Small Streams

Technology did not exist before you were born
January 17, 2010, 9:30 am
Filed under: awareness, media, mind, technology | Tags: ,

I just tagged an article in the P-G by Jeffrey Rogoff about computers. I’m still amazed by the humans versus computers model that people — even computer scientists like Rogoff — use. We keep being amazed by the machine when we should be amazed by the people who built and programmed the machine.

Rogoff starts by saying the teens will be transformed economically by artificial intelligence. Then spends the meat of the article talking about how Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov in chess (This makes me think that Kasparov could have easily beat Deep Blue with a hammer or a garden hose, which made me think of
an XKCD comic
.) Computers have no doubt made great advances and the computer beats man gambit is a good way of making that point. It does so at the expense of reinforcing the idea of a computer, indeed all technology, as alien devices, proceeding from their own whims.

What we call technology has changed. In the words of personal computer pioneer Alan Kay, “Technology is anything that didn’t exist before you were born.”

Let me state the obvious, indeed so obvious I wouldn’t want to say it if people like Rogoff wouldn’t keep reiterating the “Computers versus Humans” argument: computers are built and programmed by humans. In fact, Deep Blue wouldn’t have returned to beat Kasparov had not some chess experts tweaked the code based on Kasparov’s moves.

I think you could make the case that a computer playing chess is more human than a horse and buggy.

I don’t think I’ve always believed that computers were just extensions of people, that our paths are coevolutionary. After a lot of reading –Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, Donna Harroway, and Douglas Hofstadter — and a little thought, though, I believe our separation from the machines, any machine, indeed any technology, is a not very useful construct.

Some might say that’s what the computers want us to think. We have a whole body of literature that shows how easily computers will start stealing our lunch and shooting us in the kneecaps. I particularly like The Simpson’s “Treehouse of Horrors” episode with Pierce Brosnan as the ultrahouse. Our ability to imagine malevolent technologies is a problem with our nature. We can use fire or not, how we use it determines how constructive it is. We can mine as much coal, eat as much sugar, or watch as much television as we want, each of these may bring us to our death — or at least to a vegetative state — that can’t ascribe contrary intent. We don’t say “Sugar versus Humans.”

The temptation to look into the abyss has the abyss looking back in the form of a silicon chip. If you really want to see how we can kill ourselves with our computers go see Manufactured Landscapes.

Because I’m taking an an online computer science course , I’m increasingly seeing how computers can be a sort of communion with others — Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing, Grace Hopper . . .– punch a few words or numbers in and you get an answer. What if you could magically evoke the names and works of all the people who discovered the logic, soldered the wires, translated the machine language, or engineered the touch screen. It’s kind of like sticking your finger in an ancient glyph, you know that something’s at the other end.


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