Saturday, March 1, 2003

Of Man and Machine

Jonathan Jaynes passes along a link to Steve (Cyborg)Mann's latest article in First Monday, in which he argues for Attribution-free Content Generation.

An important goal of attribution-free computing is to provide a system where individuals can collectively communicate, and collectively author work, in such a way that the work cannot be attributed to a particular member of the collective... A collective deconsciousness allows for a state of thought, that is neither conscious, unconscious, nor subconscious, but, rather, a shared stream of thought, that evolves into something greater than its constituent parts.

I really like this idea of collaborative authoring, but I could do without this "shared stream of thought" bit. Sounds too much like the Borg Collective to me - but that's always been my complaint about Steve Mann's work.

But then he brings up a point I really appreciate:

But the interface to a collective deconsciousness is not easy to use. However, ease of use is not necessarily the most important element. In the same way that television is easier to use than books, there has been a disturbing trend toward not learning how computers work (e.g. how to "read" source code), and to instead adopt the mind-numbing notion of sourceless software coming from a monopoly or cartel. Teaching children how to use tools like PowerPoint and FrontPage instead of GNU Linux is kind of like teaching them how to use a television instead of how to read.

My student's papers were due yesterday, and so I heard various tales of crashed computers and lost writing. It got me thinking about when operating systems bombed semi-regularly, and if you wanted to use a computer, you learned how to fix it. With today's greater OS stability and interface ease-of-use, general users have no need to learn how their computer actually works. We have no problem learning how to tell time, tie our shoes or ride a bike, but we expect not to have to learn how to use a computer! That's ridiculous.

In our efforts to make sure that anyone can use a computer, we have effectively black-boxed (naturalised, and rendered invisible) how computers actually work and simultaneously implied that no one needs to understand how to use one. This creates a peculiar distance between computers and users, at the same time as it blurs other human-machine distinctions. Most of all, I worry that this distance affects our sense of accountability - and that perhaps this is what allows people to say "It isn't my fault - the computer did it!"

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