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  • And the Word Became Mechanical



    This is Chapter 18 of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, by Stephen L. Talbott. Copyright 1995 O'Reilly & Associates. All rights reserved. You may freely redistribute this chapter in its entirety for noncommercial purposes. For information about the author's online newsletter, NETFUTURE: Technology and Human Responsibility, see http://www.netfuture.org/.

    On a black night in the early 1980s, a fierce scream congealed the darkness deep within MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. The late-working engineer who went to investigate discovered Richard Stallman -- one of the nation's most brilliant programmers -- sitting in tears and screaming at his computer terminal, "How can you do this? How can you do this? How can you do this?" /1/

    The image is no doubt provocative, revealing as it does a striking urge to personify the computer. And yet, perhaps we make too much of such occurrences. After all, the computer is hardly unique in this respect. Don't I curse the door that jams, implore my car's engine to start on an icy morning, and kick a malfunctioning TV with more than just mechanical intent? The fact is that we manifest a strong tendency to personify all the contrivances of our own devising. The computer simply takes its place among the numerous other objects to which, with a kind of animistic impulse, we attribute life.

    This may be the point worth holding on to, however. Once we acknowledge our anthropomorphizing compulsions, we must immediately grant that the computer is ideally designed to provoke them. Whatever our considered, philosophical understanding of the computer and its intelligence, we also need to reckon with this "animistic" tendency -- at least we do if we seek self-knowledge, and if we would prevent our own subconscious impulses from infecting our philosophical inquiries.

    The embodiment of intelligence

    Anyone can write a program causing a computer to display stored text and stored images on a screen. So, at a bare minimum, a computer can do anything a book can do -- it can present us with a physics textbook, provide road maps, entertain us with stories, exhibit art reproductions, and so on. It's true that few of us would choose to read War and Peace on our terminal screens. Nevertheless, much of what we experience from a computer, ranging from the individual words and icons that label a screen window, to the content of email messages, to the text of Shakespeare, is in fact the computer's "book" nature -- that is, its relatively passive ability to display stored text. The only intelligence here is the same, derivative intelligence that books may be said to possess.

    Lacking any better term, I will call this wholly derivative intelligence of the computer its book value. However, the notion extends to other sorts of stored material in the computer besides text -- for example, voice recordings and video images. Just as a book displays "someone else's" intelligence and not its own, so also do the tape recorder and t