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Computer Power and Human Reason (Part 2)

April 29, 2009

Weizenbaum devotes a good deal of space in the book to a chapter called “How Computers Work,” a useful introduction to programming for anyone who comes into his book with no tech background.   Some of the most famous (or notorious) quotes from the book stem from Weizenbaum’s description of programming, and programmers.  Discussing high-level programming languages, he notes that most programmers “have no knowledge whatsoever of their computer’s machine language or of the content and structure of the translators that mediate between them and their computers.”  Weizenbaum notes that, rather than being the perfect transcription of mathematical principles, programming is “like any form of writing, more often than not experimental.  One programs, just as one writes, not because one understands, but in order to come to understand.” 

And he devotes a chapter to the “compulsive programmer,” a type we’re all familiar with now:

Wherever computer centers have become established…bright young men of disheveled appearance, often with sunken glowing eyes, can be seen sitting at computer consoles, their arms tensed and waiting to fire their fingers, already poised to strike, at the buttons and keys on which their attention seems to be as riveted as a gambler’s on the rolling dice…they work until they drop, twenty, thirty hours at a time.  Their food, if they arrange it, is brought to them: coffee, Cokes, sandwiches.  If possible, they sleep on cots near the computer…their rumpled clothes, their unwashed and unshaven faces, and their uncombed hair all testify that they are oblivious to their bodies and to the world in which they move.  They exist, at least when so engaged, only through and for the computers.  These are computer bums, compulsive programmers.  They are an international phenomenon.

The only thing that has changed in the intervening decades has been the relocation of the console from the university computer center to the dark basement or bedroom.  Weizenbaum notes the difference between the compulsive programmer and the “dedicated, hard-working professional”:  The professional has a problem to solve, uses the tool at hand and moves on, “whereas the compulsive programmer sees the problem mainly as an opportunity to interact with the computer.”  Still, there’s no doubt many discoveries and inventions have come about because of some hacker tinkering endlessly with registries and routines, which the workaday programmer would never have discovered or created.  But Weizenbaum’s argument is valid – to wall one’s self off into a “hard-coded” world where, say, everyone has a PhD in math, engineering or computer science, and design problems which should be handed to “creatives” are left instead to microgranular analysis of preference polls of thousands of Pantone shades, is to deny “the whole man,” to declare that problems which can’t be solved with pure science are not interesting or relevant.

Moreover, it’s just as dangerous when a Science that is really more of a Humanity, such as psychology, attempts to become “scientific,” to convert human behavior into codifiable rules (see for instance the creation of new “illnesses” for the DSM-V like “apathy disorder” and “parental alienation syndrome” so that all human problems can be assigned a billing code – and a prescription). 

Weizenbaum is openly disdainful of the AI research of his time, using the unpleasantly Stalinist term “artificial intelligentsia” to describe its proponents.  He lays out the now well-known linguistic problems with AI, i.e. “the house blew it” is a statement which the human mind can decode by using context – “the house” is often used to refer to a casino, and if the conversation is about gambling, the listener may glean the meaning even without having heard the phrase before. 

Weizenbaum’s concern is that even a system like ELIZA, which isn’t the greatest conversationalist, provokes a willing suspension of disbelief in many of its users.  Even in our interpersonal dealings, we bring a “working hypothesis” about the other person, usually based on first impressions – i.e., I see a fat old man getting out of a car with a RUSH IS RIGHT sticker, and I fill out my “conceptual framework” on that person with my prediction of what he’s going to think and say.  These “acts of induction” are automatic and probably instinctive, and they come into play whenever we interact with another, whether that other is man or machine.  Weizenbaum seems off the mark when he says that people conversing with ELIZA “cling to the belief that they are being understood” not because of our lifelong habit of infilling detail on new people, but because they don’t understand the science behind it, and that “it is therefore clothed in the magical mantle of Science and all of Science’s well known powers may be attributed to it.” 

Next post: the conclusion of my review.

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