Tech Support

Who’s helping who?

As George Dyson’s Analogia opens, we find the German polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in the court of Peter the Great. It’s 1716, and Leibniz, age seventy, is as full of ideas as ever. (We know, though presumably he does not, that he will be dead within a year.) Leibniz presents the tsar with three grand ideas. First, a great expedition across Siberia and into the Kamchatka Peninsula ought to be launched, with the goal of determining whether Asia and America were joined, and to study the peoples of those lands. Second, Russia should establish an academy dedicated to the sciences, modelled on the great ones of Europe. Third, work should commence at once on what we would now call a digital computer — a device that would allow all manner of problems, once suitably converted to numerical form, to be solved swiftly. The Russian Academy of Sciences was founded in 1724; an expedition set out for Kamchatka the following year. Although Peter seemed intrigued by a prototype computing device that Leibniz put before him, and even poked at it with a pencil, the idea went nowhere. “The powers of digital computing ,” Dyson writes, “were lost on the tsar.”

But they are not lost on the author, a historian of science and keen observer of intellectual trends and of the forces that shape civilization — especially the many ways in which the hist­ory of Homo sapiens is intertwined with the hist­ory of the machines that we have crafted. In Analogia, we find an ambitious if somewhat convoluted meditation on this interwoven tale, with Dyson’s own adventures carefully threaded into the narrative.

The author divides the story into four epochs. The first was pre-industrial, in which we made things with our hands. Then came the industrial age, in which we used tools to make machines. The third era saw the rise of programmable computers. The fourth age, in which the machines have become so complex that we are no longer quite sure what rules they’re following , came upon us “so gradually that almost no one noticed. . . . Humans were still in the loop but no longer in control.”

Dyson offers highly selective glimpses of each of these eras, beginning with a detailed account of the Great Northern Expedition, the second journey to Kamchatka, a decade-long trek that covered thousands of kilometres by land and by sea. He has clearly immersed himself in the surviving historical documents and paints a vivid picture of the laborious quest: “The expedition requisitioned 4,280 pairs of saddlebags, consumed 180,000 pounds of rye flour per year, and descended on the local population like a plague of locusts as it made its way to the Pacific coast.”

The harsh environment took its toll. Vitus Bering , the expedition’s leader, succumbed to scurvy in 1741; his ship, the St. Peter, was wrecked off Alaska. A smaller boat was built from the wreckage, and the forty-six survivors arrived back on Russian soil in August 1742, at which point they learned “they had been declared dead, their salaries had been terminated, and all the property they had left behind had been sold.” The crew of a second ship, the St. Paul, fared better, interacting with some of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest and “losing only six men to scurvy on the return voyage.”

We then leap ahead to the late nineteenth century, when we find the U.S. Army at war with the Apache Nation in New Mexico and Arizona. We also find the first hint of the computational networks that Leibniz had envisioned: the Americans have appropriated an ingenious piece of traditional technology — signalling over great distances by means of sunlight and mirrors. General Nelson Miles used this “heliographic” system to send commands to his scattered troops, employing relay towers stationed as much as eighty kilometres apart. Dyson quotes an 1891 magazine article that says the technology “disheartened the Indians as they crept stealthily or rode swiftly through the valleys,” realizing they could not outrun the army’s information network. In fact, the army got the idea from the Apache people themselves. Miles would recall, “As to their being able to signal by the use of fire and smoke and the flashes of some bright piece of metal for a short distance, I thought we could not only equal, but far surpass them in a short time.” (Miles almost certainly saw himself as a nation builder; today, many would view him as helping to perpetrate genocide.)

A central character here is Geronimo, the famed medicine man who was captured by U.S. forces and paraded around at various fairs as something of a carnival attraction; he eventually died in custody. His nephew, Daklugie, was among the last of his tribe to surrender. His weapons included “the last arrows deployed in war against the regular army of the United States.” Dyson sees the moment as a turning point: “The day of the bow and arrow was over. The day of the data network was coming , and the Apaches were the first to see the signs.”

These lines capture both the strength and, I think, the weakness of Dyson’s storytelling. As history, it is vivid and engrossing; the depth of his research is evident at every turn, as is his eye for small details that exemplify larger cultural shifts. But framing a story about the demise of the Apache people as just another episode in the march of technology seems if not insensitive, at least somewhat contrived.

In the middle section of the book, the writer himself becomes a central figure. We meet the physicist Freeman Dyson (who died in February), though it is only several pages later that we’re told he is the author’s father. We also meet (in a similar roundabout fashion) the author’s mother, the mathematician Verena Huber-Dyson. Both parents were employed at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.

As a vignette of postwar life in one of the loftiest of ivory towers, this section is fascinating. The story of Freeman and Verena’s courtship, in particular, is so imbued with nerdiness that it puts The Big Bang Theory to shame. Dyson recounts the romance based on notes scribbled by Freeman in his copy of The Consistency of the Continuum Hypothesis, by the mathematician Kurt Gödel, which he presented to Verena. “By making certain alterations in the arguments of this tract,” Dyson quotes his father, “we have therefore proved a stronger result than that stated in the text.” The couple were married the following year.

Soon we find the author as a youngster chasing turtles in the woods behind his parents’ institute, while his father concocts a somewhat far-fetched scheme to build rockets propelled by a series of nuclear explosions. (That effort is the subject of George Dyson’s 2002 book, Project Orion: The Atomic Spaceship, 1957–1965.) Later, as a young adult in the early ’70s, George distances himself from his cerebral parents and moves to the West Coast. Using only salvaged materials, he builds a tree house some thirty metres above the ground, on the shore of Burrard Inlet, west of Vancouver, and lives in it for three years. His reasons were not what one might imagine: “Today, anyone living in a tree in British Columbia for three years is assumed to be trying to save the rain forest. The only thing I was trying to save was rent.” (Dyson is now a dual citizen of Canada and the U.S. and divides his time between B.C. and Washington.)

Dyson developed an interest in the region’s Indigenous peoples, particularly their watercraft; he began building kayaks based on traditional designs, especially those of the Aleut people. In fact, Dyson’s fascination with boats goes back to his childhood, when he encountered Thor Heyerdahl’s The Kon‑Tiki Expedition, an account of Heyerdahl’s 1947 Pacific raft voyage. After reading the book, Dyson writes of his eight-year-old self, “All I wanted to do was lash things together and build boats.”

Then we are back into the history, learning about the life of the Victorian novelist Samuel Butler — beginning with the fact that Butler’s grandfather happened to serve as a headmaster in Shrewsbury, where Charles Darwin was a student. Like Darwin, the younger Butler seemed a grave disappointment to his father; disinclined toward any profession that his family might deem respectable, he set sail for New Zealand, where he took up sheep farming. There, he got his hands on an early copy of On the Origin of Species and wrote a commentary on it that struck Darwin himself as “so clear and accurate.” Butler would go on to describe the new age of machines, seen through a distinctly Darwinian lens. “It appears to us that we are creating our own successors,” he wrote. “The machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them.” Later, having returned to London, he observed, “We can see no a priori objection to the gradual development of a mechanical life, though that life shall be so different from ours that it is only by a severe discipline that we can think of it as life at all.” These ideas would culminate in Erewhon, which Dyson read “by the light of a coal-oil lamp” in his tree house. The satirical book was published anonymously in 1872, and it sold well until it was revealed to have been written “by a nobody” (as a friend put it), at which point “the demand fell 90 percent.” The revelation that Butler was that nobody is said to have hastened his mother’s death.

In the fictitious land of Erewhon (an approximation of “nowhere” spelled backwards), the anti-machinists defeat the machinists, bringing technological progress to a halt. Our world, however, has seen the opposite outcome. “The machines we call ‘servers’ have become our masters,” Dyson writes, “while we are becoming serfs.” The fourth epoch is upon us.

This is hardly the first book to warn of the surrender of the human to the mechanical. Nor is it the most digestible; readers may occasionally wonder if they’ve missed some connecting tissue that binds these disparate episodes, or if the chapters have been lashed together like one of Dyson’s watercraft.

On the back flap, the technology guru Jaron Lanier praises Analogia as a work that “pierces the fog of everyday life” and positions the past few centuries of human history “within a much larger, epochal frame.” I’m not sure I find it quite as fog-piercing as Lanier, but Analogia is certainly provocative and engrossing , if occasionally ponderous. In a world where two weeks can seem like an eternity, Dyson’s view of history, in which events are alternately inspected under the microscope and viewed through a wide-angle lens, is a welcome and challenging diversion.