Thursday, December 25, 2008

Quicklink: How a Computer Works

BoingBoing recently featured scans of a wonderful 1978 book called How a Computer Works.  It's so full of awesome, it's a wonder it doesn't explode; there's even some implicit philosophy!  It seems almost too amazing to be real, but it's entertaining either way.  Snip:

There is something about computers that is both fascinating and intimidating.  They are fascinating when they are used in rocketry and space research, and when they can enable man to get to the moon and back.  In this respect, they are like human machines with "super-brains."  Some of them can even play music.  On the other hand, we are likely to be intimidated by their complex mechanisms and large arrays of blinking lights.  You should do what scientists tell you to.  
In fact, computers do not have brains like we do.  They cannot really think for themselves, except when they are doing complicated arithmetic.

So next time you start using your calculator program remember this: the more complex arithmetic you do, the more sentient They become--other than that, do what scientists tell you to.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Quicklink: Dennett and Clark Smack Substance Dualists Down

New Scientist recently ran a very short piece in which Dennett and Clark respond to accusations that any talk about mind influencing body (e.g. as when a deliberate shift in attention causes a change in brain states) implies an acceptance of some kind of immaterial soul / Cartesian ego.  The rejoinder they offer is short, to the point, and (it seems to be) decisive.  Snip:

But this would lend support to the proposition that minds are non-material - in the strong sense of being beyond the natural order - only if we were to accept the assumption that thoughts, attending and mental activity are not realised in material substance.

I've had my differences with both Clark and Dennett with regard to the nature of consciousness, but they're right on here: arguing that the explanatory role of consciousness proves the existence of an immaterial (i.e. essentially non-physical) kind of substance is straightforwardly question-begging--it assumes that consciousness is not itself the result of physical processes.  Descartes' legacy haunts us still.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Andy Rooney Derides Upgrade Culture, Misunderstands Technology

Here's a delightful little video of Andy Rooney doing his loveable crumudgeon thing, this time with his sights set on Bill Gates, upgrade culture, and the computer's supplantation of typewriters generally.  I absolutely adore Andy Rooney, but what he has to say here is a beautiful representation of how people on the other side of the so-called "digital divide" often misunderstand technology.  Watch the video first:

Now, leaving aside the issue that Bill Gates doesn't really have anything to do with hardware design (or the trajectory of technology generally, at least not directly), a few of the points that Mr. Rooney makes in this piece are representative of some fundamental confusions regarding technology--confusions that, I think, are shared by many in his generation.  I want to say a few words about those confusions here.

Mr. Rooney's central point is that while he wrote on the same Underwood typwriter for decades, he's forced to upgrade his computer every year or two, new computers are seldom compatible with every aspect of their predecessors' functionality--old file types are dropped (try to find a computer that will read .wps documents today), and old programs are no longer supported (my 64 bit Vista machine already complains about running 32 bit programs that are only a year old)--and morphological similarities are rarely preserved.  This is all certainly true, but the same is true of technology generally--the time scale is only recently accelerated to the point where such differences become visible.

I've advocated the Vygotsky/Clark/Chalmers position of thinking of technology as cognitive scaffolding before, and I think that metaphor is informative here.  Suppose you're using scaffolding (in the traditional sense) to construct a tall building.  As the building (and the scaffolding) gets higher and higher, certain problems that didn't exist at ground level will manifest themselves as serious issues--how to keep from plummeting 60 stories to their death, for instance, is a problem that's directly related to working on 60 story tall scaffolding.  Still, it would be a mistake to say "Why do we need 60 story high scaffolding?  We didn't have any of these problems when the scaffolding was only 10 feet high, so we should have just stopped then; making higher scaffolding has caused nothing but problems."  We need 60 story high scaffolding, a contractor might point out, because it helps us do what we want to do--i.e. construct 60 story buildings.  The fact that new problems are created when we start using 60 story high scaffolding isn't a reason to abandon the building construction, but only a reason to encourage innovation and problem-solving to surmount those newly emergent issues.

Precisely the same is true, I think, of technology.  Mr. Rooney speaks as if the upgrade culture exists just to line Bill Gates' pocketbook--as if the constant foisting of new software and hardware is the result of a pernicious conspiracy to deprive poor rubes of their hard-earned money without giving them anything except a headache in return; this is simply false.  It's true that the average life expectancy of a computer is far less than the average life expectancy of its ancestral technology (e.g. the typewriter), but Mr. Rooney doesn't seem to realize that each technological iteration comes with consumate functional advancement--the computers on the shelf today aren't just dressed up typewriters, but solve new problems, and solve old problems in better ways with each generation.  Rather than just being a vehicle for word processing, computers today are word processors, communication devices, entertainment centers, encyclopedias, and a myriad of other devices all rolled into one.  We pay a price for this advancement--computer viruses weren't a problem before the Internet made it easy to transfer and share information with many people quickly--but, like the problem of keeping construction workers from plummeting to their deaths, the new issues raised by evolving technology are worth solving.  

Mr. Rooney's typewriter probably wasn't radically different from the one his father might have used, and if we go back to further generations we'll see even less of a difference--Mr. Rooney's grandfather, greatgrandfather, and great-greatgrandfather probably wrote (if they wrote at all) with more or less precisely the same kind of technology: pen and ink.  By contrast, the kind of computer I'm using right now will almost certainly bear little or no resemblance to the computers my children or grandchildren will be using 50 years down the line; the pace of technological innovation is increasing.  Still, this increasing tempo represents more than just a commercial scam--it represents the increasing productivity, cognition, and innovation that is made possible with each succeeding generation of technology: as the tools improve, they are in turn used to design even better tools.  I think this makes an occasionally moving power button a small price, and one worth paying.