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Extract from "Computer Power and Human Reason"

Msg#1735 - Extract from "Computer Power and Human Reason"

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Posted: 10/26/2001 by Duncan
Modified: 10/26/2001 by Duncan

That last posting jogged my memory and I dug out the following text that has been lying around forgotten in my filesystem for almost ten years.

The following extract is taken from a chapter by Joesph Weizenbaum that originally appeared in his book "Computer Power and Human Reason". I came across it in a book that I am currently reading: Computerization and Controversy: Value Conflicts and Social Choices edited by Charles Dunlop and Rob Kling, published by Academic Press, Inc.

Weizenbaum's chapter is entitled "Against the Imperialism of Instrumental Reason" in the section on Ethical Perspectives and Professional Responsibilities.

I would recommend the book to every computer scientist. In particular, the following extract struck a few chords with me.

"I want them [teachers of computer science] to have heard me affirm that the computer is a powerful new metaphor for helping us understand many aspects of the world, but that it enslaves the mind that has no other metaphors and few other resources to call on. The world is many things, and no single framework is large enough to contain them all, neither that of man's science nor of his poetry, neither that of calculating reason nor that of pure intuition. And just as the love of music does not suffice to enable one to play the violin - one must also master the craft of the instrument and the music itself - so it is not enough to love humanity in order to help it survive. The teacher's calling to his craft is therefore an honorable one. But he must do more than that: he must teach more than one metaphor, and he must teach more by the example of his conduct than by what he writes on the blackboard. He must teach the limitations of his tools as well as their power.

It happens that programming is a relatively easy craft to learn. Almost anyone with a reasonably orderly mind can become a fairly good programmer with just a little instruction and practice. And because programming is instantly rewarding, that is, because a computer very quickly behaves somewhat in the way the programmer intends it to, programming is very seductive, especially for beginners. Moreover, it appeals most to precisely those who do not yet have sufficient maturity to tolerate long delays between an effort to achieve something and the appearance of concrete evidence of success. Immature students are therefore easily misled into believing that they have truly mastered a craft of immense power and of great importance when, in fact, they have learned only its rudiments and nothing substantive. A student's quick climb from a state of complete ignorance about computers to what appears to be a mastery of programming, but is in reality only a very minor plateau, may leave him with a euphoric sense of achievement and a conviction that he has discovered his true calling. The teacher, of course, also tends to feel rewarded by such students' obvious enthusiasm, and therefore continues to encourage it, perhaps unconsciously and against his better judgement. But for the student this may well be a trap. He may so thoroughly commit himself to what he naively perceives to be computer science, that is, to mere polishing of his programming skills, that he may effectively preclude studying anything substantive.

Unfortunately, many universities have "computer science" programs at the undergraduate level that permit and even encourage students to take this course. When such students have completed their studies, they are rather like people who have somehow become eloquent in a foreign language, but who, when they attempt to write something in that language, find they have literally nothing of their own to say.

The lesson in this is that, although learning of a craft is important, it cannot be everything.

The function of a university cannot be to simply offer prospective students a catalogue of "skills" from which to choose. For, were that its function, then the university would have to assume that the students who come to it have already become whatever it is they are to become. The university would then be quite correct at seeing the student as a sort of market basket, to be filled with goods from among the university's intellectual inventory. It would be correct, in other words, in seeing the student as an object very much like a computer whose storage banks are forever hungry for more "data". But surely that cannot be a proper characterization of what a university is or ought to be all about. Surely the university should look upon each of its citizens, students and faculty alike, first of all as human beings in search of - what else to call it? - truth, and hence in search of themselves. Something should be constantly happening to every citizen of the university; each should leave its halls having become someone other than he who entered in the morning. The mere teaching of craft cannot fulfil this high function of the university.

Just because so much of a computer-science curriculum is concerned with the craft of computation, it is perhaps easy for the teacher of computer science to fall into the habit of merely training. But, were he to do that, he would surely diminish himself and his profession. He would also detach himself from the rest of the intellectual and moral life of the university. The univerity should hold before each of its citizens, and before the world at large as well, a vision of what is possible for a man or a woman to become. It does this by giving ever-fresh life to the ideas of men and women who, by virtue of their own achievements, have contributed to the house we live in. And it does this, for better or for worse, by means of the example each of the university's citizens is for every other. The teacher of computer science, no more or less than any other faculty member, is in effect constantly inviting his students to become what he himself is. If he views himself as a mere trainer, as a mere applier of "methods" for achieving ends determined by others, then he does his students two disservices. First, he invites them to become less than fully autonomous persons. He invites them to become mere followers of other people's orders, and finally no better than the machines that might someday replace them in that function. Second, he robs them of the glimpse of the ideas that alone purchase for computer science a place in the university's curriculum at all. And in doing that, he blinds them to the examples that computer scientists as creative human beings might have provided for them, hence of their very best chance to become truly good computer scientists themselves."



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