August 27, 2003

The Future Ain't, Part 3

The third part of my vision piece. I don't believe we've made much progress on these issues over the last 9 years; if anything we are further than ever from a human-centered model of computing.

Appliances of the Mind
gb 10/31/94

Perception, reasoning, memory, communication: these powerful abstractions of the mind comprise the core of what defines us as individuals and as a species. Our experiences and ideas, beliefs and identity are inseparable from the ways in which we perceive the world, think about it, remember it and tell stories about it. Yet for all the depth and richness of our cognitive processes, we are nonetheless limited in our ability to deal with the increasing complexities of the world we inhabit. Through the onrush of globe-circling media and the shrinkage of time and distance through high-speed travel and telecommunications, we find ourselves beset with choices, half-paralyzed with possibility. The systems and situations we must deal with have grown beyond human scale, and the evolution of our native capabilities have not kept pace.

We may attribute much of this effect to the advance of computing and communications technologies focused on tasks, rather than on people and their needs. Perhaps this focus is now changing. In the same way that the machinery and appliances of modern life serve to augment and extend the capabilities of our bodies, a broad range of electronic information tools are beginning to raise our mental faculties to new levels. To help us deal with the barrage of external data, the technologies of information may plausibly become as ingrained a part of our mental activities as automobiles and electric power are in the physical sphere. The telephone, the television, the personal computer, the printed page; these examples of today’s information media are but an inkling of what we may see in the coming decades.

In an age where access to and use of information imparts a kind of competitive advantage, the animal or the organization which assimilates, uses and disseminates information most effectively will enjoy a margin of success over its competitors. Assimilation -- the ingress of information to the mind -- involves the appropriate matching of the message to the sensory ‘impedance’ of the receiver. Use -- application of information to an end -- encompasses learning, synthesis, judgement, memory and related processing. Dissemination -- the communication of information to others -- requires a different form of impedance matching, and invloves dimensions of intent, meaning and expressiveness.

In a limited sense, the mind and the computer share common ground. Both can be thought of as processors of information received through input channels; both maintain transient and persistent forms of storage; each one employs output channels to communicate or effect actions upon the external world. The computer is of course more precise, more rigid, with an inexhaustible appetite for repetition; it may also be upgraded, scaled up, connected to new channels, reprogrammed. The mind, by contrast, is organic -- unpredictable, forgetful, easily distracted, subject to emotional tides -- and notoriously difficult to reprogram. The mind excels at analysis of problems, synthesis of ideas from disparate influences, learning from new situations, and generating flashes of insight; these are things no computer is currently capable of, nor will there be one soon. But the mind’s talents are overmatched when confronted with the complexity of an internet, an economy or a global enterprise. With too many inputs, too many variables and too many possible actions, the scale of such systems exceeds our ability to form a rational mental model. Without a workable model, we have no solid basis for analyzing problems or deciding what to do. ‘Gut feel’ becomes less and less useful. Synthesis has no context in which to occur; learning is blocked. We believe technology offers a way forward. Computers excel at modeling and simulating complex phenomena. Algorithms for optimization, visualization and ‘what if’ scenario generation in non-linear dynamic systems have the potential to provide ‘impedance matching’ between the person and the system. The depth and persistence of digital memories allow us to remember in great detail over time, and to tap the knowledge and experiences of others than ourselves. The emerging field of self-organizing, evolutionary systems points to the possibility of a more organic, less mechanistic approach to computing, in which the processes of our tools become more suited and matched to the processes of our minds.

Humans build large scale abstractions through social cooperation. The workgroup, the community, the corporation, the institution all depend on the concerted actions of groups of individuals. We may even think of a group of people as an entity, with a unified set of objectives and tools to reach its goals. In this context, it is not unreasonable to consider the augmentation of the group’s mental processes -- assimilation of information, learning, analysis, decision making and memory. Again, the technologies of information offer possibilities. Here, the problem is compounded by the need to coordinate among many individuals, or by extension among many subgroups.

As information technologies increasingly become integral to our activities, the information we use, even to our ways of thinking and perceiving, we must confront some difficult, elusive notions about the relationships between people and their tools. For instance, in what sense can the technology enhance creative, playful thinking -- are we having fun? What about beauty, inspiration, spirituality, mystery? These are qualities for which humans have striven over our entire history; shall we subjugate them in the name of efficiency, convenience and immediacy? Do the artifacts we make allow people space for reflection and insight, or merely add to the numbing cacophony of digital voices demanding our attention? Is it strange to ask such questions? Not at all. The economics of information technologies seem to dictate a future where more and more of our lives will be mediated by networks and interfaces and assorted other paraphernalia of progress. We must recognize the importance of such uniquely human concerns and integrate them into our vision, or risk further dehumanization in our already fractured society.

Posted by Gene at August 27, 2003 11:27 PM | TrackBack
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