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?

As We May Think: The Nugget of Negative Space and Associations which Spring Thence

I suspect I am not supposed to do this, but what grabbed me in the Bush “As We May Think” was what wasn’t there.  Bush writes in great detail about how information can be gathered and associations built, but presumes that most of this information will have as its source the usual suspects (encyclopedias, printed periodicals, etc.)  He is almost silent on the notion of the end user as content creator. This is the blind spot  of the piece.

It’s not surprising.  Futurists do a good job of predicting things which are a logical outgrowth of existing techne, but have a poor record with things which require conceptual breakthroughs. Jules Verne describes fax machine like devices in Paris au XXe siècle , but misses radio completely.Interestingly , his description of an education system which eschews the classics for the practical arts and (what we’d now call) STEM  was pretty much spot on.

Blogs and social media and the like now allow us to think in public.  This is a notion all but unheard of a generation ago. It will be interesting the extent to which the major reading do or don’t address this notion of public thought.  Particularly , I mean putting in public thoughts which haven’t yet been carefully edited/censored.  Prior to the web, if you read someone’s thoughts, they were (most of the time)  already in an edited form that had been through several drafts..  Stephen Krashen, writing about language acquisition , describes an internal “monitor” that learners use to check their language output for errors and correct it.  The monitor is much more active when someone is writing than when they are speaking, since there’s not time to check individual spoken utterances without awkward pauses.

I wonder if internet writing has the effect of turning down all of our internal editors, and what that means for the future of written expression.

How does it feel when I think?

I first of all recognize that I am quite “late to the party”.  The opening days of the course happened to coincide with a planned vacation. Since I’m an open participant, I’m going to, much to the chagrin of those in charge, I’m sure, view the deadlines as suggestions.

Most of the time, I think very verbally, at least when I’m thinking intentionally.  I “hear” words in my head as I think.  This isn’t to say my mind never wanders.  Especially when I was younger, I can remember occasions where I would stop myself mid thought and wonder how I had gotten to thinking about ____.  Most of the time I could mentally backtrack through the chain of associations and determine how I’d gotten from point A to point B. When I have thoughts that are not words, they tend to be unbidden.   This will seem particularly unusual when I reveal that I have a degree in music composition.  I am in fact hard pressed to put into words how my musical thought process works.  Maybe it’s a left brain-right brain thing.