October: A Change in the Weather and the World

A long summer and then a few missed weeks — and now we’re back.

A smaller group than before. Some of our members have gone on to look for work and further education; illness prevents others from attending. Still, the group will continue to meet, weekly through the autumn and winter, confident that we will act as a seed for a plant which will flourish again at the right time.

Our review of what we had been thinking about since we last met raised some interesting and topical questions. The changes in the weather had been uppermost on our minds. One of us had been wondering where does the term ‘Indian Summer’ come from — before you google it, try and guess!

More changes were on our minds — the announcement of plans to rebuild Red Lodge had caused some worries among residents, many of whom had been there for many years. Gemma had called a coffee morning to discuss matters and calm concerns.

There was another change on our minds — York has changed over to digital TV only, and some of the elderly residents were confused about the new remote controls they now needed to watch TV.

We talked about many things (including where did the tradition of going to the toilet by yourself come from — we wondered if private toilets had to do with the eradication of cholera among the poor, as championed by figures including Titus Salt and Joseph Rowntree), and our discussion turned to reflections on the garden at Red Lodge, and whether technological advance was a good thing or a bad.

We talked about the changed in telephony — the cat’s whisker and crystal of the early days of radio, the trunk calls and operators of not long after — and reflected on the advantages and disadvantages. The positive side is enormous (isn’t it?): but what values are lost? Are we making machines — like the multiple remote controls for digibox TV — that are not properly designed for human use?; and what is lost by the ever accelerating pace of life? Do we have ‘no time to stand and stare’. Many of our members still do this; but some warned that by the time you’re old and you have time to do ths, it’s too late: vision and hearing have faded.

This led Ben [that’s me, writing this, by the way] on to the main subject he wanted to raise with everyone — the subject of the pictures in this blog post so far: the new edition of Goethe’s On the Metamorphosis of Plants.

We passed around the book and admired it. Ben talked about the philosophy he’d come across in the summer and how much it had inspired him. This book about nature by the German poet Goethe was all about doing philosophy without retreating into the abstractions of the mind, but going out into nature, stopping and staring, and trying to see nature as it is.

We talked about nature for a while. Is nature God? How does a seed know when to germinate? To that last question we answered: it’s programmed to do this under certain circumstances.

This answer, which seems so natural, suddenly brought our reflections on technology and on nature into a head-on collision. What does this word ‘programmed’ mean, and where does it come from? Ben argued that it was a computer term, and that this answer to the question of the knowledge in nature — that it is programmed to act like it does — could not be much older than the invention of computers themselves. With the spread of computers, the ideas of computing have spread so that they now occupy all our ways of thinking — and Ben doubted whether such a recent technical term could be used to explain such a deep and ancient mystery as nature.

But another person pointed out that the word ‘programme’ had been used (we thought) for longer than with computers: you have a concert programme and a theatre programme, and it might be that this is the source of the use of the word for computers.

So we were left with two ideas about what a programme could be. In a theatre, it is a list which tells you about the director of the play’s plans for what is about to happen. In a computer, it is a set of instructions which cause the activity of the computer (and it is usually written ‘program’, without the ‘-me’). And it seemed that used in the first sense, the sequence of events set out in the programme is driven from the outside: it is the director which makes the play happen according to the programme; and for a computer the sequence of events which makes the computer run is driven from within: it is the symbols and numbers represented in the programme which makes the computer run.

A programme as as a description of what will happen; and a programme as an engine of what will happen. When we say that a seed is programmed to sprout at the right time, we use the word ‘programme’ in the second sense. All the information needed to get the seed to sprout is bound up there in the seed.

But have we really explained anything? A computer programme is what it is only because someone has written it and built the computer so that events happen as planned. But the use of the term for a seed is meant (I would say) to suggest that there is no thought or intention behind its sprouting: it just happens mechanically. But if we want to use the word ‘program’ to make sense of that idea, then it looks like the metaphor is not up to it. Familiar with computers, we forget the many years of work that go into making a program do what it is intended to do. Who is the programmer in the case of the seed?


About B.B.

I'm based in York.
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