Global Village or Global Civilization
Global Village or Global Civilization?
Research Note #32
Alan C. Kay
Advanced Technology Group
(Learning Concepts Group Note #16)
The following essay was written for the World Economic Forum.
Most people and businesses use computers to automate accounting and writing--activities that were formerly done with paper. Since the first known uses of writing--on cuneiform tablets--were for counting the King's jars of grain and wine, followed centuries later by the first attempts to transcribe poetry, the current usage of computers seems to be the latest chapter in a grand tradition. The first uses of the printing press were to automate the production of Bibles and indulgences, and it was thought by many that the new invention was a harmless addition to the Holy Roman Empire that could only strengthen the faith. One of most printed books 500 years later is still the Bible, not to mention the modern versions of indulgences! Were they right in their basic assumptions?
The parts of history that interest me most are those in which people found more than a better way to continue the past--they discovered that new tools can often lead to completely new ideas about thinking and doing. When alphabetic writing was invented by the Phoencians, it should not surprise us that for hundreds of years it was used to transcribe and support oral tradition. The Ionian Greeks on the other hand were quite taken with the efficiency of being able to represent hundreds of thousands of words with just 23 symbols. This led to the idea that the world itself might be understood as being made of simpler parts. And that led to new ways to think about the world, and to think about thinking.
About 50 years after its invention, the printed book came into its own with the "Portable Library" of Aldus Manutius, the Venetian printer who measured saddlebags to find out what size books should be printed. His books both established the most used size for books today, and more important, were not particularly about the established religion, but about everything. His press published thousands of titles by as many authors both ancient and contemporary. And he was not alone. There were more than 20,000 presses in Europe around the year 1500, and most of them were not printing Bibles. The result was modern civilization. Not just science and technology, but new ways to think about politics and human rights.
This happened in the midst of most people thinking "old thoughts". Most still do, and will. In the US, less than 1% invent and discover, less than 3% grow all our food and it is our largest export. On the other hand, substantial portions of US citizens are "fundamentalists", they believe literally and dogmatically in the tenets of their religion--often to the point of refusing to allow sick children to be treated. Almost worse, many nonscientists who "believe in" science (and a few scientists too!) believe in it "fundamentally" as well--that is, it has also been reified into dogma. It is not so odd that our minds work as they did tens of thousands of years ago--we are set up biologically to absorb and deeply believe our cultures' views about the world. What is unusual is that very different and powerful ways of thinking can be invented--examples are science and democracy--and learned by enough people to make radical changes in the way we live.
What we want to ask about computers, then, is not so much how they will be reused as old media--they will--but what properties do they have that are so special and powerful that the shape of society will once again be changed?
The first property is that all previous marking and symbol systems can be subsumed by digital representations. The implications of this become really interesting when the second property is added: that stable digital representators can be inexpensively made in astronomical quantities. Third, the representations can be transmitted to everyone in the world very rapidly and at low cost. Finally, the digital representations are active and reflective--they can read and write themselves at great rates of speed. These four properties easily account for the imitation of the old media that has blossomed so strongly in the last few decades. (It also sounds a bit like a new disease!) How are they also the hidden powers that make the computer qualitatively different from all previous media?
Every medium of expression also brings forth new ways to argue. Printing brought forth the essay which begat both modern science and modern democracy. Both require giving up absolute notions of truth and dogma in favor of flexible multiviews that are bolstered by careful and special forms of argument which have been best carried by printed text distributed widely. As important was the chance to argue back: dialogues--both intertwined as in Gallileo and essay vs. essay as in the debate over the Constitution--capture the nondogmatic and high-content multiview nature of modern discourse.
Every medium of expression is better at describing certain areas that it is for others. Thus each has a silent bias that leads discussion in certain directions and away from others. Mathematics became the important language of science because its biases, ways of representing and arguing, have a good fit--make good maps--to gross physical phenomena. Bertrand Russell noted that "Language serves not only to express thought but to make possible thoughts that would not be possible without it".
Computers-in-networks extend the notion of library and messaging in important ways and extend 20th century notions of nontrivial argument by being able to find analogies, examples, counterexamples, as well as to solicit the opinions of colleagues.
More important is that the computer has a special domain of representation and argument that qualitatively transcends what can be mustered by natural language and classical mathematics. These include complex non-linear dynamic system ecologies, which include the biosphere, epidemics, population explosions and famine, pollution, human health, and 20th century physical science.
E = mc is compact, astounding, literally earthshattering, and difficult to briefly explain just why the relationship holds. Similarly, the reflective ability of computers to simulate and view arbitrary symbolic systems can be compactly stated, is astounding, will be earthshattering, and is difficult to briefly explain in a way that the implications are clear and have deep emotional impact. It's not that system ecologies can't be talked about in language and classical math (I am doing so right now). It's that making good arguments and more important, substantiating them, is almost impossible without being able to simulate the system and arguments about it to see if they actually entail what they claim. In particular, complex systems are often chaotic, in that small changes to initial conditions can produce wildly different evolutions over time. This is very difficult to spot in most static descriptions and has to be experimented with empirically in order to get some sense of the balance between stability and instability.
The dynamic nature of the computer leads to a natural simplification of representations and descriptions of complex systems. For example, though Newton's laws are simple and express the gravitational relationships between any number of bodies, in classical mathematics it is in general intractable to deal with more than two. Many adults, especially politicians, have no sense of exponential progressions such as population growth, epidemics such as AIDs, or even compound interest on their credit cards. In contrast, a 12-year-old child in a few lines of logo can easily describe and graphically simulate the interaction of any number of bodies, or create and experience first hand the nonintuitive swift exponential progression of an epidemic like AIDS. Speculations about weighty matters that would ordinarily be consigned to common sense (the worst of all reasoning methods), can now be tried out with a modest amount of effort, particularly if qualitative intuition is most needed. People who can act heroically during a disaster but do nothing earlier when it could have been prevented were not able to imagine.
Another very special property of computers allows different parts of knowledge to be related and compared in ways not feasible in the physical world. We are all used to footnoting and other forms of reference and have well-used thumbs (and sometimes feet) to find these references elsewhere. The computer can simulate a world in which the representations of all related ideas are in the "same place", hyperlinked, even though this is not directly possible in the 3-dimensional world in which we live. Moreover, there can be many ways to view and compare the ideas simultaneously. And finally, the ideas can be in the form of dynamic and interactive simulations. The first computer systems to create these new ways to represent and think appeared in the early sixties, thus I believe it is significant that almost no commercial systems 30 years later make use of either hyperlinking of ideas or dynamic simulation. This is because most commercial systems are made in response to perceived market "needs". The current day mass marketplace is still too unsophisticated to demand real power from their computers, and most vendors don't understand it either or are too timid to try to create a market based on value rather than ignorance. The gap between what computers can do and what most people want from them is critical.
McLuhan predicted that speed of light transmission would replace the cool "Gutenberg" sequential discourse of high civilization with a fragmented hot return to an ever more oral tradition: a village culture, but this time global. 40 years of experience with American television and about 1 decade with mass access to computer networks seem to bear him out. There is a clear indication that most people will use computer media and networks for oldstyle business and for newstyle social interaction and lowest common denominator entertainment. This is comparable to the use of printing for accounting, romance novels, trash exposees and comic books: twinkies for the mind. In short: junk.
By "junk" I mean stuff that is advertised to be a particular kind of thing, whose main selling points are convenience and low cost; that often contains substances or processes for which humans have no built-in defences; and which on close examination turns out not to be the thing that is claimed after all. Business, by means of advertising and exploiting the general unsophistication of buyers, has successfully introduced junk in most areas of life, including: food, housing, possessions, theatre, entertainment, literature, education, rights, sports, music, art, money, knowledge--and computing. This is not new: the main complaint in Madam Bovary was about junk romance novels, and one of the many complaints of Socrates about his times was that the Sophists were teaching the youth how to win arguments (via rhetoric) without need or concern for the "truth". I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to apply the above criteria to identify computer junk that is on the market today. (More challenging, the reader should try to find the few products on the market today that are not junk!)
The real barriers to the development of a global civilization are the forces and values that are leading most people to join the global village instead. Will this trend continue? Or will more and more people start to use the new communication systems to learn "21st century thinking"? The reason I feel pessimistic is that learning ideas that we are not strongly "prewired" for requires a fair amount of effort, and the will to put forth effort usually comes from putting a high value on what is to be learned. In a world that is increasingly about entertainment and the replacement of high value goods and ideas by junk, it is hard to see from just where the new and needed upsurge in valuation is going to appear.
Powerful ideas create needs only they can solve. This is what is meant by a paradigm shift; not just the beliefs, but the very priorities of a belief system are replaced. Note that addictive substances and processes also create needs that only they can solve. A perceived need does not automatically mean "valuable", it just means there are powerful forces at play with our belief systems. McLuhan's observation that the Greek roots of "Narcissus" and Narcosis" are the same is particularly germaine here.
It is hard to decide early on just how pernicious a new belief system is likely to be; even harder to pull back after the belief system has established itself. I am indebted to Neil Postman for drawing my attention to Giving Up The Gun, by Noel Perrin, a fascinating account of the Japanese adopting cannon and musketry for war and then giving it up a century later because it undermined their notions of bravery and honor. Its fascination lies in part because of the rarity of humans pulling back from any tool that conveys a large advantage on its users. If we had the chance would we give up science and modern medicine for the belief of assured eternal paradise after death? We can't venture an answer because of the skepticism inherent in our age: we can't really know what it was like to believe without any hint of doubt. Since our nervous systems are set up by evolution to jump to conclusions and believe deeply with little evidence--imagine conducting a scientific experiment into possible danger when being charged by something big!--the best we can do with the new is to learn to make softer landings into the new belief structures so that we can enjoy them without blindly committing our entire being to them.