The Computer Trap

Author And Professor Theodore Roszak Explores The Folklore Of Computers And Speaks Critically Of The Money-making Industry Behind The Technology

Interview by Judith Drake

Theodore Roszak, professor of History and Chairman of General Studies at California State University, is the author of several widely acclaimed books, including The Making of a Counter Culture and The Cult of Information.

Professor Roszak, while recognizing the positive aspects of computers, is critical of their misuse. In particular, he believes that computers undermine the human capacity for critical thinking by overwhelming basic questions of justice and purpose with ďdata glut.Ē

In this interview Professor Roszak discusses the concept of the folklore of computers. He examines the meaning of the word ďinformationĒ and contrasts the art of thinking with information processing. Professor Roszak then describes some of his major concerns with the misuse of computers.


Aurora: The Cult of Information is subtitled the Folklore of Computers and the True Art of Thinking. What do you mean by the folklore of computers?

Roszak: With computers, as with every major technology all the way back to the steam engine, there is always a popular image or understanding of what the technology is and what it can do. Since the computer first entered public consciousness, it has been surrounded with images that are made up of promises, predictions, and speculation. Not all of these come from computer scientists. We have a large body of science fiction written about computers, and all of this is part of the public understanding which leads to such ideas that the computer is an evolving organism, that it may be smarter than human beings, and that it has the capacity to duplicate the human mind. I wanted to examine the validity of this folklore and look at who is creating it.

Aurora: Your main point is that the general publicís image of computers is more important than the reality.

Roszak: Itís as important. There are a number of technical books, how-to books, and hands-on-books written by computer scientists. I am not a technician, an engineer, or a scientist so I didnít want to deal specifically with these areas. I wanted to deal more with politics, sociology, and the popular culture surrounding the computer.

Aurora: You discuss the term information. What is the difference between information and knowledge?

Roszak: It is a hierarchical difference between two different levels of mental organization. The folklore I speak of in the subtitle attaches most significantly to the word information.

Not so long ago, within my own lifetime, the word information did not have much status in our culture. It was considered a rather marginal department of intellect, and it had a modest definition: information is a matter of facts and figures that usually comes in discrete bundles and answers specific questions.

Information became transformed from that modest, marginal status to a titanic concept that encompasses all powers of the human mind. We came to the conclusion that information processing is essentially, and most significantly, what the human mind does. I take that to be a weak piece of folklore which the general public has come to accept, and because of this acceptance, we now use the word information in many contexts where it doesnít belong. Perhaps we need a different word indicating some higher level of intellectual organization. Information is a scattered body of facts and figures. Knowledge is some higher level of organization, say the difference between scattered evidence from experiments and a scientific theory. The theory is knowledge.

The major division I develop in the book is between information and ideas. The mind thinks with ideas and not with information. It uses information, but ideas are ultimately responsible for generating information.

Aurora: What do you mean by ďThe True Art of Thinking,Ē the second part of your subtitle?

Roszak: Thinking is learning how to manipulate ideas; therefore, the conclusion might be reached that education should first of all be concerned with ideas. We should teach students how to deal with ideas gracefully, for example, to compare them, to contrast them, to discriminate among them. All of this is far more important than having access to something called information. Major ideas in most cultures have nothing whatever to do with information. For example, the idea that all men are created equal has nothing to do with information. It is certainly not based upon research. Teaching children or the public generally how to deal with powerful ideas like that is the essence of education, and we lose track of that if we believe that thinking is all about processing information. The best way to teach people about thinking is to make them literate in the old-fashioned sense of the word; teach them how to read and write and speak with critical awareness.

Aurora: Earlier you talked about a hierarchy in which scattered data is organized to some extent into information; information is then further organized to form a theory. It seems to me that since the human mind alone cannot process large quantities of data and the computer can, that computers can be very useful at certain stages of this hierarchy.

Roszak: I donít for a moment deny that computers have their place as information-processing machines, which is a valuable function in many walks of life. However, itís a mistake to say that education must begin with computer literacy, with access to information. I think thatís a way of killing thought at an early age. Computer literacy usually means some kind of hands-on experience in running a computer and is something that can wait until high school or college.

Kids at the first, second, or third grade donít need access to vast amounts of information to learn how to think for themselves critically. So I have no sympathy for the idea that we have to get computers into kidsí lives as soon as possible. As a matter of fact, that would be detrimental. The idea that kids who donít learn about computers at an early age will be stymied in their intellectual development and will be unemployable I take to be propaganda of the computer industry. But thatís not the same as saying we donít need computers to help us store and retrieve information. I take it for granted that we live in an industrial world which in many ways is data intensive, and the computer helps us store and retrieve all that data more effectively.

One of the things that concerns me in all discussions of computers is that we are not talking about pure technology, we are talking about merchandise. Computers are on the market to be sold, and the computer industry will sell them in any way it can to as many people as it can. If they can convince us that we all need computers to store our recipes and do our budgets, theyíll sell us a computer for that purpose. Much of this is degrading to the technology which has far better uses than most home computers are used for.

Aurora: Let us go then from one end of the spectrum of home computers to more recent developments. The term artificial intelligence has been used to describe various computers that tend to mimic human reasoning. Can computers mimic human reasoning?

Roszak: Computers can do a very good job of mimicking certain aspects of the human mind, especially when it comes to information processing.

For example, if you need a phone number, the way we used to do this is to look it up in the phone book or call information. We have now realized that itís a lot faster to leave a job like that to the computer. The same is true with wanting to know the fastest and cheapest flight between Toronto and New Orleans. Again, a computer can do this more rapidly than the mind can, and so all of that can properly be computerized.

The problem sets in when we begin to try to convince ourselves that levels of thought above that can also be computerized. Artificial intelligence is based on this thesis that the mental operation of information processing can be elaborated into higher levels of thought that involve producing knowledge, interpreting, making judgements and that even require wisdom and experience. This is nonsense of the most disreputable, commercial kind.

People in artificial intelligence have been making the promise for 30-some years that they will soon have an information-processing machine that will be able to do everything the human mind can do. They have not yet come across with that because the project is a hopeless one.

I think for their own self-serving purposes, people in the computer industry are often selling. They are trying to sell their technology by making outlandish promises, and the most outlandish promises come from people in artificial intelligence. This field is very close to being utterly fraudulent. Not that I condemn the hypothesis of the field. The hypothesis is that they could develop the equivalent of the human mind out of the information-processing model, which is as sensible a hypothesis as Plato or Descartes ever had. I do take strong issue with these people when they go on to say that itís not a hypothesis but a proven fact that within three or five years, we will have computers that are smarter than human beings. I take that to be straightforward, commercial hype.

In the United States one of the largest enterprises we now have going is called the strategic defense initiatives. It is going to cost society something approaching one or two trillion dollars, and at the heart of that technology is artificial intelligence. The people in artificial intelligence, through the military and through the Reagan administration, have been telling the American public that a smart weapon system can be created which can make instantaneous judgements about war and peace and survival of the human race. To make that kind of promise on the basis of so little performance is almost a criminal act. The consequences of this piece of academic deception could be absolutely fatal.

Aurora: In the latter part of your book, you discuss various threats posed by the computer. If computers have in reality very limited usefulness, how can they be a threat?

Roszak: The problem is not that the computer is able to imitate the human mind, but that we may redesign the tasks of the human mind in such a way that will allow computers to do them.

You can find this being done in fields like finance and economics where a great deal of decision making has been reduced to what computers can do. Itís one of the reasons why the American stockmarket is going absolutely crazy. A number of important financial and economic decisions have now been entrusted to very rigid computer programs which simply make decisions on the basis of facts and figures and not on the basis of mature judgement about the state of the economy.

Some people are prepared to do the same thing with medical science by telling us that they can create an expert system to diagnose and prescribe for illness. Again, what you would have is an expert system which is a clever compilation of many doctorsí experiences. To entrust patients to such a machine would be probably as much a disaster in medicine as it is turning out to be in the stock market.

You can then finally convince the public that matters of war and peace can be entrusted to a computerís way of processing data. What you are doing in all of these cases is reinterpreting the past, scaling it down to what the computer can do, and then telling the public thatís adequate. Thatís the real problem and not that the computer will come up to the level of the human mind.

Aurora: In other areas of science, we have been faced with various threats. For example, in biology, certain areas of research have been stopped by legislation simply because itís thought to be too dangerous to pursue. Should we think this way about computers and control their development in some way?

Roszak: We should think critically about them and my book is one of a few that seeks to make a strong critical statement of computers.

Of course what weíre up against here is perhaps a little worse than other fields like biology because computers belong to a powerful industry which spreads a great deal of money around, not only in advertising, but also to buy the goodwill and the acquiescence of academics by giving them free equipment or signing them up in what are called co-development contracts. They are buying off their potential opposition so that there will be nobody around who isnít friendly to the computer industry. Many universities are now under the impression that they cannot be great universities until they have created campus-wide computer networks and have a computer on every professorís desk. This is a sign that one of the areas that should be critical about the meaning of thought is being bought and bribed by the computer industry to lower its critical threshold.

Aurora: Are you planning any further writing in this field?

Roszak: A few years back I wrote a science fiction novel called Bugs, as in computers, and that was my initial introduction to computers. The Cult of Information is in many ways the nonfiction version of that novel, so in effect I have now written twice on the subject. My other writings talk about industrial technology generally whereas this book seeks to focus on one hot new technology in particular. I have probably said all I have to say about its misapplication and abuses, and I am not sure that I have much more to contribute on this subject.

Books by Theodore Roszak

The Cult of Information. New York: Pantheon, 1986.

Beamwatcher. Garden City, New York Doubleday, 1985.

Bugs. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1981.

Person/Planet: The Creative Disintegration of Industrial Society. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1978.

Pontifex:A Revolutionary Entertainment for the Mindís Eye Theatre. Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1974.

Unfinished Animal; The Aquarian Frontier and the Evolution of Consciousness. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.

Sources: An Anthology of Contemporary Materials Useful for Preserving Personal Sanity While Braving the Great Technological Wilderness. Edited by T.Roszak. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.

The Making of a Counter Culture. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1969.