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Is what you are doing with computers worth doing?

posted Mar 12, 2010, 1:42 AM by Jean-Michel Garnier
Readers who reach the end of a book are entitled to some praise

from the author, since they have paid him the greatest

compliment an author can receive. Yet those readers who do reach the

end are probably in less need of rewards than the dropout, for it

would seem impossible to go all the way through any book without

receiving the reward of learning. Perhaps it is possible to go through this book

without being touched, although as one reviewer commented, \"One

comes away with the feeling of having spent a pleasant but somewhat

'wasted' afternoon of reading, and as the old joke goes, 'it ain't till you

try to turn your head that you realize how sharp the razor was.' \"

Although I would have been happier with a less violent metaphor, the

remark captures what the book has tried to do. My students have had the

same reaction. A typical remark made a year after attending a seminar

is: \"It was pleasant enough talking about those things, but then I began

to see what was going on at the office. Wow!\"

The most important thing that this student learned was not any

particular behavioral science result or the name of so-and-so's law to parrot

back on a test. What he learned was that he had been carrying around

with him all his life a well-equipped machine for observing behavior—

but that it had never been used very much. As an anonymous sign at the

computing center put it:

The human mind ordinarily operates at only ten percent of its capacity—the

rest is overhead for the operating system.

So rather than be concerned so much about that computer operating

system, the reader who has really been touched by this book will start to

work on the operating system he carries around in his own central

processing unit—his head. That will be his reward.

But if we make our own operating systems more efficient, if we observe

ourselves and our surroundings more carefully, and if this efficiency and

observation lead us to be more productive programmers, of what use is

it? The stories of the three wishes send us a message from many

cultures, and from the ancient past: \"If you get your fondest wish, what

then?\" If, by psychological, sociological, and anthropological

investigation or by simple heightened awareness we become better programmers,

to what work shall we turn our talents? For if something is not worth

doing, it is certainly not worth doing right.

Is what we are doing with computers worth doing? is what you are

doing with computers worth doing? Because computers are such

fascinating beasts, because programming is such a game, such a joy, we who

program computers are in danger of becoming the unwitting pawns of

those who would use our toys for not-so-playful ends. Can there be any

doubt that if Hitler had computers at his command, one of the first

application would have been keeping closer track on Jews and Gypsies

so that all who should have gone to the ovens did go to the ovens? Can

there by any doubt that if Pilate had computers, they would have been

used to keep the information from informers, the better to crucify those

that were crying out for crucifixion by their heretical zeal? Can there be

any doubt that somewhere in our country today some human beings are

using computers as just another, finer weapon in their arsenal of ways

to subjugate other human beings to their wishes—to their conception of

the proper life of man?

And having said all that, can there be any doubt that such people—

now as in 1939 or at the dawn of the Christian era—find many willing

hands and brains to carry out their work in return for fun and profit? Or

that some of those willing hands will have held this book, to the profit

of their employers?

Many years ago, just a few years after I wrote my first book with Herb

Leeds, I read an article describing experiments in which monkeys were

subjected to various doses of poison gases, evidentally to see how long

it took them to die. The work was done in a laboratory for chemical

warfare research, with the intent, no doubt, of extrapolating it to human

beings. Thirty-six innocent monkeys, as I recall, met their deaths in this

gruesome way so that someday, perhaps, thirty-six million people could

meet their deaths even more efficiently. The article remained in my mind

for months afterward, and indeed it has remained there to this day. By

pure coincidence, I suppose, I was accosted at a meeting by a nice

young man who had gone out of his way to tell me how much he had

learned from our book, how much it had helped him to become a better

programmer. I asked him what sort of work he did, and he replied that

he worked at a laboratory for chemical warfare research.

Afterward, I tried to rationalize my way out of my depression by

imagining that it was a different laboratory, which it might have been, or

that he never worked on the monkey experiment, which might also have

been true. But I knew that somewhere, someone who had learned from

me was participating in such experiments and worse. I knew that I shared

the responsibility—that writing a book is not merely teaching means to

unknown and unimagined ends. For a long time I could not write, perhaps

for that reason, or perhaps for others. But, eventually, my ego got the

better of me and I began again, determined to try making my books

unusable to any but the pure at heart.

To a certain extent, this book may have achieved that goal, for the

idea of the programmer as a human being is not going to appeal to

certain types of people, and they will neither finish the book nor profit from

it. But it is naive, I now realize, to expect that bad systems cannot be

built by people with good hearts. Otherwise, why would I encounter so

many bad systems when almost all of the people I meet are wonderful?

No, something else is needed, something not within the power of an

author to give to a reader. As Malraux once said, \"It is the work of a

lifetime to make a man.\" A book can be but a tiny part of that work—

the rest is up to you, and the work will never be finished.

Having said all that, I do not shrink from personal responsibility for

what I have done in writing this book. We stand at the brink of a new age,

an age made possible by the revolution that is embodied in the computer.

Standing on the brink, we could totter either way—to a golden age of

liberty or a dark age of tyranny, either of which would surpass anything

the world has ever known. Perhaps no individual's efforts will make any

difference in the result, but we must never cease trying, for then the

result is sure to be tyranny. This book is my effort against the tyranny,

the enslavement of men by other men and by their own ignorance. Would

that it not be adopted by the forces of tyranny themselves, as no doubt

it will be. Lacking that hope, I can only hope that its use to the other

forces will, in the balance, be greater.