NETFUTURE Technology and Human Responsibility for the Future -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Issue #22 Copyright 1996 O'Reilly & Associates June 20, 1996 -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Editor: Stephen L. Talbott (email@example.com) On the Web: http://netfuture.org You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. CONTENTS: *** Editor's note *** An antidote to computer-thinking (Valdemar W. Setzer) Cultivate the arts *** The future of freedom (Stephen L. Talbott) Technological determinism is an ambiguous affair *** About this newsletter
I'll be traveling (and offline) for the next 11 days, so it will be at least a couple of weeks before the next issue comes out. SLT
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[Valdemar Setzer, with 32 years of teaching and research experience, is a professor of computer science, University of Sao Paulo, in Brazil. He is author of the book, Computers in Education, published in Great Britain by Floris Books. What follows below is an edited-down version of the considerably longer piece he submitted to NETFUTURE. You will find a pointer to the original version on his home page. SLT]
Computers are abstract machines that transform data. Data and information are not part of the concrete world; they cannot be weighed, measured, ingested as food, or used for clothing; we can't even build a computer with them. They are, in fact, thoughts.
The same applies to programs, which are also pieces of data. What the computer does when it interprets a program is to simulate exactly the thoughts we had when we inserted them into the program. Given a program and input data, we can simulate the computer's interpretation mentally or with pencil and paper. This is not so with other machines: simulating a bicycle with pencil and paper does not take me from here to there. Computers cannot be used as transportation devices, their result cannot be used as food or clothing, they do not produce anything real. They produce restricted kinds of thoughts -- data. Computers are thus completely alienated from "reality" (taken in a naive sense). They are abstract, mathematical, logical-symbolic machines.
So what does a programmer do? To produce a program, he or she has to think in a special way, using a special language. This language is absolutely formal, expressed through logical-symbolic elements. It may be fully described in mathematical terms, using what is called "formal grammar" and "formal semantics." So the programmer is forced to think in a very narrow way.
I would like to mention here an example which is already quite old, from Computational Linguistics. Once upon a time, during the 60's, some linguists decided to use the computer to discover literary styles or characteristics of each author. They reduced the style to certain numeric or statistical properties, as for instance how many times words such as "war", "peace", "love" would appear in a text. They would also count the "distance" (measured in number of words) between pairs of keywords. Obviously, they did not use as a criterion the attention, the tension, or the joy a text would produce in its readers. These feelings cannot be reckoned with by computers, unless they are quantified. (There is a discipline called Psychometrics that deals with quantifying feelings, desires, etc.) Here we see another characteristic of computers: they tend to impoverish the content of whatever they transform.
I like to characterize the kind of alienated, formal thinking programmers have to exercise as "dirty thoughts." They are dead, abstract thoughts not having anything to do with reality. I think they are probably one of the main causes for what is called the "programmers' syndrome": stress, insomnia, lack of appetite, difficulties with social relations, and other miseries.
I don't think programmers should quit their profession, except in some extreme cases. If there is a job for them, society needs them. The question is how to balance such unilateral, dirty thinking. In lectures I give to professionals on the subject (titled "The Misery of Data Processing"), some people suggest sports as a therapy. But in order to play physical sports, you have to act with automatic reflexes in a subconscious way; thoughts are too slow and, if applied to the movements you have to perform and muscles you have to use, they produce paralysis. (You can confirm this by trying to make conscious every movement you have to make in grabbing a pencil). The question here is not to eliminate thinking; it is to balance the dirty programming thinking with a "live-thinking."
To make it short, I consider artistic activities as the ideal antidote to the dirty machine-thinking exercised by programmers. When you actively practice an art, you do not think in an abstract, formal way. (I am not referring here to "computer art"!) You do not even think in conceptual terms. Nevertheless, there is a kind of mental activity going on, intimately connected to esthetic feelings. To produce a real work of art, you cannot plan way ahead what you are going to do; improvisation together with observation of the results and the feelings they produce are essential for success. If a work of art is completely planned and foreseen in advance, it becomes science. Likewise, if a work of art is approached with abstract thoughts, it loses its life.
Among all forms of active art, is there one most suitable one for computer programmers? I think any actively done art can help us achieve balance. Theater playing develops an acute social sensibility, because the actor has to pay attention to his peers, and do lots of improvisations. Not every movement or intonation should be planned; otherwise, the play loses its spontaneity. Moreover, the play has to flow according to the way the actors feel the audience. All this has a balancing effect in relation to the social isolation that the programming activity produces. Nevertheless, the script has to be followed, so the activity is reasonably restricted.
Sculpture deals with a material which is too earthly--it would do good for someone who has to develop some inner form; but the programmer already has too much form in his/her thinking. And so on, for other arts.
So here is my recommendation, based upon my own experience: I consider the ideal antidote to be watercolor painting wet-on-wet, that is, on wet paper. In this form of painting, one uses transparent, that is, not rigid, colors; the wet paper makes it easy to produce fine, unforeseen color transitions, and it is almost impossible to produce sharp contours. It is always possible to change to some extent what one has already put on paper, mixing colors on it, feeling whether one has reached some satisfactory result. I use only the basic colors, yellow, red and blue, two hues of each. It is fascinating to produce with them all sorts of green hues, as well as gray and brown. One may mix them on a white wall tile, but using them one over the other directly on paper give unexpected colors, aiding the therapeutic effect. Improvising colors and forms should be preferred over trying to reproduce works by famous artists.
There are other possible recommendations for programmers, such as doing as little on-line programming as possible--that is, going back to developing programs using low-tech instruments like pencil, rubber, and paper, limiting the amount of consecutive on-line time.
The advice here applies not just to programmers. Whenever a person is using any software, commands have to be given to the computer. These commands are in many ways similar to programming language instructions. They are part of a formal, logical-symbolic language, their effect is deterministic, they have to be given in a fully conscious way, and so on. Thus, the same need for artistic activities to counterbalance the deadening of thought life applies to heavy users of computers in general.
The antidote has certainly worked if a programmer or heavy computer user starts to recognize the truth of the following statement: "Nature is not a scientist, it is an artist." To understand it, we have to complement scientific, formal knowledge with the ability to enter artistically into the world around us.
Dept. of Computer Science
University of Sao Paulo, Brazil
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Those with strongly mechanistic mindsets are inclined to propose various "determinations" of human behavior, ranging from the genetic pressures of evolution to the controlling influences of modern technology. There is almost always some truth in these proposals. But a delicious irony runs through every one of them: the more thoroughly we prove ourselves subject to alien, determining forces, the more thoroughly we escape subjection.
The reason for this is not hard to understand. When it comes to human behavior, we cannot both see a pattern of causation and remain trapped in that pattern exactly as before. The seeing itself is a decisive new element in the pattern. Putting it differently: we cannot recognize X as a pattern except by stepping out of X and delimiting it against a non-X background; but this stepping out is already an escape into a new freedom.
So if evolution has conspired, as some sociobiologists argue, to incline males toward wife-abuse, then -- however great its temporary success -- it committed a fatal error. For it also enabled the sociobiologist to stand far enough outside the "controlling" tendency to recognize it, and thereby to take up a conscious stance toward it.
Statistics offer no counterargument here. The essential fact is that we cannot point to any individual as a product of evolution and say with perfect confidence, "He will never recognize in himself the evolutionary patterns of abuse now coming to light, nor will he find in this recognition a power of self-transformation."
This dynamic between internal transformation and the investigation of controlling influence extends to many areas. On Wall Street, for example, it is well known that every successful effort to gain a marginal leg up on chance by predicting the public's trading behavior quickly cancels itself when the formula becomes common knowledge. For the knowledge itself affects future behavior, and so destroys the formula.
Similarly, it seems we have no sooner learned about the remarkably "predictable" voting pattern of some obscure constituency, when the pattern begins to fall apart. The constituency, in "waking up" to itself and its behavior, also wakens to a larger universe of options.
Advertisers, relying on the most sophisticated tools of collective manipulation known to man, can sometimes forecast with reasonable accuracy the statistical effect of a particular advertising ploy. "Add the following (meaningless) phrase to the label on the box, and you'll increase sales by X percent" -- but only until we, the intended victims, become fully aware of the ploy, after which its effectiveness plummets.
Pity the economists and political scientists, who are forever discovering statistical rules of thumb only to find them compromised by the very fact of discovery!
The strict determinist's only hope for truth is the hope that the truth has wholly eluded us -- that we stand subject to determination by powers we can never penetrate with understanding. In other words, it is the paradoxical hope that we can never know ourselves to be determined.
The same considerations apply to the discussion of technological determinism. The more fully we understand how our artifacts dictate social structures and behavior, the more we are in a position to alter the terms of the dictation. That is the fundamental fact.
But it also needs saying that every act we undertake in the world, every reshaping of the stuff of the world, is a weight upon the future. Actions have consequences. The solvent dumped in my yard last year affects my gardening possibilities this year. Everything I do today constrains me tomorrow.
It is true that no external or material constraint nullifies my freedom to take up the stance I choose -- to notice the constraint and begin responding to it. But all those actions yesterday did more than merely shift external circumstances. They were also inner gestures by which I shaped myself. And I am free to shape myself into an increasingly unaware agent, responding to external stimuli in an automatic fashion.
I am free, finally, to abandon my freedom.
This, in particular, is the intelligent machine's seductive proposition. By taking on certain unaware, automatic functions of human intelligence -- and by doing so with extraordinary efficiency -- the computer encourages us to commit more and more of our lives to this subhuman level of functioning.
The temptation is one of inner passivity and inertia. If, as we have seen, the movement toward freedom is achieved by wrestling through to an ever greater clarity regarding the roots of our own actions, an opposite movement is suggested by every deference to the murky requirements of "the system." "The computer made me do it" is nearly always an excuse rather than the announcement of a revelation -- and no less so when a collective investment in the excuse finally makes every alternative unthinkable.
Today there is widespread acceptance of whatever the self-driven, wildly careening course of technological development brings us, as if it were inevitable. One also notes a kind of utopian technological determinism that, for example, interprets networking facilities as a cradle of community and democracy; encryption facilities as a guarantor of respect for the private individual; and information storage and retrieval systems as sources of deepened understanding.
In such symptoms we see a reversal of the movement toward awareness and freedom. Instead of recognizing around the boundaries of every technological determination new avenues of escape toward a fuller humanity, we numbly reconceive our humanity in the computer's image.
(Stephen L. Talbott is author of "The Future Does Not Compute--Transcending the Machines in Our Midst." The foregoing reflection is part of a developing collection called "Daily Meditations for the Computer Entranced." See http://netfuture.org/meditations/.)
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http://netfuture.org/subscribe.html.Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #22 :: June 20, 1996
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