"What Computers Mean for Man and Society" - Herbert Simon; "Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer" - Wendell Berry; "No Country for Old Typewriters...."

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14 Comments

A theme that developed in my mind while reading our three articles for this week is that two perspectives seem to exist on computing: individualist and a collectivist. Additionally, I think that a technology-embracing and a technology-resisting stance can be attributed to either perspective. I'm not completely sure what I want to do with this theme—probably nothing—but for the next week or so I'll assess every computing/technology argument as either individualist pro-tech, individualist anti-tech, collectivist pro-tech, or collectivist anti-tech.

In the individualist anti-tech corner is Wendel Berry. I was scribbling notes while reading his short essay only to find that every note I took was addressed by the readers' letters, so I won't rail on him like I initially had intended to. I still feel the need to say that the reasons Berry gives for not wanting a computer are valid and reasonable, but to take it as a moral stance and browbeat the reader is just self-righteousness. And, oh boy, was it ever a treat to read him bully the letter writers that dared dissent from his learned opinion. I don't think making everything a moral issue is an effective way of conveying a message. I did a little research on Wendell Berry, and it's sad I think he's such an asshole because he seems like an interesting thinker. His arguments ultimately fall flat for me because, while consistently being a proponent of radical social & political reorganization, the method by which he proposes people organize themselves is justified by his definition of right and wrong. His essay and response letters illustrate this perfectly. I value individualism above most things, and I like a good fight, but it isn't individualism anymore when you stop arguing your stance and instead just press it on everyone else.**

Berry's individualist anti-tech approach is contrasted somewhat by Herbert Simon's collectivist pro-tech point-of-view. Simon argued that abandoning technological change because of initial problems is short-sighted. Simon's example of the roundabout, nonintuitive line from steam engine to suburb is a negative example of unintended consequences, but his point was that there's not generally any way to know what the future effects are of present causes. While computing could do harm, there's no way of saying that it will just because the immediate effects are distasteful. To Simon, there's a very utilitarian greatest-gain-for-the-greatest-number thing going on. Simon also brings up the point that the machines can't do bad things, it's the users that can do bad things.

Because they talk about computers slightly differently, it's disingenuous to compare Berry railing against computers themselves and Simon arguing that it's the users who can either do good or bad with computers, but I'm going to compare the two, anyway. Berry sees the machine itself as the problem: it utilizes unethically-resourced energy and represents a furthering of corporatism and consumerism. Simon sees the computer as a device with great potential that can either be good or bad, but he argues for its potential for good.

I'm not sure what to make of the Patricia Cohen piece about Cormac McCarthy with regard to all I've said so far. McCarthy seems to be another technology-resistant person, at least in some areas, but he also doesn't seem interested in convincing anyone that it's better to avoid it. His use of a manual typewriter works better for him, so that's what he uses. I won't argue because he wrote Blood Meridian, and I keep messing up my tenses in this blog post. Maybe he's the centrist balancing out the fanaticism of Berry and Simon. His actions perhaps symbolize finding a workable method of doing something and using it if it seems the right fit.

** (I might also argue that global raw material extraction, transportation, processing, manufacturing, and sales related to pens & paper is possibly similar to the carbon output attributable to computers. He's not here to refute me by citing planned obsolescence and conflict minerals associated with electronics, so I'll do that myself so as to play devil's advocate and acknowledge them as a tremendous problem.)

The Wendell Berry and Herbert Simon readings provided interesting contrasts to one another. Simon argues for the importance of computers to human progress, and Berry lists some reasons why the computer is something we should not be embracing. Berry's writings resemble the stereotypical image of the irritable old person who adamantly refuses to change in the face of a widely accepted new innovation. He maintains that his way of doing things works just fine for him and that's all that matters. He resents the implications of switching to the newer technology. He somewhat romanticizes and glorifies his older methods in his dismissal of computers. He implies that to buy a computer is to be complacent in the “rape of nature” and suckered by advertising into buying yet another expensive piece of equipment that won’t solve your problems. You won’t see Berry do those things; he’s old-tech, he’s better than that. Simon, by contrast, discusses the positives and potential negatives of computers. For instance, he brings up the greater reliability and safeguards of an automated system of documenting credit information, but also discusses the greater threat this allows embezzlers to pose, especially with new techniques the computer offers them. Simon finds that the computer has a significant impact on our economic system and even on humanity’s view of itself and that what people may find most unnerving about computers is their impacts on issues of control and privacy.

-Andrew B.

I found it interesting to read and contrast the different perspectives of the three authors of the computer/typewriter articles. Of the three, I thought perhaps the most interesting article was by Wendell Berry. I was surprised by some of the comments addressed to his article about his wife. When I read his article, I did not think that he enslaving his wife. On the contrary, I admired their relationship and their “closeness” that I sensed between them. Instead of adopting this view, some of the readers attack Berry’s wife by relating to her as a servant and refers to her help she gives to her husband as meaningless. I was saddened that this was the ploy that many of his readers used to bash Berry’s ideas and his refusal to buy a computer. I respect his choice to abstain from computer-use, although I can relate to the feelings of some of the commenter's feelings. Particularly one which said “but he implies that I and others are somehow impure because we choose to write on a computer”. I would have admired Berry’s piece more if he would have refrained from the “guilt game”.
-Davika

The intellectual comparison between man and computer is quite intriguing, in that there are disagreements on either side. On the one hand, a man relies on instinct, emotions, and past experiences to determine the best outcome for a situation. On the other hand, a computer relies on refined software and hardware through tests based on human error. When we compare the two, there are certain similarities that should be touched upon. A person is able to take in various information based on their surroundings, whether it be learning how to play basketball, writing a fictional story or formulating a truth serum. This information can be further recorded on paper or through a technological medium (computer, camera, voice recorder, etc.).

When we look at a computer, is it able to do these things? The answer is no. However, a computer, when fine-tuned through trial and error, becomes a powerful weapon in the realm of communication, science, economics, and politics. The use of a computer to allocate mass media to the public, to provide exponentially correct number values to the nth term, and to allow identity/financial theft is quite scary indeed. A computer enhances what a single person is able to do, aside from engaging in physical activities, and makes it better – to the point where the computer yields a higher IQ than the average human being. Although development has not reached the point of a genius-level supercomputer – someday, it will happen. The restriction on a computer’s inability to engage in physical activities will also be different in the future. For example, placing a computer inside the mind of an android or cyborg will allow it to function as a normal human being does, but whatever capabilities the human has, the robot will do be able to do it better. Robots and computers are capable of upgrades, but humans are not. Robots and computers are unlimited in what they can do, humans however, have limits.

The Wendell Berry article was interesting because he describes technological innovation in the reverse, where the improved device is one that is simplistic in terms of its use. To him, an “upgraded” piece of technology is “downgraded”. Relating to size, costs, functionality, ease of maintenance and conservation of energy, his way of thinking confused me. I have rarely questioned a new technological product on the market based on its use, other than the annoying issues surrounding new iOS features. It brought up an interesting point because upgrades are not always beneficial, but if we do not follow route, we’ll get left behind in the ever-changing world of technology.

-Vien

There was a lot to agree with when reading Wendell’s stance on the computer; a life lived honestly, of principles, and with strong friendships and family is a desirable one. Ironic as it is for his message to be given a broader audience by the very thing he rejects, it’s fair too, if not in this case required, to utilize the tool you reject to reach those you’re trying to free from it. How else would Zion and the free human resistance find The One, if not but for jacking into the Matrix from time to time? Granted, I’m going to be taking the blue pill for the time being. I’m too entrenched to be freed; the conscience be damned. See there’s an institutional requirement for computers and unless we choose to abstain from participation with those institutions—to hell here, now with an education and livelihood—we must be complicit.

So, I suppose I’m more like that betrayer who shot up the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar. With him I empathize the desire for steak and for ignorance of our cold desolate wastelands.

-Daniel

Reading the No Country for Old Typewriters article made me realize just how obsolete all technologies become at some point. I don't think I have ever seen anyone use a typewriter in my whole life and probably never will. I have seen a typewriter, but never anyone using one. I laughed at the article because just the other day I was having a conversation with my sister about how much harder college would be if I did not have my laptop and we had much admiration for our parents who went through school using typewriters.

I enjoyed the Wendall Berry article intriguing because for majority of the article I found him foolish for not wanting to use a computer. He stated "I disbelieve, and therefore strongly resent, the assertion that I or anybody else could write better or more easily with a computer than with a pencil" (Wendall Berry). He is true that it will not make you write better, but it will make writing faster and more efficient. With a typewriter making a mistake is hard to fix and will therefore take more time to properly write anything. However, as the article continued I found his standards for technological innovations brilliant. I agree with all of those nine points he presented and think that we should take those into consideration when inventing new forms of technology in the future.

-Hannah

As I read the what computers mean for man and society, the points that i took from it is that computers mainly used in jobs that require complex scientific calculation and keeping financial and business records for firms. Another point brought up by the author is that he states that computers can be programmed to have the flexibility of the human brain. Have the capability to learn and gain knowledge. Knowledge is power and can produce new outcomes but it also can be very dangerous. This made me think of movie that i really want to watch which is coming out on April 18 called Transcendence. This movie is about artificial intelligence. A terminally ill scientist uploads his mind onto a computer. This gives him the power to be in existence even though his body is dying.It gives him the capability to do things beyond what his human body could do.. Everything goes wrong in the end.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NgaAkHpqei4
I really wonder if it is possible to do so.. :)
Josephine

One thing I realized when reading What Computers Mean for Man and Society was that the article was published in 1977. This article makes me wonder what Herbert Simon would think if he saw our current society. I liked how he discussed the claims that the computer "mechanizes" and "dehumanizes" work (76). He stated that this is often an invalid claim and I still believe it is invalid even in today's society which is becoming increasingly dependent on the technology of computers. However, there are certain aspects of society in which computerized machines have taken the jobs of people which is seen more in the factory setting. One belief I do have is that no matter how far along the computer develops and becomes incorporated into society, we are always going to need humans to monitor and repair it. If we get to a point in society in which the computer is able to function on a standalone basis, I feel that we have advanced to a point of no return in terms of reliance and dependence on the computer.
-Viktor

I most liked the article by Wendell Barry because I think that he definitely brought up very important points that are true today still that I personally never even thought of. For example... why AREN'T computers smaller, more efficient, cheaper, and easier to maintain than typewriters? He brought up a lot of points about our dependence on the system in ways I had not realized we were. For example, my smartphone might save me a lot of time and it is almost a necessity in today's world, but if something goes wrong I become an Apple store slave. Same goes for computers (although I don't really have many problems with mine so I can't relate as well), not only are they incredibly expensive, they are not maintainable by someone of average intelligence. For a second I thought that it was alright to have the computer be wildly more expensive than a standard typewriter simply because it has so many more capabilities, but then I remembered that there are different minerals and elements that we use for our computers, true, but they are not much more expensive to produce than typewriters as is. I wish I had more insight on the creation of computers and more of its inner workings but, alas, I am the typical, targeted, know-nothing consumer.

Then, upon reading the responses to Barry, I realized that people took the article very personally. A bit of a tangent but I think that people nowadays get too lost in defending their own position rather than listening to the actual argument. As we brought up in class as an example a few weeks back, someone saying they are a vegetarian can spark anger out of someone who isn't simply because they confuse the vegetarian for feeling superior when in reality they are simply showing their beliefs.

But, yeah, Barry's stance really opened my eyes to what was happening as we are becoming immersed in computer use.

Neira

In regards to the argument of computers vs. type-writers, I have to say that I strongly favor computers. Many people have never even worked on a typewriter, but I have. I used to use a typewriter every day of my career as an apartment complex manager to type up lease documents. They are cumbersome to work with, and require extra time of the user for proper functioning such as installing paper, unjamming paper, and positioning the type device. When mistakes were made, the only option was to either use white-out (tacky looking) or to throw the document away and start all over.

Computers allow the user to correct, edit, and save the document many times over which would all require physical action (more than the action of typing) to accomplish with a type-writer. Furthermore, a computer allows documents to be viewed on screen instead of printing actual paper and destroying our forest lands. Lastly, tying in with the idea of less paper, is the idea of more space. Not only do computers hold all of the writings, but they hold it in one simple space. Having paper documents requires having a storage place such as a file cabinet for all the documents.

Erica

There’s people who use computers and people who don’t, but Wendell Berry, is one who is against it. His piece was pretty straightforward in telling us how he didn’t like anything about computer, which made it the most interesting to me. He is somewhat the devil’s advocate to our “wants” of computers because he names what newer technology is suppose to do as it replaces the old ones. I guess he’s the type to not use technology unless he has to and I’m for that as well (late adopter). Farming requires hard work with your hands and feet and sometimes when you play by those rules, you wouldn’t want to make it easier because you loose that sense of pride there. I wonder how Wendell Berry would take it if he knew how widely computers are used today. They’re usually here to make communication and work more efficient. It definitely replaced older technology, but I don’t necessarily think computers knocked off the typewriter. Computers made it easier to type, send papers electronically, and much faster.

Abdifatah

Wendell Berry is asking for too much. Stubborn old man has some valid points about some negative aspects of computers, but that doesn't mean he should knock it for what he may or may not use a computer for. In my personal opinion he is more bitter about computers than anyone that I've ever met. Its kind of interesting, there are only a few situations where he would stop dogging computers but still wouldn't use them. That in a way contradicts many of his own beliefs now. Berry is a farmer. Now, as a farmer, you'd think that he would have an understanding of how beneficial upgraded and updated technology is. Sure, he's right about energy companies always screwing around and disturbing the peace in a way almost. Berry is definitely not a part of Simons Third Information Revolution. This revolution in my opinion carries the biggest population. There will be a point where you can only do this via the Third Information Revolution. Poor Cormac McCarthy. He is luckily moving out of the second information revolution that consisted mainly of print according to Simon. Its folks like Wendell Berry who ruin it for everyone. Its weird how a man that doesn't use a computer or barely has even used one makes strong judgments on computers and the energy industry.


Abukar Mohamud

Well computers are a very interesting topic to discuss. My understanding of how we view them was confirmed by the readings. Some people are made for computers and embrace them while others simple can't stand them. From what I have seen with older people that I know it's just one of those things that they don't get along with. This goes back to what I said last week about some people liking the smart phone concept while others prefer the flip phone for just dialing purposes. They see no point to having all of these apps being available on your cell phone. Going back to our topic this week of computers, I have learned to appreciate them with a little bit of hate for them as well. They are definitely better than a type writer (I know because I have used one), but at the same time with how far advanced we have gotten with computers sometimes it gets frustrating when I can't do something on my computer. There have been a few times where if I am typing a paper and I save it, but for some reason the program crashes, it makes me go back to this "save point" that it created earlier than when I saved it. That's just one example, but it can be surprisingly frustrating when you can't get it to do exactly what you want. As far as society and where we are today with computers, I definitely think we have come a long way with all of the advancements with computers today, but there are always going to be those few "non-believers." This is not a bad thing though because sometimes it helps to have a reminder on how things used to be.
(Sorry, I thought this went through last night. Guess not)
- Talha

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This page contains a single entry by Capper Nichols published on April 2, 2014 10:30 AM.

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