Monday, February 26, 2007

A Problem With Technology

In 1976, Joseph Weizenbaum, wrote:

It may be that social services such as welfare could have been administered by humans exercising human judgment if the dispensing of such services were organized around decentralized, indigenous population groupings, such as neighborhoods, and natural regions. But the computer was used to automate the administration of social services and to centralize it along established political lines. If the computer had not facilitated the perpetuation and "improvement" of existing welfare distribution systems — hence of their philosophical rationales — perhaps someone might have thought of eliminating much of the need for welfare by, for example, introducing negative income tax.

Weizenbaum was also critical of the application of computers to social and military problems, among others. The theme being that it would have been better for some bureaucratic systems to collapse under the weight of their paperwork, than for the computer to have come to their rescue, just in time.

This will also be a theme in World Remixed.

For example, computers on the web can help plan a trip from A to B on TriMet, or give us the next arrival time of any given bus at any given stop. This is certainly better than nothing, but it doesn't mean that we have designed the best possible transit system routes or web of transportation. It also increases our dependency on technology. You need a computer with you to plan your trip, or tell you when the bus might be along.

Imagine instead a system that is intuitive to use. No route-finding computer would be needed. I will expand on this in the next remixed entry.

Joseph Weizenbaum is professor emeritus of computer science at MIT. The quote appears in the chapter On Tools in COMPUTER POWER AND HUMAN REASON, FROM JUDGMENT TO CALCULATION. You can see him on wikipedia.