On this somber day, let me add my voice to those who have vowed to “never forget” the atrocities that occurred ten years ago and to work toward a better, more peaceful world. I was teaching a computer lab on
9/11/2001 and, as usual, not every student was being studious
and following the worksheet instructions. In fact several were on the Internet
and following the news. That’s how I first learned at that an airplane had crashed into one of the World
Trade towers setting it afire. As the drama unfolded, the second tower was hit
and it was apparent we were under attack. The students were agitated (especially a young
man from ) and I
wrestled with the decision to dismiss
class or to continue it. I finally
decided to continue because there was nothing we could do about the situation
just then and I thought the lab exercises would help take the student’s minds
off the tragedy at least for a little while. After class we could all share our
feelings with our friends and begin the slow process of grieving, acceptance
and resolve to insure that this would never happen again. Egypt
That said, I want to explore the question: Does computer technology bring us together or does it isolate us? In the short story, “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster, written about 100 years ago, all humanity lives underground (presumably because of some environmental disaster) in separate hive-like cells. All of their needs are attended to by the “Machine” --- what we’d currently call a Computer. Everyone has a “plate” in their room through which they can communicate with everyone else on the planet --- today we’d call that the Internet or the Web. Forster’s cautionary tale is a dire warning against becoming so isolated from each other and so dependent on a Machine so complex that no single person fully understands how it works or how to fix it if it breaks. Hello? Does any of this sound familiar? As you might guess, the outcome of this story is not pleasant but it does end on the hopeful note that we might be able to start over and recover our humanity.
On a related note, a recent Speak Out contributor has pointed out that while technology has certainly made many of our tasks easier, it is also responsible for displacing jobs formerly held by human beings. This raises an interesting question: does the automation made possible by technology decrease the amount of human jobs or does it actually increase them? Does it destroy more than it creates?
Certainly, one could argue that the quality and the pay of the jobs that automation creates are usually better than the jobs they replace. A software engineer who uses computer technology to design automobiles is a much more creative and high-paying job than the assembly-line worker (who is also being replaced by technology). However, it is not generally possible to retrain a worker on the line to become a software engineer. And the situation is more muddled. Even the software designer relies on automated tools to make her/his job easier and more effective and no humans are displaced in the process. And, to make matters more muddy, there is no definitive research data indicating whether automation, in the long run, creates more jobs than it destroys. There is, however some research which seems to confirm the hypothesis that automation is more beneficial to skilled workers with more education and/or experience than to unskilled ones. This means that those least likely to benefit from automation are those that probably have the greater needs. Not such a bad situation if you believe in Ayn Rand’s economic philosophy but a terrible state if you tend more towards Karl Marx. In any case since computers are much more effective than humans in performing repetitive and often boring jobs, the writing seems to be on the wall.
It is also clear that this is a complex problem, so it is well to remember the words of that great journalist/philosopher Henry Lewis Mencken, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”