Classic Computer Magazine Archive CREATIVE COMPUTING VOL. 10, NO. 1 / JANUARY 1984 / PAGE 262

The cultured computer; America has a history of committing itself to solving all problems in society. Robert E. Mueller.

The Cultured Computer

What is the first step in culturing computers? To speak of culturing computers may seem extravagant. Everyone knows they are just overblown calculators. Computers may be growing increasingly complicated, but where do we get off saying they have anything to do with culture? What is culture anyway? Does it relate to our art? Our science and industry? Our political institutions? Our amusements? Do the games we play define our culture? Perhaps all of these--and more.

Let's concentrate on games. Video games. These new ways for humans to play are certainly unique to our society. They represent a way to transform the most formidable and complicated powers of computers, barely understood by highly trained specialists, into something everyone can enjoy: computational power transformed into human tools of skill; mathematics into method--immediately understood because it is made visual. Video games have emerged as the pop of computer software. Although there are few well known pop stars in the computer world, there are certainly millionaires.

When you play a video game you develop a unique symbiosis with a machine. The device is not only sensitive to your movements and commands but expands to embrace your passions and prides with its progressively complex logic. A video game does what you see, and sees what you do instantly, powerfully, in full color, and at the speed of immediate, real time.

This is what is so fascinating about a video game. Less fatiguing, it is still quicker than any other game we can play, and at the same time it is potentially more intellectually challenging.

It also leads to a hypnotic obsession, as we all know. Computers seem to have a way of obsessing people. Which of course is their danger: obsession to the point of blind dominance and obedience. Admitted negatives aside, however, let's try to analyze the positives.

Computers arose to help us solve problems in an increasingly problem-posing society. Like their mechanical relatives during the industrial revolution, computational tools began to be invented back in the eighteenth century when calculations began to exceed human abilities to do them. The data from logarithmic tables began to pile up so enormously that people like Babbage became impatient. Thus was begun the process that led to today's devices.

When this impulse reached America, a combination of Yankee ingenuity and plain laziness forced people like Herman Hollerith to build early punched-card systems. Americans are impatient and speed in transportation and speed in communication quite naturally lead to speed in thought. America has a history of committing itself to solving all the problems of society. The computer is our latest attempt to grapple with the complexities of the modern age and reduce them to processes as simple as video games. (In fact, the elegance and clarity of video games is emulated by human factors and AI people designing human-machine interfaces for sophisticated computerized systems. It is very nice to paint your desires on a screen, or talk to a computer in English, and let the computer do the rest.)

When society ties itself into impossible knots and builds intricate mazes that confuse and paralyze human activity, inventors are impelled rat-like to find ways out of the dilemmas created. Complexity more than necessity is the parent of invention. The human being has a way of countering chaos with creativity. This creative impetus is a force that usually emphasizes humanity, but sometimes that urge does not glorify us. Splitting the atom is the most notorious example of how progress can backfire.

In the case of the computer, problems early became obvious. Automatic systems require less human help, and therefore they seem to be a threat to our employment system. But more important, automating intelligent human activities had the effect of demystifying intelligence itself. Less knowledge was required of humans to think things once considered mind-boggling. Anyone with a hand-held device could perform mental feats only savants could do before. The mathematical abilities of computers began to shift our admiration from people to devices--and, at the extreme, to robots, who could become our mental giants and our envied masters. In the end, however, I think that video games should humble computer designers, became they reduced very difficult problems to simple audio-visual-manual solutions.

Problem solving in general is fun. But automated problem solving is more fun. Who cares what kind of a technical device we use to solve our problems; if we can solve them quicker or easier, we are all the more pleased. Give us bigger and more difficult problems, and we will be even more pleased when we unravel them. This is part of the joys of education--call it intellectual gaming. We get deeper and deeper into labyrinths of difficulties, and by neatly tying pathways together, we simplify their complexities. Why not use this marvelous new tool, the computer, to help us simplify life? Can it even help with our art--and enrich our culture too?

The problem is that abstractions have a way of trapping us, of fooling us into believing we have solved some difficult problem. What does a game won, or a high score achieved, represent? We displace our difficulties and build solutions that we soon discover are not solutions at all. Oh, they solve those areas we set up--say a game whose maximum score we can finally reach, regardless how complex the rules or the boundaries we formulate to define it. But they answer nothing finally-- which is what we wish they would do.

Mathematical difficulties worked out elegantly are sometimes so beautiful that we think they represent an absolute truth. This is the story of our intellectual life! Everything seems so simple--on paper. How far can we take this? If we remain dominated by games, will it help us in solving the meaning of existence?

Living life is difficult. One of the reasons we play is to escape disagreeable experiences (particularly poignant ones during puberty). Video games are a good example of how fascinating total control over a little bit of experience can be. If we surrender to the demands of a challenging game, we get a great feeling of mastery when we win (or reach a high score). A challenging problem solved or a game won gives us a powerful feeling of mastery. The overwhelming problems of living are concentrated in our hands, and with deft movements and a little mental or physical exertion, we can actually solve them (for a few minutes). Life makes momentary sense.

But in the end our accomplishments begin to take over. We define ourselves with our dynamic achievements. Can we stop ourselves from surrendering to these achievements and repeating them again and again? How long can a culture survive on repetition? We run our mile as fast as we can, nevertheless we run it again and again, hoping to beat our own record. Where does it end, this race to automate tedium?

Culturing society in a democracy means making the deepest and most creative human insights and perceptions available to everyone. We want to culture computers to improve our own culture through them. This is not a question of displacing humanity onto computers, as science fiction suggests. Rather, it means making computers available as insightful tools for sensitive, non-computer people to use to elevate the collective human condition. Although video games may seem a far cry from this noble pursuit, I think they may well be the first step.