A Story About a Bridge

This is a story about a bridge. It is a true story, but the facts and how they reside in my mind have morphed over the years and I choose not to check my memory. So to be more accurate, this is a true but also mythical story about a bridge.

There is a city, like many cities, that grew up beside a river. The early citizens lived on the north side, and a small bridge, at a narrow place in the river, was sufficient to carry them across to the south side and onwards to various destinations. As time went by, a road made its way from the outskirts of the north side down to the river, stopping there, in a vague way anticipating that one day it would be possible to hop over to the other side. The city grew and prospered, and the outer limits of the city expanded ever farther. At the same time, a community took form and grew on the south side of the river; life was good, and the relationship between the citizens on the north side and the community on the south side were generally, but not always, amicable.

The growth was not all good, however.  Traveling back and forth over the river across  the one bridge became difficult; the traffic began to be intolerable to those who lived on each side. Discussions about building a second bridge began, and after several years the funds were provided to do just that. Aha, said the north side; our road already goes down to the river so all we need to do is build a bridge straight across at that point. But no, said the south side, can’t you see that we have built our houses and our community there? Your bridge would put a road right through what we have built; you should go further down the river and cross at the point where you have no houses on the other side. Can’t you see, said the north side, there are no houses there because we built a park beside the river; it would not do to build a new road and bridge there because we would lose the park.

The engineers came, and they said, we can build a bridge, straight and strong. We will wait for you to tell use where to start and we will build a bridge that will take people to the other side. You are the ones, though, that must tell us where on the river to start the bridge. “At the road,” said the north side! “Further on,” said the south side! And the engineers said, we will wait until you decide. And they waited. And time went on.

At this point in the story let us stop and think about how this problem could be solved, for a problem it is, indeed.  Perhaps we could ask a few visionaries to offer their suggestions. This is how I imagine they might respond.

Vannevar Bush: “Don’t build a bridge, build the future, which might not be a bridge at all!”

Norbert Wiener: “Have you thought about how drivers will interact with the bridge?”

J.C.R. Licklider: “Is the location of the bridge the real question?”

Marshall McLuhan: “Feel the bridge; be the bridge.”

Brenda Laurel: “The citizens should pour the concrete and build the bridge together!”

Ivan Illich: “You do not need a bridge; find an instructor and learn how to swim.”

Perhaps you would like to know how the real story ended? I can show you a picture; if you look closely, you will see the first bridge on the right and the second bridge on the left side of the satellite image.

Screen Shot 2013-04-16 at 3.43.43 PM

You can see that the bridge is not straight; it is not your average bridge after all, because the people on each side of the river had a very clear vision of what they wanted and a strong sense of the value of their convictions. The engineers were frustrated, I imagine, and the project probably cost much more than anticipated. But if you ever drive on the bridge, you will have the most beautiful sensation of taking a turn out over the river, right as you would normally have made a straight line to the other side.

Out of Order

I read the wrong article two weeks ago. While the group was talking about “the medium is the message” I was discovering that I read Viola instead of McLuhan.  Hmm. Quite a contrast. While McLuhan seems to be saying that the medium itself causes substantive change and societal reconstruction, Viola warns us that “Development of self must precede development of the technology,” and advises us of the “the importance of turning back towards ourselves.” While at first glance there is nothing in common between these two thoughts, there is, at least at one level, a connection between technology as the message and a retrospective perspective. It is a theme that should resoundingly resonate with both technologists and policy makers alike, yet often does not.

Here is an example. On Wednesday I missed class because I attended a conference at Georgetown University on “International Cyber Engagement.” The focus of the conference was, broadly, cyber security, and one of the participants opined that we had entered into a “new normal” in cyberspace. He meant that we should consider powerful denial of service attacks a part of everyday life, and accept that targeted, persistent, threats will be the normal state of affairs. The technology, the way that packages are routed, is the message. All are equal. Even the bad guys.

So where does that leave us? A secure system might be designed that has governmental oversight, individual identification, and electronic “border” control. Estonia is widely considered to be the first sovereign nation that was subject to a cyber attack, and it would be understandable that the nation might set up strong online defenses, perhaps instituting requirements that would result in its citizens forfeiting some of their individual rights in order to secure their electronic safety. But it did not. It did not substitute online security for individual freedom. Estonia is rated the number one country for online freedom (the US is ranked second).  Herein lies the point that Viola makes, I think. A society needs to know its “self,” its values, in order to make intentional decisions about technology use and impacts. It would seem that Estonia did just that, and it chose Internet freedom. It is worrisome sometimes that the glitter, glamor, and trendiness of new media might cause us to lose sight of our sense of self and to forfeit important rights without sufficient thought and consideration.

Perhaps we should consider McLuhan and Viola at the same time. And perhaps a little introversion, as my friend and co-seminarian Kim might agree, is as important to preserving the media as the technology itself.


The text from my daughter was; “Why does Dad call it the idiot light?” I knew exactly what she meant, it was a reference to the light on the car dashboard that indicates that the gas tank is almost empty.

Our daughter moved to Ohio last year after graduating from college, to take a job. Her colleague and friend was confused and perplexed by the idiot light comment, thereby prompting the text. While my daughter and I have fun comparing the linguistic and regional differences between southwest Virginia and Northeast Ohio, this was a family-ism. She used this term without thinking much about it, and assumed that it was widely known. However, I suppose it says more about my husband’s view of this particular technology and its relationship with the user than any cultural distinction.

I wonder if anyone else uses this term? And I wonder what interesting terms others might use for computer related objects or actions?

The Wall Street Journal published a feature article (2/23/13) titled; “Is Smart Making Us Dumb?” The question relates to objects that are programmed to change (“nudge” as Cass Sunstein would say) individual choices for the better. For a number of years I have used this ACLU video to spur discussion about information collection, privacy, and behavior. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RNJl9EEcsoE It is pretty entertaining, perhaps sobering, and reflects, in part, the issue posed by this article.

The author has a book being published soon entitled “To Save Everything Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism.” He believes that the use of technology to change behavior is “disturbing.” Here is a summary of his argument:

[T]he task of smart technology is not to liberate us from problem-solving. Rather we need to enroll smart technology in helping us with problem-solving. What we want is not a life where friction and frustrations have been carefully designed out, but a life where we can overcome the frictions and frustrations that stand in our way.

The author does not want individual decision making to be co-opted by pre-programmed social engineering, and this relates to our discussion about the relationship between humans and computers. Because human decision making has nuances and reflects values, how close can, or should, the connection be between man and machine (or perhaps more accurately, the digital world, as a classmate so aptly pointed out)?

One last brief comment. The example in class last week of programming a computer to recognize metaphors seems to be at the crux of the matter. And could the computer recognize a new metaphor? Or create its own? Thinking abstractly is one of the things that seems particularly human, and is very difficult. It is hard to teach it in the classroom sometimes, yet it is one of the most important goals.

What is the difference between information, knowledge and wisdom? And how does the human-computer interaction, present and future, deal with the distinctions? It seems to me that these terms are interrelated and can overlap, but that there are unique aspects of each. Perhaps they could be viewed on a continuum. Information is data; it can be quantifiable and stored, and is of great quantity. But It may also be qualitative, and subject to interpretation even as to whether it may be quantified. Opinions can be part of data sets, and while they are information they may be incorrect by other standards. Bush saw the storage and retrieval of information as a major use for computers.

Information may be useful to create knowledge; as Wiener mentioned a computer can perform calculation and informational tasks much faster than a human. The 85% of  time Licklider  spent to compile previous studies and show them graphically could be freed to spend further on the analysis. Licklier sought to bring human and computer into a closer symbiosis, and involve the computer in not only solving but also asking the questions, which would bring the aspect of knowledge perhaps into the realm of the computer. But knowledge is not always about learning from information; it is broader than that and takes into account the entire world around us and our relationship with others. How do we  “know” the beauty of a painting or a poem? How does one “know” the pain of tragedy? Probably not by doing an analysis based solely on the input of information.

Taking a deep breath, how might one define wisdom? Wisdom might be viewed as the “proper” use of our knowledge; understanding implications of our actions and reflecting upon right and wrong. It is morality and ethical thinking and a conceptual understanding of justice. It is sometimes related to experience, but not always. Can the symbiosis of human and computer aid humankind in recognizing wise decisions and wise actions? Wiener would be skeptical about this, I think, based on his observation that “there is a great chance of turning the machine to human advantage, but the machine itself has no particular favor for humanity.” As we design computer applications, networks, and hardware, the important issue for our society will be whether we have the wisdom to design in our values and whether we can anticipate the unintended. It will take not only computer scientists, but it will need our collective wisdom for a future where the music of the computer is music to our ears, indeed.


Getting Started

I am taking a break from writing a final version of an article on cybersecurity. It compares the recent US approach reflected in the Executive Order with the new EU Strategy and Proposed Directive on cybersecurity. Actually, I need to send it to the editor because otherwise it will constantly need to be updated. And, new stories continually develop about intensive and persistent cyber attacks.

This topic illustrates the paradox of many network technologies, I think. An improvement in one sphere can reduce value in another sphere. In this case, increased security could infringe upon our privacy and free speech; but we need both.

That is why this blog is called “Beyond Imagination;” because I know that innovations will take us beyond what we have ever imagined and create challenges that we have not yet faced. Perhaps there are also solutions that we have not yet envisioned. I hope so.