Stephen L. Talbott (Future) – Encontramo-nos em nosso computador

How do we begin assessing the computer as a human tool? The claims and counter-claims easily become tiresome. For every benefit of the computer you cite, I can point to a corresponding threat; and for every alarm I sound, you can herald a new opportunity. This slipperiness, in fact — as I have already suggested — must be our starting point. Part of the essence of a computer is its flexibility, its emulative ability, its diverse potentials. It is a universal machine. Given a technology of almost pure, open-ended potential, the machinery itself is, from a certain point of view, scarcely worth discussing. It is a template, a blank screen. Everything hinges upon what we bring to the technology, and which of its potentials we choose to realize. The one sure thing about the computer’s future is that we will behold our own reflections in it.

Even the “computer-human interface” people — who have contributed so much to our understanding of machine design — have failed to probe adequately the implications of the fact that we’re really dealing with a human-human interface. Those were software engineers who designed that obstructive program you struggled with last week. Computer scientists conceived the languages that constrained the programmers. And certain academicians first recognized, or thought they recognized, the quintessence of their own mentality in a transistorized logic gate. Could they have done so if they had not already begun to experience themselves as logic machines? Could I, for that matter, allow the hammer in my hands to run riot if there were no answering spirit of aggression within me?

This is why I find naive rhapsodizing about computers so disconcerting. It expresses the very sort of blithe unawareness that converts the technology into a profound threat. Machines become a threat when they embody our limitations without our being fully aware of those limitations. All reason shouts at us to approach every aspect of the computer with the greatest caution and reserve. But what incentive has our culture provided for the exercise of such caution and reserve? It’s more in our nature to let technology lead where it will, and to celebrate the leading as progress.

Of course, every invention, from television to nuclear power, tends to incarnate the will (conscious or unconscious) of its employer. And if that will is less than fully conscious, the invention wields us more than we wield it. Can anyone really doubt that we have become the tools of television far more than the reverse? But the computer ups the ante in a game already extremely perilous. It relentlessly, single-mindedly, apes us even in — or perhaps especially in — those habits we are not yet aware of, for it is endowed in some sense with a mind of its own.

Have we been learning to view the human being as a cipher in a political calculation? The computer will refine those calculations beyond our hopes.
Are we content to employ our educational system as a tool for shoveling “information” into child-receptacles? The computer offers endless databases from which to do the shoveling — and entertainment to “help the pill go down.” (First, parents turned their children over to a television screen; now we can give teachers the same right.)
Have our businesses been converting themselves into computational machines geared to a purely quantitative bottom line, disconnected from considerations of human value? Computers not only can assist such businesses, they can become such businesses; all they need is an appropriate program. (Computers on Wall Street, trading in financial instruments, are already profitable businesses pursuing “clean,” mathematical values.)
Has ours become an age of meaninglessness? The computer asks us to betray what meanings we have left for dessicated information. The complex, qualitative, metaphorical nature of meaning only gets in the way of the easy, computational manipulation of numerically cast information.

All of which is to say that we have been progressively distilling into the computer certain pronounced tendencies of our own minds. These tendencies are certainly related to that entire several-hundred-year history by which our culture has gained both its technological triumphs and its horrors.

But is the computer really just a blank screen reflecting our own natures? Doesn’t it invite — even encourage — a one-sided display of human traits? It seems undeniable that what the computer asks from us is above all else “what computes.” It asks us to abstract from human experience a quantity, a logic, that it can cope with. And yet, we must acknowledge that during the past several centuries we have shown, quite independently of the computer, a strong passion for reducing all of human experience, all knowledge, to abstraction. The computer is a perfected result of this urge. Can we blame the computer for this?