Ways of Seeing I: Paradigms of Progress – the Rise of the Machine


This is the beginning of a series.  I wanted to write about where we have come from in land use and conservation, what we are doing, and where we could be going: from Pre-modern (Pre-Industrial), To Modern (Industrial, or Productivist), to Late-Modern (Post-Industrial, Post-Productivist).  

I started out thinking that we could just write about what we did and are doing, but it goes deeper than that.  It starts with how we see the world, the things in it and our relationship to it.  It starts with what we think land is, and food is, and people are, and what is ‘right’.  It starts with identifying, discussion, and challenging deeply held philosophical views that we are not normally ‘educated’ to consider.  Philosophy is like that. It is there – it is always there – but many ‘educated’ people – especially in science and those who play in the world of quanta and ‘fact’ – dare not go there because it represents a search into that which is beyond physics and quanta.

It starts with the Scientific Revolution of the 17th Century.


Isaac Newton was a meticulous man, if a little odd. All unconventional people are odd from Worldviews & Realitythe perspective of the conventional, from what we consider ‘normal’. It is normal to see things collectively in a particular way, to live within a ‘world view’, a paradigm, a Weltanschauung.  I live in the ‘Modern’ West.  Arguing for a Maori world view, or an Eastern view, or an eco-centric view, or for the ideas of Aldo Leopold rather than Milton Friedman, and … well … in earlier days you might have been burnt.  At least some changes have been good.

If you don’t accept your culture’s paradigm, you’re odd. Only hindsight names the main protagonists brilliant and genius. Newton was so odd that he poked things in his eyes to record the difference in the way he saw things. Einstein's eyeThe eyes were a filter between the world and his mind, so he reasoned it was best to understand how they work. You can imagine the discomfort. Meticulous …. and odd.

Then he went on to challenge many of the ideas we considered ‘normal’ pre the Enlightenment and the Modern era, and demonstrated that there was a different way of seeing. Before Newton, the physics of a heliocentric solar system didn’t exist. Aristotelian physics described an earth-centred physics, with Ptolemaic astronomy replete with epicycles and perfect circles …. continually added to and refined to account for each real-world anomaly.

After we realised that Newton wasn’t odd so much as brilliant, we got a brand new Normal.  We then saw everything as the mechanical System of the World with the reductionism of Bacon and Descartes overlain with Newtonian formulaic laws of description. The universe is a machine; just cut it up and find the mathematical description.

The small problem of God was done away with by assuming first that God prescribed the rules, and then we just rid of God altogether. For the new normal science, it was now odd to think of God. Meaning was in quanta. Romantic poets make nice sounds, but they’re a bit odd.

Mechanical Universe

And then it spread. Physics envy became part of that new normal, extending to economy, human behaviour, and anything else you could dissect and model. And if you couldn’t reduce it to a number or a Likert scale of 1 to 5, then does it really matter?

The new normal extended into ‘Scientific Management’, treating people – or rather ‘labour’ and ‘consumers’ – into mechanical constructs, dis-integrating complex and living wholes into ‘allocating resources’.

Scientific Management

Mechanical equates to factory; factory to industry; industry to measures of dollars and weights; measures to the immorality of treating land, community and people as mere things, immorality to the accumulation of centralised power and ultimate destruction – perpetuated by both corporate capitalist and state communist. Dis-integrate and allocate. Standardise, Uniformity, Quantify and Analyse.

People as robots

A new set of values emerges. The allure of predictability led to the quest for standardisation the better to mass produce and measure, for control, for centralisation, for hierarchy, for instruction and obedience, for order rather than democracy, for Orwellian Newspeak, for an ideal of marching through a life rather than dancing. The allure is especially strong for those who fear not being in control, fear the Trickster, fear the mob, fear a world where reverence to something outside of your knowing is, well, metaphysics! Shudder.

However …

… it doesn’t work outside obvious machines. The mechanical reducible deterministic predictable view applies to some hard systems – getting to the moon and back for example – but not to those that are ‘soft’, complex and adaptive.  People, communities, economies, ecosystems, health, education, landscapes; construct them as machines at your peril.

Collapse of hierachy

We are seeing now the growing fragility of a global environmental, social and economic system undermined by mechanical thinking. But hey, it’s what we think of as normal, so we’ll just keep refining the model. A little bit like Ptolemaic astronomy that, because this is what we do, and we’ll just add more perfect circles to the models trying to justify our conventional thinking, and we’ll call it Progress.  And we better throw some more standardisation, control, uniformity, order, centralisation, media messaging, technofixes and industrial ‘development’ in there as well.

There is another way of seeing the world.

That view has been emerging from the failures of the modern mechanical view for over a hundred years. The three great ideas of the 20th century signalled the new order – Einstein’s Theory of Relativity suggesting Newton wasn’t quite right, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and Complexity Theory with all its talk of self-organisation, attractor points, emergence, adaptability, non-linear relationships and feedbacks, and unpredictable thresholds.

Within disciplines, ecologists now talk about patch dynamics rather than climax ecology, evolution and genetics is shifting with epigenetics and very odd almost-Lamarckian happenings, ecological economists are challenging the unquestioned axioms of neo-classical economics, universities are now researching complex integrated socio-ecological systems, the ‘functional integrity’ and ‘resilience’ of those systems rather than ‘resource sufficiency’ (thoough the machinists are now using ‘resilience’ when they advocate building the next mega-machine because they … just … cannot … think … outside that box).


But these are very odd and threatening ideas to the hierarchies of order whose very position is dependent upon maintaining the axioms of our current Normal … and their positions.

With the rise of a particularly fundamentalist mechanical view of economics; of the order and power hungry modern day robber barons in their dark suits; of the governments they increasingly control; and of their corporate media and marketers taught to manufacture consent (with their appeals to freedom and patriotism when they mean the opposite) – we are held in a suspended intellectual space where the machines rule. This suits – neither people nor the planet – but them.

Food Inc SuitsFood Inc Tag Mahal

There are other ways of seeing this world.

I think I’ll start with land use, because the mechanical world view is why we treat our land like factories, homogeneous no matter the potential of place, why our primary sector ‘strategy’ is essentially an agribusiness engineering throughput approach

(more, more, cheaper, we need a bigger plant, commoditise, industrialise, more inputs, more chemicals, less people, right to pollute, aren’t those biological types, permaculturalists, and tree planters odd),

and why the whole thing is failing economically, socially and environmentally.


Chris Perley

Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy.

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8 Responses to Ways of Seeing I: Paradigms of Progress – the Rise of the Machine

  1. Juliet Oliver says:

    Wonderful writing to think about in an early morning. Thank you Chris.

  2. Paul Bailey says:

    I’ve read a bit about Newton and I’ve never come across him being described as ‘odd’. An odd choice of words Chris.

    • cjkperley says:

      He was very odd, a heretic with personality issues. Known as a difficult customer. But the point is that ‘oddness’ is a relative term. Yesterday’s odd is today’s brilliant. I’m being ironic Paul.

  3. judith bauerdick says:

    hallo >Chris,

    Greetings and love from Germany,

    In shallah, Judith Date: Tue, 25 Aug 2015 04:58:29 +0000 To: cant0paloma@hotmail.com

  4. Pingback: Ways of Seeing II – The Mechanical View and the Treadmill of Techno-Fixes | Chris Perley's Blog

  5. Pingback: Teaching Wisdom – To Know the World, you Have to Live in the World | Chris Perley's Blog

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