Saturday, March 22, 2008

Turing vs. John Henry

For the record, I think Kevin Kelly is a genius and often am extremely gratified to find him exploring weird, wild areas of technology and the mind. Even when I disagree with him, it's usually on small points or on wording.

In his latest post on The Technium, though... I just think he's wrong and oddly so, to boot. Read the post, so I don't have to paraphrase it too much, here. It's short. I'll wait...

So, where is he wrong? Well, let's start with the idea that computer scientists are more comfortable with technological change because, "They grok that many of the tasks they used to do can be done much better by computers." Really? There are computers designing computers and writing code? There are robots building robots? I haven't seen much of that.

What I've seen is that computer scientists use computers in their daily business, and that computers do more tasks than they used to. But not tasks that used to be done by CS folks. The scientists are doing the same tasks, just with more complex, robust and cheaper tools.

I also haven't ever seen good art created by a computer or good poetry or fiction (or non-fiction, for that matter) written by a computer. But many artists, designers and writers absolutely embrace technology because the tools are just so flippin' helpful. The writers I know love word processors, for example, and the spell-checking, note-taking, formatting functions now available. I don't in any way begrudge my computer the ability to look up spelling much quicker than I did with a dictionary back in college. Yet there isn't a computer out there that could, as of yet, write this blog post.

Same with designers. Those of you out there with a graphic arts background, especially those who have come-of-age in the last 15 years or so, will understand why "Photoshop is God" is a popular phrase. Does the computer do a better job at some mundane (and elegant) tasks associated with design? Hell, yes. Doing layout with InDesign or Quark Xpress is hundreds of times faster, easier and better than using the old paper layout methods. But a computer has yet to design a great piece of packaging or ad or children's book illustration.

In some cases, I think this is the opposite of what Kelly is saying. As a writer (and sometimes designer), I have absolutely no fear of adopting new technology, because I think it's impossible (or at least waaay down the road) for a computer to "do" what is at the heart of what I do: create. I'd put many musicians and film makers in this bucket, too. Again... I don't see any films being made by computers, but the movie industry is moving the tech ahead in many cases.

And about doctors... I'm not sure what docs Kelly is working with, but most of the ones I know are huge tech nuts; they love they new toys. The digital distribution of records and labs is something they *rave* about when I talk to them. Scans of X-rays go on the hospital computer system and show up on the computer screen in the patient's room, maybe even across town, in minutes rather than hours. MRI and CAT scan tech relies incredibly on computer power, obviously. Genetic engineering of drugs is almost impossible without computers. Maybe there are some good ol' GPs who don't want to computerize their bills... but I think this is a micro-example of a pain-in-the-ass system that nobody even likes the old way, so they don't want to spend time on it.

In short... I think this is just a weird argument. When computer technology disrupts your job to the point that you are totally disintermediated --Ă‚  take, for example, the guys at the print shop who used to cut film -- you aren't, I think, going to be thrilled about it... but, to be successful, you may have to get on board. But there's a pretty decent chance you'll go the other direction and be pissed off. On the other hand, if computers make your job easier, you'll probably be OK with them in other instances, sure.

Oh... and I know some UNIX grey-beards who absolutely resent new computer technology. They liked being part of a small, elite band of brothers who understood computers when they were big and important and separate. Now that there's a computer in my cell phone, and kids can mash-up aps on the Web, they feel a bit massintermediated.

Turing proposed a computer that was indistinguishable from a person in a conversation. In Kelly's examples, he seems to be talking about our tech (computers in this case) besting us on particular tasks. Well, that's been happeningĂ‚  since spear-throwers came along. John Henry died trying to beat the steam drill. I'd die trying to beat a spell checker. Just because I respect a tool's ability to multiply my value doesn't mean I think it's likely to replace my value.

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