The hacker work ethic is impossible without the fundamental capacity to jump into the abyss, to dedicate yourself to living for meaning without being able to predict what you are going to find along the path
A couple of years ago, I read The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Fabrication of the Western World, by Iain McGilchrist, but it wasn’t until a few days ago, following one of our conversations at the editorial table with the Indianos in which we circuitously arrived at the topic of the destructiveness of the scientificist notion according to which reality can be grasped perfectly rationally, that suddenly I understood how profoundly clarifying the thesis central of the book can be to understanding the ultimate causes of decomposition.
In The Master and his Emissary, McGilchrist, a pyschiatrist and professor of English literature, presents a fascinating synthesis of 20 years of research both in neuroscience and in the history of Western culture, which rescues the analysis of the hemispheric division of the brain, which, for as popular as it became in the ’60s and ’70s, became so banal that the neuroscientific community completed excluded it from its research agenda.
While McGilchrist agrees that there is much that is cliché and gross oversimplification in the idea that the left hemisphere of the brain is in charge of rational thought, and the right, creative and intuitive thought, the error is based on the fact that, while there isn’t a clear functional division between the two hemispheres — both are used in large measure for a broad gamut of cognitive tasks of a diverse nature — each one has a particular way of approaching a given task.
For example, even though both hemispheres are used intensively for math, the majority of its great discoveries were perceived as complex patterns of relationships, an ability that we owe to the right hemisphere, while the laborious translation of those discoveries to linear sets of propositions calls primarily on the left hemisphere.
According to McGilchrist, the world born of the Industrial Revolution, based, as it was, on engineering of large-scale manufacturing, owes both its wonders and its discontents to the cultural rise of the instrumental rationality characteristic of the left hemisphere, a rise that he tells us began when Aristotle formulated the principle of noncontradiction.
And one of the most important discontents of that rise is our growing inability to reason about the limits of reason, which depends mostly on the right hemisphere.
The loss of meaning
The capacity to commit ourselves to the achievement of a life full of meaning is directly proportionate to that capacity to understand the limits of reason, and, to be sure, is the fundamental decision to which leads the hacker ethic, which, in the end, is based on dedicating our time and energy to a line of work that we find intrinsically valuable and pleasant beyond any instrumental consideration.
So, I differ from McGilchrist’s somewhat pessimistic perspective, which tends to see the strengthening of the “tyranny of the left hemisphere” in the future evolution of industrial capitalism as inevitable.
If it’s true that technological advancement tends reduce the optimum scale of production, making it more and more feasible to live a life based on the hacker ethic, the tyranny of the left hemisphere should tend to lose strength. Although that does not mean, of course, that that tyranny is going to cede its power without a fight, which translates to the profound crisis of internal transformation that is inevitably reflected as the counterpart of the socioeconomic turbulence characteristic of transition.
And while the rise of instrumental reason was what allowed the flowering of the industrial production on a large-scale, it was also what allowed the strengthening of the state to the point of become the contemporary Leviathan, undertaken like never before in the history of mankind in the social engineering sustained in the scientificist drive that Hayek characterized, in one of his most sublime ideas, as a “fatal arrogance.”
In the light of the McGilchrist’s conceptual framework, it turns out to be especially ironic that the progressive Left, generally so attractive for humanist intellectuals, artists and other personalities that are supposedly “right-brained,” prescribe, as a remedy for decomposition, to strengthen state control of the economy even more.
In reality, the distrust that many proponents of that false remedy have of genuine market freedom is a perfect example of the tyranny of the left hemisphere in action.
The hacker work ethic is impossible without the fundamental capacity to jump into the abyss, to dedicate yourself to living for meaning without being able to predict what you are going to find along the path. That process, as nothing other than a profound act of faith, depends fundamentally on the right hemisphere, and is also, as McGilchrist rightly says, the basic ingredient of true innovation which is so lacking in the institutional context of industrial capitalism (the emphasis is mine):
In research today, one has to be able to say in advance what one is going to find, and no one finances a project unless it looks like it has a possibility of leading to a “positive” discovery, which really means that it should be something very similar to what we already know. We’re not prepared to trust – we feel that we must micro-manage. The objective is to increase efficiency, avoiding what is conceived of as waste or error, but this assures only one thing: mediocrity. Sadly, many of those who do the truly interesting work in any field are more and more obliged to do it outside of the mainstream.
The only possible way out of the unhappiness about the loss of meaning caused by the “tyranny of the left hemisphere” so characteristic of decomposition is, precisely, to dare to carry out one of the acts that never, in the history of our evolution, have required so much ability to use the power of the right hemisphere.