August 14 Column: The Purpose of Computing
Early in my career as a programmer, I was working on a project that required using some mathematical techniques from the text, “Numerical Methods for Scientists and Engineers” by R. W. Hamming. I have forgotten which methods I actually used but remember vividly his inscription: “The Purpose of computing is Insight, not Numbers.” That was a cautionary aphorism because all of the software being developed at that time produced pounds and pounds of paper filled with columns of numbers and it was easy to lose sight of the real purpose: to gain insight into the solution of some problem.
Today, it seems that picture has radically changed. Computer systems are no longer behemoths filling whole rooms with dedicated cooling systems requiring a staff of operators and programmers. They have evolved into much much faster, smaller machines that can be used by everyone from pre-teens to seniors. In a sense, computers have been democratized and socialized --- their power now flows directly into the hands of the people. This is a Good Thing, right? Maybe yes, maybe no. First we must ask ourselves what is the purpose that computers fulfill in our society. Is Hamming’s insight still valid? Well, modern computers certainly make oodles of information available to us via the Internet and one could reasonably argue that we can use this information to gain insights into problems ranging from medical advice to how to get into and out of kayaks. On the other hand, we can also access informational distractions (e.g. gossip, pornography, etc.) whose only purpose is to provide us with a diversion from boredom.
For example, I recently attended a wedding and the group at our table were swapping ideas for summer reading. I had recently heard a radio discussion of a book that I had not yet read but sounded intriguing --- it was about a future where most all forms of cancer had been cured which, on its face, sounds like another Good Thing, right? Wrong! The novel elaborates some of the unintended consequences of this event which include destructive bands of jobless young men harassing the new cohort of older people who are not retiring to make room for the next generation because cancer has been cured and most everyone is living longer. Unfortunately I could not remember the title or the author of the book. However I did remember that the author was also a movie actor and producer who reminded me of the comedian Al Franken and that he had appeared in a movie with Holly Hunter with the title, “Network News” or something like that and that he usually played the role of a loser. While I was sharing these rambling thoughts my niece was using Google on her iPhone and had already found the author and the title of the book: “2030”, by Albert Brooks.
My question is: what insight had been gained from this process? It did scratch the itch of curiosity and it did provide the practical information needed to access the book in question but what did we learn and how did we change for the better? Perhaps this is asking too much from a mere machine but surely we expect more from ourselves. Does our computer technology actually promote a sort of mental laziness? And if it does, should we update Hamming’s aphorism to “The purpose of computing is titillation not insight” ?
I think not. According to Jaron Lanier, author of “You are not a Gadget”, the purpose of digital technology is to enrich human interaction. In one sense, the human interaction at our wedding table was enhanced by the digital technology of Google and the iPhone via the Internet. It did scratch the itch of curiosity and it did provide the practical information needed to access the book in question but only in a shallow way.
If the computer is to become a partner in our evolution, it will have to enhance our existence beyond petty pandering to our desire to alleviate ennui. It will have to provide us with more than arousing diversions. To mashup Hamming and Lanier, “The purpose of any technology is to enhance our humanity, not degrade it.”