“Computer says no”, or, the false dichotomy between technology and people

27 June 2005

A Monday lunchtime free-thinking, stream of consciousness sort of blog post follows…

Eugh. Moving house is crap. Official. Especially dealing with settling all manner of bills, involving Herculean battles against the “Computer says no…” culture inherent in many of our utility companies (“Can you tell me my final balance please?” “Nope, sorry” “Not even an estimate?” “No, we don’t do that” “But…but…you’re the accounts and billing department!” “Sorry…it will take several days for the system to process” “What the fuck are you running your computers on, steam? Monkeys with abacuses? I’ve just given you the meter readings, I could work out my gas bill right now with pen and paper, you hapless moron” – alright, I didn’t actually say that last bit, but I did think it).

“Computer says no” is possibly my favourite set of Little Britain sketches (aside – I don’t know what it is, but I don’t like Little Britain as much as I did the Fast Show, which is essentially the same setup of a series of recurring characters with absurd mannerisms and familiar catchphrases – the Fast Show was somehow funnier and more endearing) possibly because it is the most true, in the social conscious. But in actual matter it’s completely false; computers don’t ‘say’ anything, they’re merely reflecting what we’ve told them to do. They obey the code we write (bugs in the compiler not withstanding). The code we write reflects the way we approach problems; thus code is as well as being a technology, is a literary device for free expression of our thoughts. There are, within the vast family of programming languages, many different literary styles and ideas of what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’ code. Essentially, code is literature.

So, although Richard Stallman’s denunciation of software patents in last week’s Guardian, with its comparisons to “what if 19th Century literature was subject to the same rules?” may seem tenuous to begin with, and Stallman could have maybe done a better job of explaining it, the essential point he makes is quite valid. Of course, many people won’t appreciate the link, and possibly deride it as in intrusion of technology into art, for the same reasons why “computer says no” is often taken as a undefeatable mantra; the idea that technologies are not at all human; they have their own separate realm which they rule – whenever ordinary people intrude, we become subject to it. This is wrong, and leaves the implication we should try to maintain this false division to preserve ourselves; this view is promoted both by some technologists, to further cement their position as high priests, the few people in command of the technology, and by neo-Luddites and art snobs, who both deny that technology should be regarded as human artistic process, like many other activities.

The trick is to expand the definition of “we” in the “they obey the code we write” – at the moment “we” is all too often only applies to those with the ability to write the code directly. The Open Source/Free Software movement is a good initial stab in the right direction; although most of its projects still involve an ?lite of programmers, the central philosophy that code is there for everyone to change and shape is its most uplifting and optimistic feature, and sets the movement’s principle actors well apart from the tech high priests. The next step is not just getting ‘ordinary’ users to download and use the products of OSS such as Linux or Firefox, but to realise that they can participate as well. That doesn’t just mean creating new tools, and possibly new languages and concepts that don’t require lofty expertise, to broaden participation on the technological side, but also breaking down the false wall between “people” and “computers” on the social side too. In short, we need to have people start saying “yes”, rather than letting computers say “no”.

This looks a bit wank, and my reasoning has holes in it, but I’ll publish it anyway. How the hell did I get from my gas bill to the philosophy of technology via Little Britain and Richard Stallman? This could perhaps make the ‘most tenuous linking of subjects in blog post’ award of the year, if such a thing exists…


5 Responses

Lawrence Miles:
When The Fast Show had the same characters doing the same catchphrases every week, it was actively encouraging the audience to become part of the process, playing off the viewers’ reactions as the rules changed from programme to programme. Subsequent comedians have sadly missed the point of this, and reached the conclusion that it’s reasonable to write half an hour of material and then repeat it over eight episodes.

In other words, there’s a big difference between repeating catchphrases and repeating gags. I don’t think he gives LB quite enough credit (he doesn’t give it any at all), but it’s an interesting argument.

Kev

Perhaps you should turn your ace writing skills to your views on the Wiki movement – such as Wikipedia?

Here we have a way of directly writing in the language of the web, writing anything about anything and instantly it is translated into machine code.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page7

And as for the Little Britain – it is continuous reinventions of a humourous and totally British theme. A person has a familiar yet twisted eccentricity and everyone else does their best to cope with it. In that sense it has more in common with League of Gentlemen, yet the characterisations are nationwide rather than specific to a region. Fast Show was variations on ways to get to a particular punchline or catchphrase.

All three works of comic genius, in different ways.

Kev

Apologies, the hyperlink above is somehow corrupted, should be this.

Ordinarilly I could create an article entitled “Main Page7″ on the wikipedia to either redirect you to my intended page, or tell you something about the concept and history of “Main Page7″ (surely Kurt Vonnegut must have written a book with a smiliar title :-) )

The next step is not just getting ‘ordinary’ users to download and use the products of OSS such as Linux or Firefox, but to realise that they can participate as well. That doesn’t just mean creating new tools, and possibly new languages and concepts that don’t require lofty expertise, to broaden participation on the technological side

Greasemonkey?

but also breaking down the false wall between “people” and “computers” on the social side too.

Hmm. How thick is this wall, what is it made of and why is it ‘false’? It’s an interesting line of thought, but so far it stops where it ought to start.

Funnily enough, I’ve just written a very brief article on Wikis (not just the ‘pedia but some other projects) for this week’s London Line, though I didn’t really have enough room to bore people with my views on WP (which I have become quietly addicted to – see here) and other Wiki technologies… I might marshal them here…

In response to Phil Edwards… yeah I know, I ask more questions than I answer, but that’s one of the beauties of blogs, isn’t it? :-) I’ll try and give them some though over the next few days… the above post was basically a leakage of enquiring thoughts from my mind after many many days researching Open Source and the various socioeconomics/politics of the community for my dissertation… I’m not sure whether I’m the person to take those ideas to the next level, though.