Appeals to human origins are surprisingly common features of discourse in academic computer science and the commercial software industry alike. Startup founders tie their business plans to evolutionary psychology (Levy 2010); conference talks show indigenous people, framed as “primordial man,” using contemporary information technologies. Yuval Noah Harari, a medievalist who has found great popular success in a turn to species-scale histories like Sapiens (2014) and Homo Deus (2016), has been described as “Silicon Valley’s favorite historian” (Ungerleider 2017). If the ordinary work of programming computers to do things seems boring, like staying in one place and typing all day, these stories change it into transformative action on the largest possible scale.
We can think of these stories as scaling devices. They establish the scope of discussion, telling us that we are not talking about minor acts of coding, but rather enduring abstract problems of human existence. “Scale-climbing,” as Judith Irvine has argued, is an ideological operation: by claiming the broader view, people try to encompass each other within their own explanatory frameworks (2016, 228; Gal and Irvine 1995). Epochal software stories set human species-being within a computational frame, recasting practically all social activities as precursors to their narrators’ technological projects. David Golumbia, in The Cultural Logic of Computation (2009), has termed this expansionist tendency in the rhetoric of computing “computationalism,” which allows the work of computing to alternately lay claim to the future and the past: new companies figure themselves as both innovators and inheritors of timeless human truths.
Anthropology is well positioned to critique the accuracy of such stories because they often drape themselves in anthropological garb, as the titles of Harari’s books suggest. Michelle Rosaldo wrote of such appeals to origins in “The Use and Abuse of Anthropology” in 1980: “the ‘primitive’ emerges in accounts like these as the bearer of primordial human need,” but these vernacular anthropologies are typically stuck in an evolutionist mode, finding in their origin stories a universalized version of contemporary concerns, “the image of ourselves undressed” (392). While these just-so stories often borrow a sense of scientific authority from evolutionary psychology (McKinnon 2005), they are not factual in any concrete sense. Konstan is not really claiming that his allegory of the cave actually happened, but rather that it, or something like it, must have happened. Overload is taken to be a constitutive part of human existence, not merely a recent challenge to be answered by human sociality and technology, but a force that has shaped the evolution of humans and our techniques. It can be known from personal experience and readily extrapolated to any situation, however remote.