The challenge of humanity

[This is a response to an email prompt from a design-y list I’m on, where the original poster posited that “Computing is all around us” and “we are a part of the computer”, but after writing the response, I thought it was general purpose enough to post here]

I think it is a mistake to think of computers as separate than human, something that we are integrated into. I believe computing is, in many ways, like any other technology, and it’s one that we choose to incorporate into our lives. This is why I tend not to believe in techno-determinism (e.g. the Singularity), where engineers want to believe that technology will change how we live and interact quickly. It takes time for new technology to be integrated and accepted, and often that timing happens on the scale of human generations (shades of Kuhn’s Scientific Revolutions).

So I think you have it flipped when you say “We are part of this machine”. I think the machine is part of us. Computers have no volition (at this point) other than what we give them. When computers do something, it is because they were designed to do it, or because they were poorly designed and behave in ways that surprise their creators. It’s not like we consider people to have become cyborgs when they get pacemakers (which are little computers embedded into people), or artificial limbs, or any of the other medical technology that have been developed.

Computers are different than other technologies in one key way, as I see it. They allow layers of abstraction to build, creating exponential growth in impact (Moore’s Law, Metcalfe’s Law, etc), and through that, that means that a designer’s intent can be massively amplified in terms of its impact on others. The choices Zuckerberg makes, ten years after he was a college student, affect the way hundreds of millions of people interact with each other.

In grad school, I saw a talk by Jaron Lanier, where he talked about this impact, which he called “karma vertigo”. Because the layers of abstraction build on each other, the design choices made in each layer of technology have huge impacts on the future path that technology takes. He felt, back in 1997, that as computing became ubiquitous, that the choices made by those designing the technology would change the direction of humanity, and it was dizzying (hence vertigo) how much control we had on possible futures. His talk was one of the factors that got me to drop out of grad school in physics and start my wandering generalist path to get involved with these more interesting questions than the breaking of CPT symmetry.

responding to one other bit of your email:
“software (and computing) is becoming environmental. This is to say, that our built environment, in as much as it is now shot through with ubiquitous computing and the pervasive computing of our time and space (Internet + sensors), is computing all of the time.”

I don’t think this is new. Stewart Brand’s book “How Buildings Learn” was published 20 years ago, and was not about computing. Our built environment is always learning and adapting to how we live and work, because we change it. The difference with ubiquitous computing is that this learning is accelerating, but it’s not clear to me yet that this accelerated change is qualitatively different. I did have a conversation with an architect friend at one point where he described that one of the current challenges in architecture is to have buildings adapt and learn faster – a building’s lifetime of use used to be described in decades if not centuries – now it may need to be repurposed in less than ten years, and it’s a design challenge to make the building able to adapt more quickly.

I don’t know – maybe it’s a sign that I’m getting older, but I have not yet convinced myself that computing is qualitatively changing humanity. It makes things faster and explosively amplifies our tendencies (both positive and negative). But is it actually different? I argued the other side a few years ago, wondering whether we have yet matured to handle these exponential impacts we can now have – are we ready to wisely use these godlike powers technology grants us?

It depends. It always does. Within every human is contained potential for both good and evil, and computing technology that amplifies our impact is going to reflect that eternal challenge. But to me, that’s the real challenge – it’s not about designing the technology, as all technology can be used for both good and bad purposes – it’s about how to design humanity to be able to handle having this sort of impact, to be the thoughtful wise users of technology that can handle these increased powers. A tough challenge.

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