The Book Club

The Ultimate Sandbox


Thanks for your note about Ray Kurzweil and Neil Gershenfeld’s books. While I agree with many of your criticisms of these two books, I’m amazed that they triggered this “Computers! What are they good for? … Absolutely nothing!” polemic on your part. I can’t even begin to discuss the nuttiness in these books without first dealing with the nuttiness of your anti-computer sentiments.

Computers have substantially improved our lot.  Without them, the complex systems we take for granted would not exist: medical expert databases doctors use to diagnose illnesses and treatments, air-traffic control, the entire telephone network with its collapsing cost of communications, jet-travel, weather forecasting that saves lives, pharmaceutical development using computerized models, plus intensive historical studies of ecological damage, worker safety, education patterns, and so on that are used for private and public policy making. All of these depend on computers for a simple reason: Computers are modeling machines. They build models of reality we can then use for testing, saving us from the dire choice of only learning through real-world experience. The computerized model of America’s skies is what allows jet planes to fly without hitting each other. In short, without computers we cannot have complex systems, and without complex systems, we cannot have as many choices in how we travel and communicate. That’s just one area where computers have shown some good.

Your criticism is that computers haven’t done much good because worker productivity hasn’t gone up. But who says that worker productivity is the measure of a computer’s usefulness as a tool? It’s just one measure, and one I don’t particularly like, since I believe we all have the right to laze about on the job every now and then, and if computers make it easier to have fun while getting paid, I’m all for it. Which gets me to my second point: Computers are good for entertainment. Whoever is reading this message right now–I hope you’re having a good time reading it, which proves my point. One of my favorite computer concepts is the “Here’s the Boss!” button. That’s a special extension which, when the right combination of keys are pressed, instantly produces a spreadsheet, covering up whatever else you might be doing at that instant. The reason we need “Here’s the Boss!” buttons is because computers–especially computer games, personal electronic mail, and personal web sites–are good at modeling things that give us pleasure, be it by recreating the written word in electronic format, or the labyrinthine levels of DOOM.

You wonder if the “Information Highway” serves any purpose, since “Very little information–some literature, some science–is intrinsically valuable. The rest is valuable only instrumentally and differentially, insofar as I have it and you do not. When such information becomes universally available its value drops to zero.” To this I can only say: GET AN E-MAIL ADDRESS, JIM! I must tear the veil, and reveal that while I write this in my Eudora mail application, Jim is in the woods of New England dealing with a typewriter, fax machine, and maybe a printer of some kind. Do you have outdoor plumbing yet? I say this because the value of the information highway has little to do with information, and more to do with communication. It is a communications medium, and what makes it so marvelous is that it is the only instance in all of human history of a medium where it is as easy to reach one person as it is to reach thousands or millions. I see it as an antidote to our broadcast media, where the ability to send to many is strictly controlled. It is an antidote to a consumer culture where we are expected to consume information, but not produce it (except as data bits in a credit report). E-mail and personal home pages (80,000,000 Americans now have e-mail access) are why TV watching is down for the first time among teenagers in the entire history of TV. For that alone, computers have surely benefited humanity.

But none of this excuses the turgid texts we both wrestled with over the weekend. Gershenfeld and Kurzweil offer variations on geek Valhalla. For Gershenfeld, a director at the MIT Media Lab, and head of a project called Things That Think, what’s wrong with computers is twofold: Their interface is mediocre (all those windows, icons, and mice), and they need to be connected to everyday things, like shoes, to make them more useful. For Gershenfeld, the computer exists as a helot, albeit a helot without any limbs or ability to interact with its environment. When Things Start to Think is an ode to getting computers hooked up to physical objects, giving “things” the ability to “think.” It’s a very Media Lab-ish precept, one both mundane in its ambition–it’s about making better digital butlers–and familiar in its anthropomorphism. For Gershenfeld, computers are in a fetal stage. His job is to turn them into children, able to teach and learn for themselves.

Kurzweil blows past the child stage of development, and goes straight for quasi-Buddhist vision of using computers to break the cycle of birth and death, using them to reach a kind of immortality. In Kurzweil’s Spiritual Machines he makes a familiar argument: Bodies are bad, and our human “wetware” must be shed, while our brains–“software”–float ascendant, finally freed from the prison of flesh and mortality. Where once transcendence came from meditating and not eating for a long time, Kurzweil posits that computers, following an inevitable track of Darwinian self-perfection and selection (what about mutation?), will soon become the symbiotic vessels for our mutual ascendance to semi-omniscience–godhood.

Kurzweil is really the latest iteration of earlier books like Bruce Mazlish’s The Fourth Discontinuity: The Co-evolution of Humans and Machines (Yale; 1993) and Gregory Stock’s Metaman: The Merging of Humans and Machines into a Global Superorganism (Simon & Schuster; 1993). These earlier authors, much as Kurzweil does, argue that computers and humans are merging into a new organism. Kurzweil makes the same argument, but more squarely places it in the context of “spirituality.” But like his predecessors, Kurzweil skirts painfully close to the creepily genocidal, or at least all-obliterating. When surveying the glorious future, Kurzweil throws out one liners that reflect the cavalier, computer-game-like (SimFuture) esthetic behind this sort of writing: “If we’re going to enter a new world, we had better get rid of traces of the old” (p. 142). Kurzweil throws that out in the middle of a rapturous discussion of future “virtual reality.” What is “get rid of traces of the old” supposed to mean anyway? For both Kurzweil and Gershenfeld, history does not exist. They write of portentous human change with little reference to the past (icky, “old” stuff), other than the typical rehashes of chess-playing automata housing dwarves from the 18th century, Charles Babbage, Turing, and Marvin Minsky. Talking about history mucks up the fantasy, so it’s best left alone.

Kurzweil’s book is far more ambitious than Gershenfeld’s, which in a way is a compliment to Gershenfeld, who seems to treat humanity with a measure of dignity, and appropriate non-messianism. For Gershenfeld, being human is okay, and computers are just here to help out. Kurzweil, in his argument that computers are following an inexorable slope of ever increasing computational power, which must, around 2020, lead to a tipping point where they become conscious (because they’ll have the same computation ability of the human brain), is essentially arguing through a combination of metaphor (brains are like computers) and leaps of faith (when the density of connections in a chip is as dense as a brain, something clicks into smartness). But of course none of this has been proven. It’s science by analogy, and only Albert Einstein knew how to do that well. But then again he was a genius.

At the end of your message, Jim, you asked me: “can you, David, give me a reason for thinking that computers really will add “extra life”? I ask with no ulterior prejudice, but in the sprit of pure inquiry.” As machines for fantasy, play, and communications, computers certainly have given me extra life–the phrase, btw, comes from computer games, where high scores earn “extra life” for extended play–in the sense of my having discovered a wonderfully creative co-conspirator. Because computers are just modeling machines, they exist as the ultimate sandboxes for human fantasy. What other device can be a movie, book, radio, telephone, mailbox, newspaper, and immersive game? Whether they’re any good at building cheaper widgets is General Motors’ problem, not mine. I know they’re good at making me happy.