Going To The Fair:

(Fragment from Tracy Kidder: The Soul of A New Machine -Chapter 13)


Norbert Wiener coined the term Cybernetics in order to describe the study of "control and communication in the animal and the machine". In 1947 he wrote that because of the development of the "ultra-rapid computing machine..... the average human being of mediocre attainments or less" might end up having "nothing to sell that is worth anyone's money to buy" Although Wiener clearly intended this as a pleas for humane control over the development and application of computers, many people who have written about these machines' effects on society have quoted Wiener's statement as though it were a claim of fact; and some, particularly the computer's boosters have held the remark up to ridicule -"See it hasn't happened."

The Post-cybernetic non-revolution:

Since Wiener, practically every kind of commentator on modern society, from cartoonists to academic sociologists, has taken a crack at the sociology of computers. A general feeling has held throughout: that these machines constitute something special, set apart from the all the others that have come before.  Maybe it has been a kind of ethnocentrism, a conviction that that the new machines of your own age must rank as the most stupendous or the scariest ever, but whatever the source, computers have acquired great mystique. Almost every commentator has assured the public that the computers bringing on a revolution. By the 1970's, it should have been clear that revolution was the wrong word. And it should not have been surprising to anybody that in many cases the technology had served as a prop to the status quo.

Artificial intelligence:
"Artificial intelligence" had always made for the liveliest of debates. Maybe the name itself was preposterous and its pursuit, in any case, was something that people shouldn't undertake. Maybe in promoting the metaphorical relationship between people and machines, cybernetics tended to cheapen and corrupt human perceptions of intelligence. or perhaps this science promised to advance the intelligence of people as well as machines and to imbue the species with a new, exciting power.

Silicon Life:
"Silicon-based life would have a lot of advantages over carbon-based life", a young engineer told me once. he said he believed in a time when the machine could "take over". he snapped his fingers and said: "just like that." He seemed immensely pleased with that thought. To me, though, the prospects for truly intelligent computers looked comfortably dim.

To some, the the crucial issue was privacy. In theory, computers should be able to manage, more efficiently than people, huge amounts of a society's information. In the sixties there was proposed a "national Data bank", which would, theoretically, improve the government's efficiency by swallowing agencies to share information. The fact that such a system could be abused did not mean that it would be, proponents said; it could be constructed in such a way as to guarantee benign use. Nonsense, said opponents, who managed to block the proposal; no matter what the intent or the safeguards, the existence of such a system would invariably lead towards the creation of a police state.

Claims and counterclaims about the likely effects of computers on work in America had also abounded since Weiner. Would the machines put enormous numbers of people out of work? Or would they actually increase levels of employment? By the late seventies, it appeared, they had done neither. Well, then, maybe computers would take over hateful and dangerous jobs and in general free people from drudgery, as the boosters like to say. Some anecdotal evidence suggested, though, that they might be used extensively to to increase the reach of top managers crazed for efficiency and thus would serve as tools to destroy the last vestiges of pleasant, interesting work.

Dozens of other points of argument existed. Were computers making nuclear war more or less likely? had society's vulnerability to accident and sabotage increased or decreased, now that computers had been woven inextricably into the management of virtually every enterprise in America?

The Invisible Revolution:

Wallach and I retreated from the fair, to a cafe some distance from the Coliseum. Sitting there, observing the more familiar chaos of a New York City street, I was struck by how unnoticeable the computer revolution was. You leave a bazaar like the NCC expecting to find your perceptions of the world outside will have been altered, but there was nothing commensurate in sight -no cyborgs, half machine, half protoplasm, tripping down the street; no armies of unemployed, carrying placards denouncing the computer; no TV cameras watching us -as rule, you still had to seek out that experience by going to such places as Data general's parking lot. Computers were everywhere, of course -in the cafe's beeping cash registers and the microwave oven and the jukebox, in the traffic lights, under the hoods of the honking cars snarled out there on the streets (despite the traffic lights), in the airplanes overhead -but the visible differences somehow seemed insignificant.

A Hidden Hand?
Computers had become less noticeable as they had become smaller, more reliable, more efficient and more numerous. Surely this happened by design. Obviously, to sell the devices far and wide, manufacturers had to strive to make them easy to use and, wherever possible, invisible. Were computers a profound, unseen, hand?

In "The coming of Post Industrial Society", Daniel Bell asserted that the new machines introduced in the nineteenth century, such as the railroad train, made larger changes in "the lives of individuals" than computers have. Tom West liked to say; "lets talk about bulldozers. Bulldozers have had a hell of a lot bigger effect on people's lives". The latter half of the twentieth century, some say, has witnessed an increase in social scale =in the size of organizations, for instance. Computers probably did not create the growth in conglomerates and multinational corporations, but they certainly have abetted it. They make fine tools for the centralization of power, if that is what those who buy them want to with them. They are handy  greed-extenders. Computers performing tasks as prosaic as the calculating of payrolls greatly extend the reach of managers in high positions, managers on top can be in command of such aspects of their business to a degree they simply could not be before computers.

A Helping hand?
Obviously, computers have made differences. They have fostered the development of spaceships -as well as a great increase in junk mail. The computer boom has brought the marvelous but expensive diagnostic device known as the CAT-scanner, as well as a host of other medical equipment; it has given rise to machines that play good but rather boring chess, and also, on a larger game board to, to a proliferation of remote controlled weapons in the arsenals of nations. Computers have changed ideas about waging war and about pursuing science, too. It is hard to see how contemporary geophysics or meteorology or plasma physics can advance very far without them now. Computers have changed the nature of research in mathematics, though not every mathematician would say it is for the better. And computers have have become a part of the ordinary conduct of business of all sorts. They really help in some cases.

Not always, though. One student of the field has estimated that about forty percent of commercial applications of computers have proved uneconomical, in the sense that the job the computer was bought to perform winds up costing more to do after the computer's arrival than it did before. Most computer companies have boasted that they aren't just selling machines; they're selling productivity. ("We're not in competition with each other," said a PR man "We're in competition with labor") But that clearly isn't always true. Sometimes they're selling paper-producers that require new legions of workers to push that paper around.

Coming from the fair, it seemed to me that computers have been used in ways that are salutary, in ways that are dangerous, banal and cruel; and in ways that seem harmless if a little silly. But what fun making them can be!

A reporter who had covered the computer industry for years tried to sum up for me the bad feelings he had acquired on his beat. "Everything is quantified," he said. "Whether it's the technology or the way people use it, it has an insidious ability to reduce things to less than human dimensions". Which is it, though; the technology or the way people use it? Who controls this technology? Can it be controlled?

Professional Restraint?
Jacques Ellul, throwing up his hands, wrote that technology operates by its own terrible laws, alterable by no human action except complete abandonment of technique. More sensible, I think, Norbert Weiner, prophesied that the computer would offer "unbounded possibilities for good and for evil." and he advanced, faintly, the hope that the contributors to this new science would nudge it in a humane direction. But he also invoked the fear that its development would fall "into the hands of the most irresponsible and venal of our engineers." One of the best surveys of the studies of of the effects of computers ends with an appeal to the "computer professionals" that they exercise virtue and restraint.

Tracy Kidder: The Soul of A New Machine
ISBN: 0-380-59931-7
(Chapter 13: Pages 240 - 244)

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