15.3. The Computer in Context

When, instead of trying vainly to coax signs of life from the computer as a detached and self-subsistent piece of machinery, we examine it as an expression of living beings, then immediately our flat, two-dimensional picture of it becomes vibrant and vital. We see analysts reconsidering almost every human activity, asking what is essential about it and imagining how it might be assisted or even transformed by the elaborate structuring potential of digital devices. We see designers and engineers applying their ingenuity to achieve the most adequate implementation of the newly conceived tools. And we see consumers and employees struggling to use or not use the devices they are handed, weighing how to adapt them to their own needs, perhaps even sabotaging them in service of higher ends.

All this is, or at least can be, creative activity of the highest sort. But preserving the creative element depends precisely on our not viewing the computer as a merely given and independent reality. For the irony is that only when viewed as making an independent contribution does it become an absolutely dead weight, and therefore a wholly negative factor in human society. Removed from the context of continual design and re-design, use and re-imagined use, sabotage and re-invention, it presents us with nothing but a mechanically fixed and therefore limiting syntax. To celebrate the machine in its own right is like celebrating the letters or the ink on the page, or the grammatical structure of a great literary text, rather than the human expression they are all caught up in.

It may seem odd to cite the computer's "fixed and limiting syntax," given the complex and infinitely refined elaboration of logic constituting this syntax. But that's just the problem. We find in every domain of life that an elaborate, precise, and successful logical structuring of things is not only the glorious achievement of past effort, but also the chief obstacle to future effort. All life is a continuous development, a maturing, an evolution, an overcoming or transformation of inherited structures and a computer program is exactly such a limiting structure.

Owen Barfield is referring to this problem in connection with the renewal of the expressive power of language when he observes how the great literature sooner or later threatens to become a dead weight,

growing heavier and heavier, hanging like a millstone of authority round the neck of free expression. We have but to substitute dogma for literature, and we find the same endless antagonism between prophet and priest. How shall the hard rind not hate and detest the unembodied life that is cracking it from within? How shall the mother not feel pain? (Poetic Diction, Chapter 10 )

And how shall the corporate reformer not despise the stewards of legacy software! This problem only becomes greater as the inexorable drive toward interlocking global standards gains momentum.

The attempt to find a principle of life within the computer as such, detached from its human context, is damaging precisely because the machine itself is almost nothing but the hard rind in need of cracking. The continuous process of living renewal must come from us, and from our commitment, as designers and users, to transform the rigid syntax we have received from the "dead hand of the past." We rightly strive for flexible software, but there remains a crucial sense in which every piece of software, once achieved, becomes a dead weight.

There is a fine line between healthy adaptation, on the one hand, whereby a tool is made to serve our own highest purposes, and "going native" giving in to the dead weight and the alien intentions on the other. In a healthy adaptation we always sense a certain resistance from the tool, however subtle. This is just to say that the boundary between the tool and ourselves remains available to our awareness even as we work continually to transcend the boundary through our own mastery. Without such a resistance and awareness, we cannot summon the work necessary to remain masters of the technologies we employ. Putting it paradoxically: we have to be aware of the tool's difference from us, its opposition to us, in order to work effectively at making it "part of us." When we lose altogether the awareness, we have no way to direct this work, and we can't know whether we are using the tool or it is using us.

The glitches, vexations, and failures of technology at least have this virtue, that they occasionally jolt us out of our mesmerized, lockstep conformity to the machinery around us and into remembrance of ourselves as distinct from the machinery.

But to remember ourselves in this way is at the same time to elevate the machine not through the crazy imputation of emotions and thoughts to it, but rather through the recognition that our conversation with the machine is, in the end, a conversation among ourselves just as we converse with ourselves (and not in any primary sense with paper and ink) when we read a text.

This conversation can always be ennobled. We ennoble it, for example, by shaping the computer's outer form with the artistic sensitivity of a sculptor, and by deriving its frozen, internal logic from an inspired vision of this or that human activity, just as we can abstract a bare logical structure from an orator's high and passionate meanings. And we can then recognize that recovering worthy activity and high purpose from this frozen structure depends upon our ability to warm it with our own passions, enlighten it with our own meanings, enliven it with our willful intentions. And so, finally, our fascination with the evolution of "spiritual machines" will be transformed into our own evolving sense of spiritual responsibility for those aspects of ourselves we bring to bear upon our mechanical creations.

Devices of the Soul. Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines
Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines
ISBN: 0596526806
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2007
Pages: 122
Authors: Steve Talbott

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