Chapter 8


We have journeyed a long way together. What has been accomplished? The central message that I have tried to show in this book is that the computer concisely expresses many of the concepts central to civilization. Let’s go over them:

The first concept is the importance of clarity of expression (Chapter Two). With the computer, you quickly learn to get your statements precisely correct or suffer the syntax error. We see the same concept throughout many fields: law, which has developed the precise interpretation of English to a high art; science, which has developed its own language (mathematics) for precise expression of its concepts; even advertising, which has learned how to twist language masterfully to create impression without substance. Throughout our civilization you can find people sweating over the precise expression of an idea.

The science and art of decision-making (Chapter Four) is the second great achievement of civilization. The formal study of reason, the enjoyment of carefully constructed disputation, the willingness to analyze a problem endlessly -- these are hallmarks of our civilization. Perhaps nowhere else is it better expressed than in the American political and legal system, which expends vast efforts on achieving a correct decision-making process. What other civilization would set free an admitted criminal solely because the process used to establish guilt was flawed? Or consider the fact that the American constitution sets no policies of the government whatever; it concerns itself solely with the process by which political decisions will be made. And the computer reduces the decision-making process to its absolute essence, allowing us to clearly see the central components of decision-making.

Repetition (Chapter Five) is the next great triumph of civilization. Despite our romantic attachment to the individualized, the hand-made, we owe our wealth and comfort to the economies of scale associated with highly repetitious production. With each passing decade, we have pushed the scale higher and higher, building larger and more efficient tools that allow us to create more and more wealth faster and faster. Sometimes our productivity has outrun our wisdom, and we have created unanticipated problems of excess -- smog, traffic congestion, and technostress -- but these are problems that the peasant of two centuries ago would have dearly loved to suffer. The essential nature of repetition, the economy of scale associated with repetitive work, is perfectly captured in the loop of a computer program.

The fourth great achievement of civilization is the development of the bureaucracy (Chapter Six) as a means of controlling so complex a phenomenon as a civilization. We love to hate bureaucracies, but we all know that we simply cannot live without them. And a computer program with subroutines is a microcosm of a complex bureaucracy. It is created for the same reasons, faces the same problems, and solves them in the same way.

The taming and harnessing of numbers is the fifth great hallmark of civilization embodied in the computer (Chapter 7). We have developed mathematics and applied it to a huge variety of problems. Lord Berkeley caught the spirit of it when he wrote, "To measure is to know." The trick was not in the manipulation of numbers per se, but rather in the ability to relate numbers to the real world. We translate real-world phenomena into the cyber-world of numbers, make the numbers dance, and translate the results of their dance back into real-world results. It matters not whether we are sawing lumber, irrigating crops, or navigating a ship; the numbers obediently dance to our tune. The computer is the perfect tool to choreograph and observe the waltz of the numbers.

The parallels between the computer and the central structures of our civilization are no accident; the computer is, after all, the child of the civilization that created it. The only surprising thing is that it manages to capture so much of the essence of our civilization. Perhaps this is because a civilization is not a collection of artifacts or even people, but rather a logical structure for controlling processes, and a computer is, at heart, the same thing. A civilization is, of course, an immensely richer and more complex structure than a computer, but the computer does seem to be a convincing homonculus to civilization. To understand the logic of a computer, then, is to gain a glimpse into the heart of our culture.

But we must not overrate our understanding, especially when we deal with the computer. The clarity and precision of computer-style thinking gives a false sense of certainty to the small-minded. That certainty has been the source of more pig-headedness and nonsense than any anti-rationalist mysticism to sweep our society. It’s not that computers are small-minded, or that computer programmers are small-minded, but rather that small-minded people who learn the computer can do a lot of damage.

Consider the bureaucrat who inflexibly sticks to the rules even when it is to the obvious detriment of the bureaucracy as a whole. Rules are rules, you know; we can’t go bending the rules just because it might make things go more smoothly this time. Of course, we didn’t need to invent computers to create such people. But how much better armed they are to enforce their puny view of the universe when they can say, "I’m sorry, the computer can’t take it any other way."

A variation on this is the number-happy manager. He’s got his computer printouts, loaded with a zillion numbers about every aspect of the company’s business. He’s just got to slow down every discussion with endless quotations of data. The best retort to this fellow is an acronym: GIGO. It means "Garbage in, garbage out". The quality of the numbers that come out of a computer is only as good as the quality of the numbers you put in. And most of the numbers that go into such a program are garbage.

There is also the danger of taking the lessons of the computer too seriously. The lessons of the computer impart a kind of intellectual power to their users, and power always corrupts in proportion to weakness of character. Thus, we see a corps of overconfident technophiles who bring too much certainty to all aspects of their thinking. They know the answer to every question of politics, sex, and religion. The black-and-white world of the computer does not admit subtle shades of gray. The goal of this book is to teach you this style of thinking, that you may apply it to real-world problems, but don’t overdo it!

The greatest victim of the computer, though, is the high school kid who falls in love with the computer. It starts out innocently enough. Johnny is curious about this computer stuff and shows some aptitude for it. His parents give him a computer to encourage him. As he plunges into it, he learns many of the same lessons that this book has presented. But there is more. He learns power, something he hasn’t had before. The power to make things happen inside the computer. His curiousity is always rewarded with discovery, and there is no more addictive drug than learning, especially learning that comes so easily. But most important, and most insidious, is the cheerful willingness of the computer to be a companion, a friend with whom the kid can talk. The real world has parents with unreasonable demands, with whom communication is difficult. The real world has girls with whom all interaction is invariably embarrassing. The real world is unresponsive; the real world treats him like a dumb kid. But the computer responds to every communication in a fair and understandable manner. The computer obeys his every command. Faced with the real world or the computer in your bedroom, which would you choose?

And so our tragic hero renounces parents, school, and girls, and pledges himself to the computer. He stays up late, working on his programs. His parents and teachers, not seeing the trap, encourage him in this, the first activity to which he has truly applied himself. Deeper and deeper he sinks, learning subroutines and stacks when he should be making a fool of himself with girls. Society toasts him as a "Whiz Kid", and he retreats further into his soulless world, mastering every intricacy of the technology. He skips college, forswearing beer busts and other crucial instructive foolishness for the foolishness of a job earning more money than his father. For five, maybe ten years, he is treated like a budding genius, catered to and pampered. Then something goes wrong and he is discarded like an old sweater.

Numerous excuses are given for the failure of whiz kids at an early age. Some call it burnout, the natural result of a too-intense workstyle. Some point out that whiz kids don’t get along well with co-workers. Others point to the need for career development, something unavailable to a person without a college degree. But whatever the symptom, the underlying reason for failure is that whiz kids are not fully developed human beings. They are emotionally and educationally stunted, unable to cope with anything other than the computer. The day inevitably comes when the boss demands more than simple code-hacking, and the whiz kid cannot satisfy the demand.

I have known many such whiz kids. Not one has beaten the curse. It is a tragic waste of talent. It is the highest price we pay for the computer revolution, the human pollution of our high-tech industry.

Even the computer has its dark side. This should come as no surprise; every tool we make, from needle to A-bomb, has potential for positive or negative uses. Those who bemoan the dehumanizing influence of the computer have forgotten their heritage. The computer does not introduce any new dehumanizing elements into our society. It is the latest and most refined expression of forces that have been at work in our civilization for hundreds of years. These forces were not foisted on us by some malicious demon -- they are the expression of the desires and efforts of millions of people over scores of generations. The computer is a single point in the cannonball trajectory of civilization, connected to all other points and existing because of them.
We must not blame our tools, nor deify them. We must learn to use them wisely. And here I must stop, for wisdom is outside the scope of this book.