Trapped in the Net: the unanticipated consequences of computerisation
Gene I Rochlin Princeto
Mr Spock was always my favourite character in Star Trek: a self-styled biological computer whose thought waves flowed along a bandwidth of pure logic, uninhibited by the emotional interference that beset his all-too-human companions. But poor old Spock was in deep denial. The makers of Star Trek knew that, for him to be believable, he would need a human side, thus generating conflict with his logical, Vulcan half. His wilful self-delusion as to the truth of his own character was in itself an endearingly human foible.
Actual computers, by contrast, make rather dull companions. Certainly they can do wonderful things: create breathtaking special effects in the cinema, design buildings, carry out life-saving surgery, beat the best of our players at chess; and they perform, too, countless more mundane tasks, such as controlling the central heating or doling cash out of bank machines. But they don't, let's face it, have much in the way of conversation, as the winners of the Turing prize demonstrate each year. A computer, at bottom, is simply a tool whose ends are wholly circumscribed by human design. A logic machine could never, in the philosophical sense, be a person. Or could it?
The American philosopher Daniel Dennett, quoted in Charles Jonscher's Wired Life, thinks it could. If one imagines a robot, he has said, "which is a sentient pursuer of its own projects, it is in important ways a living thing . . . that has not just needs and desires, but also values. As soon as one has created such an entity one has a responsibility to protect its rights and treat it as more than just another artefact."
It's hard to disagree with the conclusion, but it prompts the question whether it is, in fact, feasible to build such a robot. Jonscher himself thinks not. His book attempts to show that a thinking machine is a contradiction in terms. He argues against the belief that computers may eventually "create a world very remote from the one we have known, one ill-adapted to our needs and desires . . .where we will have to bow before the superiority of their strict logic, their black-and-white categorisation".
Such fears might seem unfounded but, as Jonscher shows, the line between biology and computer technology is becoming increasingly blurred. The ability to map the human genome - to digitise DNA - has led Richard Dawkins, for one, to claim that "life is just bytes and bytes and bytes of information". Meanwhile, computer researchers are now able to create self-replicating programs, strings of computer code that can adapt themselves and fight against other such codes in a Darwinian struggle for survival. This Artificial Life (A-life), as it is known, gives the lie to the orthodoxy that the only thing that can come out of a computer is what some programmer has put into it.
Jonscher takes the reader on a high-speed tour of Pythagorean philosophy, evolutionary biology, neurochemistry, information theory and electromagnetics to show not only how superior, but also how qualitatively different the human brain is from any conceivable machine. Computers might be able to beat us at chess, but chess, he argues, involves precisely the sort of number-crunching, combination-evaluating processes that we have developed computers to excel at. The human brain, for its part, is best at fuzzier things: judgement, expertise, wisdom, creativity, art - mental activities that do not lend themselves to digital analysis. We are, as Spock never tired of pointing out, just not logical.
Yet there is, Jonscher argues, a danger that our rush to embrace information technology, particularly in education, could lead to a withering of these essential human abilities. This is the thesis of Gene Rochlin's book Trapped in the Net. The rapid and widespread embedding of computer technology in practically all areas of life, Rochlin argues, is creating a web of new dependencies with unanticipated social consequences.
Computer power might make for shorter queues at the supermarket checkout or for more efficient air-traffic control, but far from empowering us, he argues, creeping digitisation is threatening some of our most essential qualities. At the same time, computerisation is contributing to a breakdown of centralised control structures in several areas. Information technology has brought fundamental changes to the financial markets, making it possible for a Nick Leeson to wreak havoc with derivatives, or for currency speculators to undermine national economies, simply by shifting numbers around on a screen, but with consequences that spread deep into the real world. Again, Rochlin isn't arguing from technological determinism: we could, if we chose, act to prevent the destabilising effect of international capital transfers.
Rochlin's argument is diminished by the narrowness of the three examples he chooses to concentrate on: the stock market, the armed forces and air-traffic control. I'd rather go along with Jonscher, who concludes that it is "the unfathomed minds of people, with all their logical failings, but also with all their creative energy and original ideas that will continue to be the driving force in business, politics, art and society".
These books provide sober, reflective analysis of the computer revolution, and both are mercifully free of the sort of cyberbollocks that infests so much writing on the subject. In one sense, it's a matter of choice which side you come down on: either we're in danger of losing our core human attributes through our slavish devotion to digitisation, or those same qualities will ensure that we don't end up as pale reflections of our clever creations. We shall see.
Adam Newey's essay "Censorship in Private Hands" is published in "Liberating Cyberspace: civil liberties, human rights and the Internet" (Liberty/Pluto Press, £13.99)