[Humanist] 27.660 computers, teams and individual initiative
Humanist Discussion Group
willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Jan 1 10:49:43 CET 2014
Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 27, No. 660.
Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
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Date: Tue, 31 Dec 2013 11:19:48 +0000
From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
Subject: computers and teamwork
In their consideration of "The Man-Computer Relationship", Science NS
138.3543 (23 Nov 1962), David L. Johnson and Arthur L. Kobler begin with
Norbert Wiener's concern that a computer-directed military defense
system may arrive at a solution for victory that is truly Pyrrhic, "that
the machine may produce a policy which would win a nominal victory on
points at the cost of every interest we have at heart, even that of
national survival". Their basic argument, much like the one Marvin
Minsky made about modelling, is that in the conception of any such
system human beings must be included, or as Minsky said, in modelling
the relationship is always ternary: object, model, modeller. They
consider the problem of fitting human values, such as beauty and
responsibility, into the equation, or as they say, as parameters in the
system. (Here, you may object, the whole question is distorted by
framing the entire situation in terms of a computing system, but never
mind -- for the moment.)
One aspect of forgetting the human which they consider at some length is,
they say, the tendency of their contemporaries (and our tendency too?)
to run away from the necessary involvement as individuals, to hide in
the presumed authority of machines and teams. They frame the question
in terms of decision-making systems by then integral to commerce and
> The consideration of values in such decisional contexts leads
> directly to our concern with the frailty of man. Two of the most
> responsible and respectable of contemporary social-psychological
> commentators have characterized to-day's man as increasingly "other
> directed" (5) and pressed toward "escape from freedom" (6). Faced
> with increasing complexity and massive responsibility, man has
> tended more and more to work in groups, and committee decision is
> now commonplace. One major consequence is the decrease in individual
> identity and the loss of individual responsibility. The computer,
> coming at this time in man's progress, can and does play a special
> role in enabling man to escape the freedom of responsible choice.
> After all, who can be held responsible for a decision by a computer?
> Moreover, the increased complexity of the world man faces makes him
> more aware of his own limitations. Such awareness leads to feelings
> of inadequacy, and the desire and need for, someone or something
> outside himself that has the qualities he feels lacking in
> himself-solidity, infallibility, and so on. He looks for the father,
> the leader, God, scientific truth. The computer has the proper aura.
> It can be perfect; it can be right; it can be very nearly
> in-fallible; it can produce the truth. Already, in its infancy, it
> can solve problems quickly that would have taken man many lifetimes
> to solve. It can make systematic sense out of a gigantic mass of
> apparently disorganized information. In its solid, efficient,
> light-flashing way it acts without obsessive hesitation-as if it is
> sure, as if it knows. It acts without emotional involvements,
> without commitments, in a manner which can be called objective.
> 5. D. Riesman et al., The Lonely Crowd (Yale Univ. Press, New Haven,
> 6. E. Fromm, Escape from Freedom (Rinehart, New York, 1941).
Such accusation directed at the human-machine relationship is not rare,
at least during this period. But I find it particularly interesting that
group-work comes under fire as well, and for the same reason. This is
not so common, though quite a prominent and remarkable change in
research work, esp in the sciences, e.g. in Alvarez's "factory physics"
> Most subject to the hypnotic effect of the computer are those whose
> direct contact with computer operation and programming is limited.
> Scientists trained in the design and operation of computing devices
> frequently must recognize the limitations of mechanization in
> communication with human systems. Often, however, these men are
> the very ones who are working within such a rigid discipline that
> computers are able to solve their problems, and they may read into
> this ability the ability to solve all problems.
In effect a design for digital humanities, whose disciplinary companions
are not so rigid?
Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Research Group in Digital
Humanities, University of Western Sydney
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