Welcome to the machine (Jameson)

One of the more foundational ideas I’ve been playing with in my mind throughout this course has been the concept of the popular arbitrary separation between “man” and “machine.” This false dichotomy is everywhere in our culture, predicated on the belief that humans are “natural,” machines/computers/technology are “unnatural,” and that there is fundamental and necessary split between the two. Of course, as we’ve seen, this distinction is misguided, as the technology we create—even the more advanced kinds—is a product of our cognitive capabilities, our cultures, and our values.

As we saw a couple weeks back in the readings about the “extended mind,” one function of our technology, whether intentional or incidental, is to free up cognitive and/or physical “space” for us to focus on other things. We can “off-load” our thoughts into pen and paper, or typewriter and paper, or a word processor, allowing us to recall them and build upon these thoughts even further. This is similar to Licklider’s concept of “man-computer symbiosis”—since so much time would otherwise be spent completing calculations or engaging in technical thinking, it makes sense to have a machine that can, in a sense, do this thinking for you, while you focus on something else. [1] Because computers can easily be programmed to engage in mathematical thinking (as opposed to, say, replicating emotions), then naturally the computer should do this “heavy lifting” while humans press onward into new territory, and don’t need to get bogged down in the math. It is also similar to Englebart’s idea of “augmenting human intellect,” in that there is an interaction between human and computer to produce a quicker, easier, or more accurate solution to a pre-defined problem. [2]

It’s clear how this concept can be applied to problems involving mathematics, science, engineering, and other technical fields. But it can also be useful for non-computational elements, especially in a time of vast and overwhelming amount of information. One very simple example, drawing from my own personal experience, is how we use browser bookmarks to keep relevant links on our “home” Internet browser screens. As someone who’s just about surgically attached to my laptop (and metaphysically attached to the Internet) I keep a huge number of sites bookmarked. The “off-loading” function of this is two-fold. One, it is more convenient and saves time, off-loading the task of typing in a URL address and manually navigating to the website to the computer itself. Two, it off-loads the task of remembering all these relevant websites, which takes up valuable memory in my OS Alpha. Otherwise I might forget them, and even if not, I now theoretically have more “space” in my brain for other cognitive tasks. This kind of off-loading is more and more prevalent in a world of overwhelming amounts of information (see: filtering, curating, personalization, etc).

In a way, this is also like Bush’s vision of how intellectual knowledge could be collected and shared. In reading his description of a knowledge accumulation machine, as well as the pieces discussing his ideas (including the “memex”), I immediately thought of Wikipedia: a collaborative place to compare pieces of knowledge in a way that is associative rather than alphabetical like a typical encyclopedia, with hypertext links to other relevant pages. [3]

One last thought I had, tying this back to the “man/machine” dichotomy, was the futility of trying to find a clear separation between human and machine when using a piece of technology. In such an instance, how much work are you doing, and how much work is the technology doing? Who or what gets the credit for doing it? When you sit down at a computer to fill out an online form, you are providing the cognitive power to think through the questions, and the kinetic power of your fingers typing and hands moving. But it is the computer that processes all the information from the commands and keys you hit. Neither can exist without the other; without the computer, you simply do not have the technology to fill out the online form (no output). Without you, there would be no impetus for filling the form out, or cognitive/technical ability to do so (no input). Granted, there’s the potential for AI to provide the cognitive function of this equation, but that’s another story. In this instance, the computer is augmenting human intellect and capabilities. The computer and human are interfacing at the point at which they are able to “collaborate,” in a sense, on this project of completing the online form.



[1] Licklider, J.C.R. 1960. “Man-Computer Symbiosis”. New Media Reader. Wardrip-Fruin, Noah, Nick Montfort, ed.. 74–82. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003.

[2] Engelbart, Dave. 1962. “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” New Media Reader. Wardrip-Fruin, Noah, Nick Montfort, ed.. 93–108. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003.

[3] Bush, Vannevar. 1945. “As We May Think.” The Atlantic, July.