Is what you are doing with computers worth doing?
Post date: Mar 12, 2010 9:42:49 AM
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.