23 December 2010
Computers really do tell us what to do
I found this review (below) from a book I read in the 1960s. The book entitled Colossus by DF Jones, featured the first computer [used in WW2] which ends up dominating the world. [More on that computer below] Back in the 1960s people used mail and spreadsheets and designed artwork, all by hand. Mysteriously there was an electronic possibility called the computer, then only known to governments, military and mathematical and engineering university students and faculty. I learned computers at the University of Kansas, and taught computers in the 1970s in a high school outside Kansas City. Then it was Fortran and Cobol and BASIC languages and a bit of batch work that would take hours to formulate and moments to execute. It was all so unknown.
What prompted my recall of this book today was an online article in the New York Times. Found here The article "Wall Street Computers Read the News, and Trade on It" was written today by GRAHAM BOWLEY.
In the article Bowley reports, "Math-loving traders are using powerful computers to speed-read news reports, editorials, company Web sites, blog posts and even Twitter messages — and then letting the machines decide what it all means for the markets. The development goes far beyond standard digital fare like most-read and e-mailed lists. In some cases, the computers are actually parsing writers’ words, sentence structure, even the odd emoticon."
And my mind for some reason immediately flashed back to Colossus. And control. And our desire for things to 'be right,' to be fixed, no matter the cost. So some yielded to the computer to solve things. Some yield today to governments or society or family or whatever to decide, when the decision continues to remain theirs.
Read the review and then I'll have a few more comments.
"Even more relevent today, the 60's SF novel COLOSSUS is a dark, wonderfully realized intellectual horror story, as well as a much-deserved slap at both technocrats who feel that the problems of human nature can and will be solved by devices completely lacking in human nature, and fuzzy-brained, romantic, philosophical purists who believe they can draw a line between themselves and The System (which, in this case, is named Colossus-Guardian), "dropping out" and heading for the hills when things go bad. In COLOSSUS, Jones offers no slick way out; he has provided no hills for the isolationists or the technocrats to head for. Both of these philosophies, which seem to have morphed and grown in popularity in the last generation, fall victim to the same kind of fantasy: personal responsibility for the human condition can be shirked by the individual and transferred to someone -- in this case, something -- else.
Jones's novel takes the position that the worst thing that can happen to you is to have an idle wish granted. In the 1960's, it was World Peace and the end of the Political Cold War; today it is World Harmony and the end of Racial and Ethnic Strife -- a different board, but the same game, and the same players and pieces. By transferring all personal responsibility for the fate of mankind to a highly powerful, completely logical computer-complex, humanity finds out that in giving up its responsibility for the problems of hunger, war, crime and the rest of the perpetual litany of complaints, it has also given up its power to effect and control the solutions to those problems. The Draconian computer straps Humanity down on a Procrustian bed, and dispassionately proceeds to stretch and cut with the insensitive logic (and dark humor bordering on political and social obscenity) of a fairy-tale ogre.
Existentialists -- Sartre, Ortega y Gasset, Camus and others -- argue that what makes man MAN is the ability to make himself, to respond to the brute facts of the world in ways not determined by the past, or one's own lock-step habits and past traditions. In the 60's, humanity faced destruction, not because of the mechanical weapons built by competing super-powers, but by the mechanical behavior of the humans (from president or premier down to soldier or store clerk) comprising those powers. Thirty years later [this review must be a decade old], mankind marches to a different but no less mechanical drummer, individual people giving up their personal judgment in favor of membership in racial, ethnic and cultural enclaves, governed by unyielding rules and codes and principles. Not only are these rules of "human" behavior as predetermined and rigid and inflexible as anything a computer could come up with, they even take away the one freedom offered by the Cold War: defection; membership in socio-political groups these days is predetermined as well. Perhaps, with the right programming, it is time for Colossus -- who is not merely a physical machine, but the embodiment of the harshest philosophy of life imaginable -- to come back and "get things organized". We are as tempted by cruel and inhuman solutions today as we were a generation ago. But before making this choice -- the last choice one can ever make is to give up one's duty to make choices -- today's generation should read this book. And stop. And think. For itself." (END OF REVIEW: found on google search here
So who is responsible? Who will fix things?
Moishe Rosen wrote a little book over a decade ago entitled, "The universe is broken; who on earth can fix it?" I guess that question is begged when we ponder the notion of brokenness and responsibility. We look for fixing. We look for repair in so much of life. And then we know that we are the ones who have to fix things, around the house, at the office, in our shop front. And yet...
Is there something more than physical repair? Is there a spiritual dimension out there? Is there reality that we cannot see? And if so, is it broken as well? And if so, who can fix it?
DF Jones makes us ponder our own responsibility well in "Colossus."
Rosen makes us ponder our own responsibility well to yield to forces outside us in the heavenlies in "Universe."
Maybe this will help you understand Christmas. It's a story, to be sure, of angels and shepherds and wise men and virgin and Bethlehem in Judea so long ago. There were no Santa Claus or reindeer in the original. There was no shopping. There were no malls. It was Jewish, in the land of Israel.
God looked at our human condition, separate from Him, sick in our own devices to handle and manhandle things, and yet failing so miserably in the simplest situations of getting along. Who can fix it?
And in His timing and kindness, God sent Y'shua [some use his English name "Jesus."] as a baby, to grow, to learn, to develop, to fit in and yet never fit in, to teach, to do miracles, to heal, to explain how heaven and only heaven, had all the answers to the mysteries of life. Only in relationship with God and specifically through him, Y'shua taught, was there life and abundant life at that.
Our problems were not technological. Our problems were social, yes, but more basic than that. They were spiritual and we had cut ourselves off from relationship with God by our sin. Our willful sin and rejecting of God and His Kingdom. Ouch.
No Colossus could fix that. Only Y'shua could. And He did when He died on a cross and bore our sin, our penalty in death, and then rose from the dead on the 3rd day.
The New York Times can tell us that computers have a mind, or a mind of their own, but our responsibility is to repent, to turn from our sin, to give our lives to Y'shua and turn and help the planet to get better.
The results in your own life will be colossal.
Wikipedia reports, "Dennis Feltham Jones (1917 – 1981) was a British science fiction author who wrote under the byline D.F. Jones. He was a naval commander in World War II and lived in Cornwall.
His novel, Colossus, about a defence super computer which uses its control over nuclear weapons to subjugate mankind, was filmed as Colossus: The Forbin Project."
The Colossus machines were electronic computing devices used by British codebreakers to help read encrypted German messages during World War II. These were the world's first programmable, digital, electronic, computing devices. They used vacuum tubes (thermionic valves) to perform the calculations.