15.1. We Need to Recognize Our Own Assumptions
Surely there is something right about Ben Schneiderman's advice when, in a promotional interview for his book, Leonardo's Laptop, he calls for "truly elegant products that facilitate rather than disrupt," adding that "effective technologies often become 'invisible.'" Who would prefer disruption to invisibility? But then, invisibility itself is also problematic. As information technologies become ever more sophisticated reflections of our own intelligence, it seems fair to say that our thoughts and assumptions get built into them in increasingly powerful ways. Their whole purpose, after all, is to embody our own contrivings. If we would not want the contents of a book to act on us without our full awareness of the intent and import of the author's recorded thoughts, neither should we want the much more aggressive contents of a computer to act on us without full awareness of the intentions the programmer has invested in the device.
So ... the fact that we meet human intentions in our machines is already reason enough for caution. Do we really want all those strivings and contrivings all those thoughts and assumptions someone has cleverly etched into the hardware and software we are using to remain invisible? When employing a search engine to sift through news items, should we be content to remain ignorant of the criteria, commercial or otherwise, determining the engine's presentation of hits? When recording a business' numbers on a spreadsheet, should we forget the meanings and values we had in mind when we started the business meanings and values that the spreadsheet is designed, by virtue of its designer's preoccupation with manipulable data, to put out of sight? This is not to say we don't need the spreadsheet, but we also need to remain aware of the ways it can skew our thinking.
A vital necessity for all of us today is to remain conscious of the assumptions and unseen factors driving our thoughts and activity. To give up on this is to give up on ourselves and to hand society over to unruly hidden drives. But if we must remain conscious of our own assumptions, it can hardly be less important to prevent others from surreptitiously planting their assumptions in us. Granting (simplistically for the moment) that we are in some sort of conversation with intelligent machines, it seems only natural that we would want to keep in view our conversational partner's contribution to the dialogue, rather than let it slip into invisibility. The alternative would be for the machine to influence or control us beneath the threshold of awareness.
Keeping the other person (or thing) in view disallows invisibility as a general ideal. In human exchange we may hope the other person's presence will not prove downright disruptive. But in any worthwhile friendship neither do we want the friend simply to disappear. And we can be sure that, at one point or another, the requirements of friendship will move us disturbingly out of our path. I cannot enjoy the meanings a friend brings into my life without risking the likelihood that some of these meanings will collide with my own. If computers are like people, I can hardly expect, or even want, to escape the unsettling demands they will impose upon me to rise above myself. Thankfully, true friends can on occasion be disrupters of the worst sort.