Classic Computer Magazine Archive Article from Compute! magazine

Computers and Society

David D. Thornburg, Associate Editor

Speak Softly And Carry A Big RAM

Sooner or later it was inevitable that the grandiose and bizarre claims of some computer scientists would result in a critical response from someone with a radically different point of view. I just read such a response by Theodore Roszak, a history professor at California State University, Hayward. Roszak's book, The Cult of Information (Pantheon Books, 1986), lambastes an entire field for the excesses of a few. As a result, he is guilty of the same error as the people he criticizes—members of the artificial intelligensia who claim that computers accurately mimic human behavior and who feel we would be better off learning to think like machines.

I share his distaste for the extravagant and largely unsupported claims made by those who feel that silicon consciousness is our evolutionary destiny. What distresses me is that Roszak expresses the belief that the general acceptance of computers into our homes, schools, and workplaces is somehow damaging to our identity as human beings.

He is confusing the tool with the result and forgetting that technology is inherently neutral. Computers can be (and have been) used in inappropriate ways, as have fountain pens. How easy it is to use the wild exhortations of our field's fringe fanatics to damn an entire technology—one that most of us understand and use without feeling any loss of humanity.

Towards Holistic Thought

Rather than diminishing our human qualities, I think computers allow us to integrate our thinking—to become holistic learners who see knowledge as something more than a collection of facts stored in separately labeled boxes, each with its own content, and with little or no connection between them. The specialization of knowledge into fields was a result of an information explosion that made it impossible for one person to achieve mastery of all subjects. While this division will remain important for many experts in these fields, there is increasing evidence that it has negative consequences.

To take one example, many particle physicists are finding that advances in their field are aided by a study of Taoist philosophy. My own hobby of computational linguistics is populated by linguists, philosophers, and computer scientists, each willing to learn from the others. True knowledge is interdisciplinary. As soon as one draws a box around a topic to clarify the object of study, one risks excluding information or viewpoints that can end up being quite important.

I sometimes put on a multimedia event called The Magic Universe of Recursion in which I show the appearance of this mathematical concept in computer programming, music, art, literature, philosophy, and religion. My point is not to say that each of these topics is mathematical—mostly they are not. Rather, it is my purpose to show that recursion is an idea that breaks across traditional barriers of knowledge.

I am convinced that there are hundreds of general concepts that transcend the fields in which they were first used, if only we would look for them. Fortunately, one tool to aid in our search is readily at hand—the personal computer.

Enter The Computer

As a tool that lets us manipulate information and construct metaphorical worlds of our own design, the computer can help us chart a path across the boundaries of numerous disciplines in our quest for holistic education.

Most fields of endeavor are so complex and demanding that one has little time to search beyond the walls of one subject for ideas of value from another area. As computer technology becomes easier to use, the tedious aspects of at least some parts of many fields will be relegated to machinery, thus freeing people to stand back and take in a larger view of the subject. It is hard to take a reading on the stars while you are rowing the boat.

This is why I first became interested in Logo. I saw, in Logo's turtle graphics, a tool that would let me explore the mathematics of naturally occurring patterns. I have spent years exploring everything from cracks in drying mud to the delicate patterns in ferns. The ease with which I could generate, test, and evaluate hypotheses with the aid of the computer allowed me to ask questions I would not have dared to ask otherwise.

My point is that the really exciting uses of computers are likely to come from the interdisciplinary holistic thinkers—people who sense the unity behind the major ideas of our time and place. These people tend not to be technologists, because the intense study needed to master technology leaves (we are told) little room for anything else. The people I have in mind are those whose interests span many fields— physics and poetry, art and archaeology—people who probably have degrees in the "liberal arts."

In order for such people to use computer technology effectively, computers must have speed, lots of memory, excellent software, and a transparent user interface. Computers like the Macintosh and Amiga are stepping stones in the right direction. Software for these computers is being designed to rise to the level of the way people work rather than dragging the user down to the machine's level.