Every paradigm is informed by its contemporary society, even if they seem unrelated. The go-to example of this is Freud’s theories, from which we derive “pent up” and “release” and “drives” and “pressures” – all of which are the language of the turn-of-the century steam industrial world. Whether Freud was right or not isn’t the point– he just sounds wrong because we don’t use steam engines and the brain doesn’t look like an engine anymore.
The point here is that we acknowledge the ideas of prior cultures relied on their context, but we willfully ignore our own immersion in our context. I [The Last Psychiatrist] read this in The Economist:
However, unlike Freud’s unconscious (a hot, claustrophobic place full of repressed memories and inappropriate sexual fantasies about one’s parents) the modern unconscious is a place of super-fast data processing, useful survival mechanisms and rules of thumb about the world that have been honed by millions of years of evolution. It is the unconscious, for instance, that stitches together data on colour, shape, movement…
Note that this isn’t merely a metaphor or analogy to modern computers – it is an earnest but uncritical assumption of an actual similarity.
More here from The Last Psychiatrist.
What I think is particularly interesting here is how different frames of reference (e.g., the steam engine, the computer) not only lead to different ways of describing the same thing, but perhaps to different actions in response to the same problem.
Does one settle upon different policy prescriptions depending on whether one sees the government as a steam engine or as a computer?
I have discussed time and again on this blog (and in public lectures) the difficulty of truly knowing anything in the social sciences, and the usefulness of controlled experiments in chipping away at our ignorance.
But the question I ask above is, I’m afraid, unanswerable. There appears to be such a thing as context-dependent memory (the “improved recall of specific episodes or information when the context present at encoding and retrieval are the same,” or the reason why if you study drunk, you should also take the test drunk), but context-dependent policy making goes beyond that.
Put another way: Would we care so much about social capital, network effects, and spillovers if the Internet had never been invented?
On steam engines and computers, I was reminded of William Gibson and Bruce Stirling’s The Difference Engine, about which Amazon say:
1855: The Industrial Revolution is in full and inexorable swing, powered by steam-driven cybernetic Engines. Charles Babbage perfects his Analytical Engine and the computer age arrives a century ahead of its time. And three extraordinary characters race toward a rendezvous with history—and the future.