossibly stupid, some smarter than we are, we have assembled around ourselves to cover over our fundamental weaknesses as a species.”

Wordsworth's dream.Wordsworth's dream.

Yet it’s a philosophy - unashamedly pro-technology, but not at the expense of human creativity - that we seem to have turrned away from.

Starved from it, builders have had to find it in other strange outlets.

This shift, at heart, is probably why everyone in tech is so obsessed with Rick Rubin, and is probably one of the main drivers as to why the e/acc movement exists.

Bible 2.0.Bible 2.0.

At the very least, we shouldn’t assume that AI, when it comes, is going to make this way of thinking redundant as everything conceivable under the sun is automated.

And from Sam Altman’s recent comments that AI won’t change the world as much as we think, I don’t think he does either.

And, in a world of 6.8bn smartphones, we don’t really need to have to have the argument anymore that building great, people-centric products is at odds with mass production.

This is particularly so when it comes to software - an insight at the heart of the drive towards craft and design in product-building that can be seen at companies like Airbnb and Linear.

Nor is it set in stone that automation wins. The things that exist in our world are not preordained.

It wasn’t inevitable that Uber existed. Or Airbnb. People had to make them. We have more agency to shape the products that make the world than we realise.

To build technology that leans towards, not against, the sum of human creativity.

The first novel written on a word processor. An early calculator being used to work out the trajectory to the moon. A medical breakthrough that came through someone noticing something whilst peering down a microscope.

This blend - of human and machine - matters.

So here’s to being a Romantic about technology, and cheering those who build - as one MIT professor put it - objects to think with.

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