Summer 2004 - Volume 7 Number 3
User Error: Resisting Computer Culture
Toronto: Between the Lines, 2003
"Technology is neither good nor evil; it all depends on the use to which it is put." This statement, a mainstay of technological innovators seeking pre-emptive absolution for any mischief their inventions might cause, must stand as one of the dopiest ideas with which we have burdened ourselves since the advent of modern technological change.
Ellen Rose's book, User Error, helps us understand that one of the most pervasive and powerful new technologies, the computer, is definitely not just a tool to help us communicate quickly and inexpensively, perform statistical analyses almost instantaneously, and provide "special effects" for our viewing entertainment. Like any device that mediates our experience of others and the outside world, it changes profoundly our relationship to things, people and ourselves.
This ought not to be news. It may have been Martin Heidegger who first explored deeply the "question concerning technology" and lay open some of the ontological conundrums it presented. Then, Jacques Ellul (The Technological Society, 1954) popularized the concern about technology and George Grant (Technology and Empire, 1970) applied Heidegger's lessons to our society. It was Marshall McLuhan's prescience (Understanding Media, 1964) that led to some of the more frenzied contemporary attempts to grasp the implications of postmodern machinery as it wires us to one another and insinuates itself into our bodies and what is left of our minds.
The great virtue of Ellen Rose's contribution to this increasingly ecstatic (from the Greek ekstasis meaning "out of our senses") discourse is that her readers need no prior knowledge or understanding of Heidegger or McLuhan, Beaudrillard or Arthur Kroker to get the message. It is put simply and persuasively. It is this: computers are not smart. Computers have no more memory than an infinite number of file cards. Computers are inert; they possess neither consciousness nor sense of context. Computers are incapable of piety (the sense of what properly goes with what). Computers may be able to simulate some human mental activities; that is, they can seem to play chess but they are nothing but elaborate simulacra of human reasoning. Her message might have been enhanced if she had paid more attention to Hubert Dreyfuss' exemplary article in September, 1967 article in the Review of Metaphysics: "Why Computers Must Have Bodies in Order to Be Intelligent"an argument yet to be satisfactorily refuted. Still, her focus is on living with computers as we know them now and she keeps her focus.
For the purposes of college educators, Rose's attention to the deployment of computers into classrooms (or, indeed, their substitution for classrooms in the burgeoning field of e-learning) is perhaps the most salient theme in her book. It brings us back to the original dopiness of the doctrine of neutral technology. Eyeglasses are prostheses for people whose sight is compromised. Ever more sophisticated artificial limbs are prostheses for people who have lost a hand or a leg. Computers are prostheses for the mind. Despite the hype, their mode of engagement systematically reduces human creativity, awareness and knowledge. Writes Rose of the engagement of children in the "virtual" reality of computers: "each child's wide-eyed gaze is fastened on a screen that is of someone else's making. And, while they may explore on-line environments, they do so not as constructors of knowledge, on the whole, but as consumers of information … Even play, that most creative of childhood activities … becomes transmuted, on-line, into the passive experience of entering into a constructed world in which the rules and interactions are mediated by someone else's code."
The ethics of using the once "cutting-edge" technology of a bow-and-arrow does not lie in determining whether the arrow was aimed at a fellow human being whom one intended to rob or at game which would feed a family. The ethics lay in the fact that a bow-and-arrow creates a new phenomenona long-distance target. The bow-and-arrow permits a new relationship to the world which facilitates aggression, encourages conquest and redefines the connection between humanity and environment. So did the alphabet, the telephone and the computer. Written words made oratory obsolete. Telephones eliminated the "art of conversation." The computer is in the process of corrupting literacy.
Ellen Rose considers the hyperbole surrounding emerging technologies. We are all familiar with artificial intelligence (to me an oxymoron). We are becoming used to the first steps toward ubiquitous computing, the digital activation of all things. We have smart houses and smart cars and can look forward to the embedding of computers in our walls, our clothing and, when possible, the creation of computers in the aira research team at Berkeley is working on a US Defense Department contract to produce "smart dust," honest! Then, we are told, we shall achieve transhumanism (the creation of cyborgshalf human, half machine). Lucky us!
Rose urges caution and the assumption of personal responsibility. Imagine that. She seems to implore us to adopt Wittgenstein's suggestion for the greeting philosophers should extend to one another: "Take your time!"
She ends her book with a homily. She asks us to refuse to upgrade our PCs automatically. She invites us to spend some "real time" in a real library (one, I would add, with wooden drawers containing bibliographic file cards, if any are still to be found). She tells us to incite ourselves to critical thought. She quotes Martin Heidegger and Jacques Ellul. She quotes Marshall McLuhan warning of our "docile acceptance" of the new media and Neil Postman talking of our "dull and even stupid awareness."
She offers "a small hope, with no guarantees." I hope its not 2 L8.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College, King City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 416-491-5050, ext. 5195.
• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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