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  • Every Tool Is an Obstacle

    Computer Critics Need Not Worship Books

    Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)

    It inevitably happens: warn people about the risks of our growing reliance upon computers, and most of them immediately assume that you find books refreshingly risk-free and wholesome. The supposed contradiction is pointed out either directly ("So why do you read books? They're products of technology, too") or by mockingly ascribing to the critic a consistency he is assumed to lack ("You must be the kind of person who would decry hammers for alienating carpenters from their nails. `Damn it, man, in the days of higher thinking we used to pound nails in with our foreheads'").

    What is needed here is a little historical awareness. Gutenberg built his press in the middle of the fifteenth century, which was also when the discovery of linear perspective was taking hold. Western man was detaching himself from entanglement in the world. He was learning to look out at it through cameralike eyes, objectifying it and correspondingly "subjectifying" his own interior.

    The physical world, increasingly felt as solid, real, and external, fascinated the Renaissance artisans, even as their thinking processes were beginning a several-century's retreat into misty vagueness. Caught between these two movements, philosophers like Descartes discovered the mind-body problem: how does the weak, qualitatively disappearing mind accomplish anything against the resistance of a world growing ever more alien, independent, and material?

    Books fit in well with this double process. As the mind faded toward an airy chaos that seemed more fit for psychological novels than for scientific investigations, the book comfortingly objectified our words, which were now routinely beheld as external things detached from any human speaker. (Eventually, in the twentieth century, the computational manipulation of words would stand in for a scientific investigation of mind.)

    Books tempted us to hoard knowledge, as if it could be captured between covers and stored on shelves. We took pride in the size of our libraries and the number of books we had read, as if these testified to our grasp of truth. Ever so subtly, we were encouraged to exchange wisdom -- which assimilates information to a living understanding -- for the objectified bits of information themselves.

    Of course, the books lining the walls of my study do not help me through the tight spots in conversation. I am always at risk of being exposed. But the computer is changing that. It not only furthers the word's detachment from its human source, but sets those detached words in coherent motion. In the absence of a speaker, words simply converse with words. My study, you might say, goes head-to-head with your study.

    Computer programs freely exchange information with no human intervention. Increasingly, so do we. The psychological distance inserted between us by electronic media, our habits of superficial skimming, the computer's readiness to supply us with its own choice of words, and our casual inattention while typing at the keyboard all lead toward speech without a consciously present speaker. The computer helps to make the word-as-entity ever more objective, independent, and active, even as the human thinking behind the word sinks down toward mere logic, half-conscious association, and mechanism. What remains of thinking is only the hazy ghost many are dead set upon exorcising from what is, for this very reason, becoming a machine.

    So, far from embodying a danger altogether foreign to books, the computer can be seen as the natural extension -- and the nearly perfected climax -- of a long, historical development in which books have played a central role. If that development has become dangerously one-sided, obscuring the human interior and deadening the now cut-off word, it is only natural to seek a restored balance wherever it may be found. But this does not imply that earlier technologies are risk-free.

    The fact is that the primary -- and in the deepest sense the only -- gift of every tool is its resistance to the human good. In overcoming this resistance, we advance as human beings. The objector cited above had it quite wrong: we do hammer nails with our heads -- and with our hearts -- at least, we do when we hammer correctly. And the immature hammer-wielder who abandons himself to his new toy, taking everything in sight for a nail, is alienated from a true relation to nails.

    But the painful results of our indiscipline invite inner growth, which is the only enduring gift of the tool. After all, which is of more lasting value: the cabinet I build with nails and eventually leave behind, or the inner mastery I gain through struggling with myself, hammer in hand -- a mastery I will carry as healing capacity wherever I go in an overwrought world?

    Every tool promises inner rewards -- but only so long as we recognize it as an obstacle and accept its challenge. Otherwise, the tool is an instrument of ruin.

    The computer, of course, is a vastly more potent tool than the hammer. We will never, for example, mistake a hammer for a thinking device. Computers are highly adaptive, universal machines, and when we bring to them our willingness to mistake the tool for its gift, we risk sacrificing, not just one particular capacity, but the entire field of human achievement.

    It is all too easy to accept the intelligent machine's external reflection of our faculties as if the reflection were the real thing -- as if the tool were what really counted. It is not so. A computer hooked up to a hammer can be instructed to hammer correctly, but its effort is not one of self-mastery, and its success does not become a healing power in the world.

    In refusing to understand the computer as an obstacle, what we sacrifice is the highest capacity of all -- the capacity to make of every tool an occasion for advancement. By claiming to be master of all tools, the computer dares us to contend for our own mastery.

    At stake is no longer whether we will learn by overcoming the resistance of this or that tool, but whether we will continue growing at all. The computer is our hope if we can accept it as our enemy; as our friend, it will destroy us.

    Permission is granted for noncommercial redistribution of this article.

    Steve Talbott :: Every Tool Is an Obstacle :: http://netfuture.org/meditations/books.html

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