Nugget Post: Man-Computer Symbiosis

 It is often said that programming for a computing machine forces one to think clearly, that it disciplines the thought process. If the user can think his problem through in advance, symbiotic association with a computing machine is not necessary.

If this is so, why has the last half century of technological advancement been about reducing the need for such clear thinking? From search engines, to WYSIWYG blogging platforms like the one I’m using now, to IDE’s, to Siri,the whole notion of human-computer symbiosis shifts more and more of the “detail work” from the human to the computer.  Licklider believes this to be a good thing.  I’m not quite as convinced.

For a very long time, disciplined thinking, even more than knowledge recall, has been  a mark, perhaps even the mark. of an educated mind.  That’s why we still teach formal logic, at least to some.  There is I think a perception that rigorous thinking belongs to the scientific culture (to reference C.P. Snow).  After all, if you don’t engineer rigorously, your software fails, your gadget breaks, and your building falls down.  The consequences of non-rigorous thinking about Marxist themes in Game of Thrones are arguably lower,

Licklider seems to argue that having the computers do the detail work frees up human creativity.  I compare his discussion of hours making plots to what can be done with a few lines of R.and a few SQL queries.  I see two hazards that come with this freedom:

  1.  The freedom to think in broad strokes gets us collectively out of the habit of careful thinking,  Then when we need that habit again, it must be, to some extent, relearned,  Let;s just hope that relearning doesn’t happen mid-crisis.

  2. In the same vein, what happens if, as in E.M. Forster’s eponymous story, the machine stops.  In the first episode of Connections, James Burke describes how the New York City blackout of 1977 was so catastrophic because few knew how to work around widespread technological failure, even in the short term.

We do amazing things every day, but it sits atop a massive infrastructure which is frighteningly fragile.  Are we one solar flare from it all falling about our ears?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *