the Baconians of Mountain View

One small cause of satisfaction for me in the past few years has been the decline of the use of the word “postmodern” as a kind of all-purpose descriptor of anything the speaker thinks of as recent and different. The vagueness of the term has always bothered me, but even more the lack of historical awareness embedded in most uses of it. I have regularly told my students that if they pointed to a recent statement that they thought of as postmodern I could almost certainly find a close analogue of it from a sixteenth-century writer (often enough Montaigne). To a great but unacknowledged degree, we are still living in the fallout from debates, especially debates about knowledge, that arose more than four hundred years ago.

One example will do for now. In what became a famous case in the design world, five years ago Doug Bowman left Google and explained why:

When I joined Google as its first visual designer, the company was already seven years old. Seven years is a long time to run a company without a classically trained designer. Google had plenty of designers on staff then, but most of them had backgrounds in CS or HCI. And none of them were in high-up, respected leadership positions. Without a person at (or near) the helm who thoroughly understands the principles and elements of Design, a company eventually runs out of reasons for design decisions. With every new design decision, critics cry foul. Without conviction, doubt creeps in. Instincts fail. “Is this the right move?” When a company is filled with engineers, it turns to engineering to solve problems. Reduce each decision to a simple logic problem. Remove all subjectivity and just look at the data. Data in your favor? Ok, launch it. Data shows negative effects? Back to the drawing board. And that data eventually becomes a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions.

Yes, it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such minuscule design decisions. There are more exciting design problems in this world to tackle.

What Bowman thought of as a bug — “data [was] paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions” — the leadership at Google surely thought of as a feature. What’s the value of “daring design decisions”? We’re trying to get clicks here, and we can find out how to achieve that.

With that story in mind, let’s turn to Michael Oakeshott’s great essay “Rationalism in Politics” and his account therein of Francis Bacon’s great project for setting the quest for knowledge on a secure footing:

The Novum Organum begins with a diagnosis of the intellectual situation. What is lacking is a clear perception of the nature of certainty and an adequate means of achieving it. ‘There remains,’ says Bacon, ‘but one course for the recovery of a sound and healthy condition — namely, that the entire work of understanding be commenced afresh, and the mind itself be from the very outset not left to take its own course, but guided at every step’. What is required is a ‘sure plan’, a new ‘way’ of understanding, an ‘art’ or ‘method’ of inquiry, an ‘instrument’ which (like the mechanical aids men use to increase the effectiveness of their natural strength) shall supplement the weakness of the natural reason: in short, what is required is a formulated technique of inquiry….

The art of research which Bacon recommends has three main characteristics. First, it is a set of rules; it is a true technique in that it can be formulated as a precise set of directions which can be learned by heart. Secondly, it is a set of rules whose application is purely mechanical; it is a true technique because it does not require for its use any knowledge or intelligence not given in the technique itself. Bacon is explicit on this point. The business of interpreting nature is ‘to be done as if by machinery’, ‘the strength and excellence of the wit (of the inquirer) has little to do with the matter’, the new method ‘places all wits and understandings nearly on a level’. Thirdly, it is a set of rules of universal application; it is a true technique in that it is an instrument of inquiry indifferent to the subject-matter of the inquiry.

It is hard to imagine a more precise and accurate description of the thinking of the Baconians of Mountain View. They didn’t want Bowman’s taste or experience. He might have been the most gifted designer in the world, but so what? “The strength and excellence of the wit (of the inquirer) has little to do with the matter.” Instead, decisions are “to be done as if by machinery” — no, strike that, they are to be done precisely by machinery and only by machinery. Moreover, there is no difference in technique between a design decision and any other kind of decision: the method of letting the data rule “is an instrument of inquiry indifferent to the subject-matter of the inquiry.”

Oakeshott’s essay provides a capsule history of the rise of Rationalism as a universal method of inquiry and action. It focuses largely on Bacon and Descartes as the creators of the Rationalist frame of mind and on their (less imaginative and creative) successors. It turns out that an understanding of seventeenth-century European thought is an indispensable aid to understanding the technocracy of the twenty-first century world.

portrait of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur

There are some minds which give us the impression that they have passed through an elaborate education which was designed to initiate them into the traditions and achievements of their civilization; the immediate impression we have of them is an impression of cultivation, of the enjoyment of an inheritance. But this is not so with the mind of the Rationalist, which impresses us as, at best, a finely-tempered, neutral instrument, as a well-trained rather than as an educated mind. Intellectually, his experience is not so much to share the experience of the race as to be demonstrably a self-made man. And this gives to his intellectual and practical activities an almost preternatural deliberateness and self-consciousness, depriving them of any element of passivity, removing from them all sense of rhythm and continuity and dissolving them into a succession of climacterics, each to be surmounted by a tour de raison. His mind has no atmospheres, no changes of season and temperature; his intellectual processes, so far as possible, are insulated from all external influence and go on in the void. And having cut himself off from the traditional knowledge of his society, and denied the value of any education more extensive than a training in the technique of analysis, he is apt to attribute to mankind a necessary inexperience in all the critical moments of life, and if he were more self-critical he might begin to wonder how the race had ever succeeded in surviving. With an almost poetic fancy, he strives to live each day as if it were his first, and he believes that to form a habit is to fail. And if, with as yet no thought of analysis, we glance below the surface, we may, perhaps, see in the temperament, if not in the character, of the Rationalist, a deep distrust of time, an impatient hunger for eternity and an irritable nervousness in the face of everything topical and transitory.

— Michael Oakeshott, “Rationalism in Politics” (1947)