[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
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        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 military:

> 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,
> 1950).
 > 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" 
at Berkeley.

They continue:

> 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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