How positive is the computer’s impact on our knowledge and thinking patterns? The most recent books on the matter take a step back from the internet and invite rebellion
Professor Joseph Weizenbaum had his first suspicions when he saw his secretary crouch down waiting for him to leave his desk and then leap at the computer keyboard and embark on a frenetic dialogue with ELIZA – only ELIZA was not her best friend but a computer program invented by Weizenbaum in 1964 to test the machine’s ability to recognise natural language. The software conversed with users, asking questions and giving answers in the style of a Rogerian psychoanalyst. It even became a sort of confidant for many and to such a degree that some psychologists suggested adopting it to cover hospital-staff shortages. While the debate on artificial intelligence raged and computer experts were busy studying systems that would teach machines to think like humans, Weizenbaum dissociated himself from the distorted applications of his creature and wrote an essay (“Computer Power and Human reason”) predicting that computers would quickly spread to a wide range of contexts in our lives, which would be transformed – not always for the better – by its presence.
The story of ELIZA is told by American journalist Nicholas Carr, who in his recent Is the Internet making us stupid? confirms Weizenbaum’s worrying prophesies and confirms – backed up by neuroscience data – the irreversible changes that the use of computers and the Internet have already made to the way our minds work. If technological tools really are not neutral but alter our knowledge and thinking patterns deep down, as predicted by Marshall McLuhan, then the impact of the computer is far greater than that of all its predecessors – from the plough to the TV– because it does not simply extend the capacity of our senses, it simulates mental activity. Inevitably, it implicitly imposes its models on us via the use of certain programs that have an imperceptible influence on the way we develop our thoughts. The most obvious example is PowerPoint, the ubiquitous presentation software that has irritatingly come to standardise the style of reports. Creativity is no longer inventing something original, it choosing from a ‘menu’ of existing options, in exactly the same way as we have to reduce our complex personas to a scanty set of details to insert in the fields of a database when describing who we are on Facebook. We are reminded of this by Jaron Lanier, the inventor of virtual reality, a brilliant programmer and today a fierce critic of the excesses of Internet use, in hisYou are not a Gadget. (Alfred A. Knopf).
Also by this author: Living with complexity