The Watchmaker

The Watchmaker

20 December 2023 1467 views

by Gareth Dicker

“The watchmaker must never be forgotten. Through thoughts, the watch has come into existence. The thoughts have flowed, as it were, into the watch, into the thing.”
-Rudolf Steiner, GA 108 – Practical Training In Thought – Karlsruhe, January 18, 1909

Our ideas and imaginations pour into our physical creations, whether these be technical, artistic, social, practical or anything else. And the situation is no different in the case of the digital world.

To build a watch, the very first watchmaker began with an idealized motivating concept: ‘personal timekeeping’. They then began to imagine how it might be done using a tiny ticking dial mounted securely on the wrist. Gradually, they designed and finally constructed a first prototype, which had to conform itself to the lawfulness of the physical world. Through iteration, their prototypes improved into products and eventually became mass manufacturable.

The only part of this process that we get to know about through our senses is the final product, the physical watch. Our senses only have access to creative endpoints.

If I look at a blossom, I do not see the whole process that built it up; I can only understand the fuller reality of a plant by reflecting upon its growth in time. My reflection is invisible, but forms the basis of all my understanding. My conceptions are just as real and important as my perceptions.

We perceive only tiny cross sections in space-time of realities which extend far beyond these snapshot experiences. It is only through reflection that we can come to know about a whole plant. We do this through the ideas that bridge the many individual perceptions we have of plants.

The same is true of watches! Because its ideas are limited to the mechanical, a watch is much easier to understand than a plant.

But can we apply this same mode of thinking to something as complex as the entire digital world?

The digital world: that part of our total reality which is communicated by digitally produced images and sounds.

Unlike with watches, we cannot take apart the digital world, as its hardware is distributed across every continent, beneath the oceans, above the atmosphere, and vibrating in the earth’s electromagnetic field.

Unlike a single watch, the digital world has been gradually built up by the ideas and work of millions of human beings over hundreds of years.

Each of its sub-inventions stands on the shoulders of preceding inventions: from the telegraph to telephone to fiber optic cable. From phonograph to record player to hard drive. From radio to internet to WiFi. From computer to laptop to cell phone.

These technologies are distributed both spatially and conceptually in terms of hardware and software. The digital world has no location. No single sensory experience of a screen is the whole of it, but is merely a portal to a vast web of logically responsive binary switches.

While no one person can understand all of its technical details, there are actually only a few key technical concepts required in order to build digital technologies, such as binary logic, frequency manipulation and transmission, closed loop control, recursion, and so on. Those are its functional ideas (like the ideas of gear ratios and spring-winding would be to a watchmaker).

What are its motivating ideas? The watchmaker wanted personal timekeeping for everyone. What do we - collectively - want the digital world to do for us?

Of course, there is no simple answer. There are over seven billion people alive today. Each may imagine some different motive.

One might argue it’s quite easy to name what motivates digital progress in general. All the technology companies say it succinctly: connecting the world, bringing people closer together, sharing information and experiences, and so on. True enough, at some level, but of course there’s much more to the story.

We know that capital-economic, political, military and other influences are probably the main driving forces at work in its unwavering development. These factors often cause cautionary measures to get swept aside, as is the case at the moment in the field of so called ‘machine learning’.

There are currently millions of software engineers working on stepping the digital world, year by year, to its next phase of development. I can say from personal experience that most of them are not thinking all that much about the big picture.

Some, however, have very conscious ideals and motives. The moral quality of these motives is what we have to consider. What ideas are they working out of? What is their conception of reality, their worldview?

Well, what is our own worldview? Whether an idea or imagination is fully conscious, semi-conscious or totally unconscious, if it is motivating an action it will likely become a physical reality sooner or later unless other forces intervene.

We need to consider seriously what ideas the leading world personalities have about the world and the pictures they hold for humanity's future. What kind of watches are the watchmakers hoping to make?

To be clear, I am not condemning technological development in general. I am grateful for the incredible possibilities the digital world offers, and see its potential for increasing human creativity, connectivity and outer freedom.

But, for instance, what to make of transhumanist motives? If we read or listen to Yuval Noah Harari, we can't ignore the fact that each idea he presents to the world is affecting its development in significant ways. Needless to say, the same goes for Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Ray Kurzwiel, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and many other individuals endowed with superhuman willpower and intellectual relentlessness.

There are also technologists such as Tristan Harris from Meta and Geoff Hinton from Google who have moved in the last few years into whistleblowing roles, and are asking questions of how technology is reacting upon our humanity.

The key is to not forget that humanity, collectively, is the one imagining this digital world into being. It is pouring out of us, and reacts back upon us now as an extension of ourselves. It is not going away, though its development can be slowed and made safer. In some ways it is already inseparable from our human bodies, and these experiences will intensify.

How can this extension of ourselves, the digital world, help us in becoming more human, rather than less? More human: more compassionate, socially creative, connected with the earth and the cosmos around us.

I have no answers for now, only questions. I do sense the need to engage in more frequent and serious dialogue with those who are consciously holding technological motivating ideas as they continue to build them into realities. Where possible, we do need to engage directly with financial, political and technological leaders, to help them consider clearly the effects of their ideas becoming manifest.[1] But we can only speak with the watchmakers effectively if we can understand their motives clearly. As with any historical moment where civil society has had to gather around vital issues, let's get our thoughts together and see what is needed.

The clock is ticking!

[1] Together we can align technology with humanity’s best interests. Center for Humane Technology. (n.d.).

Picture of the watch was generated by Bing.