Posted by: Kenn Hermann | February 16, 2006

Computers and the ‘Real’ World

There is an irreducible distinction and difference between the digital ‘reality’ of the computer and the real world that must be preserved. The fact that the machine can outperform humans in several narrowly restricted activities (manipulating and computing symbols) has given birth to the seductive Idea that 1) machines are superior to humans; 2) that their superiority ought to be the model on which we judge all human activities and behaviors; and 3) that which the machine is able to accomplish is the appropriate measure of what is most meaningful in life and society. Why for example, do we assume that the meaning of an ‘efficient’ machine ought to be the meaning of an ‘efficient’ human? Granted that we all want to be ‘efficient,’ why do we assume that the machine is the universal standard of efficiency? What was the idea that motivated Frederick Taylor to believe that the machine was the appropriate model for determining the “one best way” to do something in all of life’s circumstances? Why do some current managers believe the same thing? How many of you have or are currently stressed out because of that Idea? That tasks can be broken down into discreet bits is a fact; that the most ‘efficient’ ways these tasks can be accomplished is by compiling these discreet bits is an idea that ought to be debated. Are the standards of ‘efficiency’ exactly the same in finding a mate, learning to play an instrument, worshipping the Lord, or creating a work of art?

We must preserve the boundary between human attributes and ideas and the procedural requirements and capacities of the computer. It is, for example, dangerous to speak of both humans and computers having memory, of using processing as a synonym for thinking or writing. What is the idea that lies behind these very common ways of speaking in our society? Why do we call this utility I am using a word processor? We may process sausage, but do we process thought in the very same way? Is writing simply a matter of accessing and manipulating symbols and styles? What were the Master Ideas that shaped the founders of the computer, from Babbage to Turing?

There are numerous important implications of maintaining this important distinction. Let’s look at just one. The real world in which we live is an analog world. It is a world full of unique situations, sights, smells, tastes, emotional highs and lows, commitments, convictions, beliefs. The architectural and procedural requirements of the computer insure that it can never recreate this real world, despite the faith of many that we can or ought to. What we call virtual reality is not reality at all, no matter how close the simulation makes it appear. Rather its ‘world’ is a highly abstract ‘world’ constructed of zeroes and ones. No matter how sophisticated the sampling, the discreet world of the computer algorithm can never replicate the flowing world of everyday reality. Just glance out your window. What is more amazing, the sights and smells of your flower garden or the millions of colors on your screen? (This is one reason that jazz purists much prefer the overtones, resonances, and even scratches of the LP to the clean, but sterile, sound of the CD.) The digital world is subject only to the laws of mathematics, space, movement, and energy; it knows no intellectual hopes, ethical convictions, political loyalties, or social commitments; ‘creatures’ in this world never get sick, need to eat and sleep, require family time, or go on vacation. (That is clearly the major reason they make ideal employees.) Why then are we so willing to give over important and critical decisions in our lives and those of our businesses and nations to the results of a computer program? How many of the most critical decisions we have to make on a daily basis are solely procedural and routine?

Industry that does not suck the life out of its people, that strives to do ‘good work,’ must conform its technologies to the realities of the analog world of real human beings, and break the destructive cycle of conforming human beings and society to the rigid, discreet, procedural requirements of the computer. How, for example, would the workplace look differently if it were built to nurture and enhance human needs and values rather than requiring humans to conform to the “most efficient and logical” uses of computers, assembly lines, and cell phones?

Facts, data, and information are discrete bits that have no meaning in and of themselves. These would be like memorizing names, dates, and places in history class, or CNN Headline News, where only the headlines are read, or the annoying crawls at the bottom of the screen on MSNBC, or the 10 second sound bites of the president and congressional leaders, or the boss saying that the company produced and shipped 100k widgets last week, or that the Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl, or that my computer has an 800mhz Pentium III processor. The computer is specifically designed and constructed to create, acquire, manipulate, and produce bits—period. It does this “one thing” far better than any human could ever do.

As all of you have discovered, simply amassing data, piling up reams of computer paper full of numbers, will never produce meaningful ideas all by themselves. Those ideas can only come from humans. Ideas include all of the meaningful assumptions, philosophical viewpoints, religious convictions, ethical commitments, economic loyalties, family values, and musical preferences we use to discern meaning in the information that we acquire. Ideas are the lenses through which we discover, evaluate, and interpret facts and weave meaning into our lives. That I can be reached 24/7 on my cell phone is a fact; it is a firm conviction (idea) that this possibility must not crowd out those commitments that I most treasure and make my life most meaningful. That my cable service can deliver hundreds of channels of HD TV is a fact; it is a core value (idea) that TV, regardless of how many channels it receives, must play only a minor role in my life. That my broad-band internet connection enables me to access and download countless web pages is a fact; it is a philosophical assumption that the worth of these downloads cannot be measured by their ease of access. Ideas must always be discussed, debated, evaluated, questioned, and analyzed; they ought not be accepted as brute facts.

The computer itself embodies some very powerful ideas and assumptions. One of those powerful ideas is the conviction that a vast array of human activities in life can be freely translated into the discreet world of zeroes and ones and logically arranged into routines, procedures, and programs; thus, the seductive idea that they accurately reflect and give insight into the real world. A binary numerical system is a fact; that this binary system gives us access to the core of reality is an idea – a powerfully wrong idea, that requires rigorous debate and discussion rather than being accepted as an uncontroversial fact.

It is for reasons like these that we must maintain that Ideas, convictions, commitments, philosophical and religious perspectives and worldviews, not Information, must always shape the way we understand our lives and the way we structure our education. The well-educated person is not the person who knows lots of “stuff” or knows lots of routines, procedures, and programs for doing things or spends all of her time learning more and more of them; the ‘literate’ person is one who has thought deeply about the Ideas that ought and ought not shape her life and society.

Unfortunately, “computer literacy” has come to mean learning how to operate a computer rather than understanding and critically evaluating the ways that computers ought and ought not to shape society and human life. That we have learned how to operate a computer does not yet tell us whether we ought to use the computer for this project. We can arrive at that answer only by fundamental debate about which ideas ought to shape our educational system. It is a powerfully seductive idea that schools must have computers in the classroom to be successful. What schools and children most need are encounters with ‘powerful’ ideas, not ‘powerful’ processors and scanners. Students need to be ‘wowed’ by their encounter with Yahweh’s real world, not by the reductionist world of their iPod or fast graphics card.



  1. “Computers and the ‘Real World'”

    The blogger at Radix Perspectives contrasts the way computers work with the way people work (are designed), with a caution against confusing the two. It calls to my mind what Henry Mintzberg wrote in The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning.

  2. Q: Why did the railroads employ so many people to bring coal to the steam trains?

    A: Because the steam trains could not mine the coal for themselves.

    Parents don’t care enough to ensure that the schools teach their kids science, philosophy and mathematics, and there’s no leadership in this country willing to do anything about it. I don’t see how any of this is the computer’s fault.

    (BTW, I think you mean ‘discrete’)

  3. Thank you for the editorial correction; it is ‘discrete.’ On your other point . . . I am not blaming the computer. How could I since ‘blame’ is a moral atrribute of human beings, not technological objects. Only humans can be ‘blamed’ or ‘praised.’ It is the case, though, that the multi-layers of abstraction in the computer makes it very difficult for its users to recognize the moral framework within which the computer and they exist. E.g. the sophisticated abstractions of the modern listening devices make it much ‘easier’ for the government to claim that it is not violating the 4th amendment’s guarantee that “the people [to] be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures. . . .” Also, once ‘searches’ and ‘seizures’ become etherealized and universalized via electronic networks, they become much more difficult to subject to appropriate moral and legal authority. ‘Mining’ companies are ‘searching’ and ‘seizing’ my personal information every stop I make on the internet, something that would be morally and legally more difficult if those ‘searches’ and ‘seizures’ were embodied and materialized. I might think twice about throwing my garbage out if a ‘mining agent’ was perched next to my garbage can.

  4. […] “Computers and the ‘Real’ World” […]

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