The Genie’s Out of the Bottle

I was in some ways heartened by the humanity evident in parts of Norbert Weiner’s “Men, Machines, and the World About.”  While his vision seems to share some of the technocratic exuberance of Vannevar Bush, Weiner also seems a bit more cautious, especially toward the end of the essay, when he offers a series of warnings about the need to make “many changes in the way we live with other people,” to seriously consider the importance of leisure in our lives, to counter growing governmental secrecy, and to turn machines to human advantage.

In the last paragraph, he turns to a folk tale to drive home his point about the potential dangers of new computing machines that can learn.  More specifically, he recalls the story of the fisherman and the genie, a powerful figure that is quite irked at being long imprisoned in a bottle and seeks to take out revenge on the fisherman who has inadvertently released him.  Although, the fisherman eventually manages to talk the genie back into the bottle, Weiner ends his speech with a dire warning: “Gentlemen, when we get into trouble with the machine, we cannot talk the machine back into the bottle.”

This view of  technology as a genie out of its bottle seems to recur frequently in the 1950s and early 1960s, a particular cultural moment when, living in the shadow of the bomb, it was nearly impossible not to be concerned about the potential negative consequences of “progress.”  It was the image that Walt Disney turned to in “Our Friend the Atom,” a segment from his weekly television show that was first broadcast in 1956, just two years after Weiner’s essay, and later widely shown in schools.  While Disney, a technological booster, sought to reassure his audience about the beneficence of nuclear power, his use of a genie in the film also raised the specter of unintended consequences for more alert viewers.   Six years later, when John Kennedy was decrying the stalled US-Soviet negotiations to halt atmospheric testing on nuclear weapons, which were spewing radioactive fallout across much of the globe, he also passingly mentioned that the “genie was out of the bottle” and he openly wondered whether we would be able to put it back.  He returned to that powerful image when he presented the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty to the Senate for ratification in 1963, declaring the newly negotiated agreement an “important opening wedge in our effort to ‘get the genie back in the bottle.’”

Weiner’s warning at the very end of his speech suggests a call for thinking long and hard about the potential unintended consequences of technological development, a call that seems to have largely fallen on deaf ears.

Symbiosis and Janusian Thinking

I left a long comment over at Lauren’s blog  last week on some excellent points she made re: Vannevar Bush. As she observes, his vision in many ways surpasses where we are today…though at least some pockets of people are actively trying to overcome obstacles of technology (inability to find/remember the information we need, for example) and society (copyright, ownership, etc.) to get there. As part of that comment I noted that I had recently:

stumbled on from an author asserting that technology is making us smarter and more adept at leveraging information rather than duller and incapable of remembering things ( because it’s an extension of the evolutionary tactic of humans to process and store information socially. I’m not sure I had ever considered my use of Google in that way – as an extension of what would be a natural tendency to scaffold my memory from others and from manual devices of my own creation (like my monitor covered in post-it notes)…

I’m pleased that there appears to have been some foreshadowing in that comment because this week we encounter two very different, one might say radically divergent, perspectives on the symbiosis of men and machines. I ended up finding it quite Janusian, which I’ll discuss more at the end of the post, but, to preview what I mean for those who haven’t encountered the term before: we entered the zone of competing, but valid, perspectives on the future of men and machines.

Wiener, in a passionate but conversational way, implores us to realize that while we CAN provide for almost anything with machines that does not mean that we de facto SHOULD. This certainly connects with our discussion in class last week about relativity and power and control. Wiener felt that the common person would inevitably be sacrificed to the vagaries of capitalism if attention were not paid to WHY a technology was created and what we truly want from it. He provides what might on the surface appear to be a trivial case:

I know an engineer who never thinks further than the construction of the gadget and never thinks of the question of the integration between the gadget and human beings in society

Really, one might ask why that is problematic. If I’m designing a standard upgrade to a system, for example, why would I pause to consider whether that upgrade fits into a larger narrative about machines and humanity? Our conversation about the iPad in class is a nice practical example–several people observed that the question of whether it’s really “better” to have access to these technologies is difficult to answer in general and impossible if you take the question outside of a developed world context. It would be meaningless to ask someone with no access to electricity and internet (let alone water, food, healthcare, etc.) whether the iPad is a helpful advancement for mankind.

The question, therefore, of WHO decides was repeatedly raised. Well, Steve Jobs, apparently, though from a practical perspective it’s unlikely that there was no consideration of the integration between the gadget and human beings–when corporations are developing these products it’s because they see a bottom line. I don’t mean that in a completely cynical way, but I don’t think the fact that advertising and marketing consultants evaluate the potential for market penetration means that there has been a meaningful demonstration that a particular technological advancement is “Good” for humanity in the “what we’re getting is what we really want” sense Wiener mentioned. That’s a long way of saying that I think the responsibility does rest with the collective to be critical consumers. This, in turn, is a challenge because, as Wiener eerily observes:

We shall have to do this unhampered by the creeping paralysis of secrecy which is engulfing our government, because secrecy simply means that we are unable to face situations as they really exist

 Indeed. If the recent NSA scandals have shown us anything, it is that we probably cannot trust the government to be a trustworthy arbiter of these questions. Not because there’s deliberate harmful intent, but because the focus of our security agencies is, by their nature, to both protect us from and exploit advances in technology. As we have seen, that leads to ethically, legally, and constitutionally questionable behavior in some cases. Wiener’s rebellion against the unthinking technological endeavors of the military industrial complex is easy to understand–in taking the logical next step it is easy to push aside or completely forget the moral and practical consequences of that step.

So we come to Licklider. Now, Wiener’s narrative does not at all resonate with Licklider, who sees progression towards total symbiosis as inherently and almost unquestionably desirable. He freely admits that in the future machines will probably surpass the collective abilities of men, but sees this as an exciting and worthwhile progression that will lead to achievements the likes of which we can hardly imagine. Many of the examples he gave of future symbiotic relationships with machines have, in some form, come to pass. His optimism was, I admit, rather refreshing after the dark future imagined by Wiener. Wiener’s cry of “there is no Santa Claus!” was echoing in my head when I stepped into Licklider’s hopeful and analytic approach to the inevitability of symbiosis. But in spite of my desire to completely get on board with him, the thing I can’t shake is Licklider’s beginning analogy of the fig tree and the worm. He opened his article by describing this truly symbiotic relationship:

The fig tree is pollinated only by the insect Blastophaga grossorun. The larva of the insect lives in the ovary of the fig tree, and there it gets its food. The tree and the insect are thus heavily interdependent: the tree cannot reproduce without the insect; the insect cannot eat without the tree…

This is haunting me. I think it might be fair to argue that Licklider wasn’t necessarily asserting that he hoped one day man and machine would get to the point that man would literally die without the machine (and vice versa, though that is a standard state of being for machines), but this was the analogy he chose. He chose true symbiosis. And I find that concept alarming, regardless of the relentless optimism of his piece. I cannot countenance the idea that I might someday die if detached from a device–I think this question of who decides and how we know that the technology decisions we’re making are good for us are so crucial and so far from satisfactorily answered that it is difficult for me to divorce Licklider’s perspective from those issues. Yet, I tend to be an optimist when it comes to technology. Like Licklider (and as you can see detailed in my last post), I see great potential in the pace of technological development we see today. My major hangup is that I want progress to be not only deliberate but thoughtful in a philosophical sense.

So, what does it mean to see both? I would assert that, in the end, this is really just a Janusian opportunity–I clearly see the advantages and share Licklider’s optimism that we are heading towards the most exciting and important era of mankind to date, yet I am very much afraid of how this might go if improperly managed and can see that dark, apocalyptic future of which Wiener warned. I’ve said it before elsewhere, but I do see this as an era where we NEED to look both ways at once–understanding only one dimension or facing only one future will not suffice. This might just be a more sophisticated way of saying that I’m a fence sitter, but I’d prefer to call it Janusian thinking. This unquestionably puts my comment about Google’s new search algorithm as a substitute for human scaffolding in a new light–it might be an exciting way to look at it….but I certainly can’t pretend that doesn’t have larger implications.

New media and art

I’m intrigued by the influence of cybernetics on art and the way that new media and interactivity have been translated by artists.  As a poet, I embrace the post-structuralist concepts described in our text: when I send a poem into the world, it is no longer mine.  My intentions and meanings no longer apply.  The reader will interpret my work through the lens of his/her experiences and identities, and I must accept this interaction or write only for myself.

When I think about it, isn’t art the ultimate metaphor for new media? We take an idea, shaped by what we know, believe, and observe, and create something new but connected to what came before it.  New media provides opportunities to make meaning by combining, connecting, and creating.  What’s more, it’s individualized: there is no central truth.  Voila!  Sounds like art to me.

I’m particularly drawn to this representation by Nam June Paik (referenced in our text), which illustrates media as an instrument.

This image complements John Cage’s manipulation of a traditional instrument—the piano—by putting everyday tools beneath the strings.


No way out but through

A-Bomb group leaders, via NY Times/Bettmann/Corbis

Last week’s NMFS here at Virginia Commonwealth University discussed Vannevar Bush’s epochal (and, in its way, epic) “As We May Think.” The essay truly marks a profound shift, appearing just as WWII was about to conclude with a display of horrific invention that still has the power to make one’s mind go blank with fear. From Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour to a film that can still give me nightmares, The Day After, the mushroom cloud that signifies this invention hung over my childhood and adolescence–and I don’t expect it will ever go away. Now that we know how, there is no unknowing unless civilization erases itself.

But as myth, fiction, and science continue to demonstrate, each in its own way, there are thousands of demonstrations of the real problem to hand every day: human ingenuity. It’s easy to get distracted by the name “technology,” as if it’s what we make, rather than our role as makers, that’s to blame. But no, it’s the makers we should lament. Or celebrate. Or watchfully, painfully love.

The state of man does change and vary,
Now sound, now sick, now blyth, now sary,
Now dansand mirry, now like to die:
Timor mortis conturbat me.

William Dunbar, “Lament for the Makers”

What shall we do with these vexing, alarming, exhilarating abilities? We learn, we know, we symbolize. Sometimes we believe we understand. We find a huddling place. We explore, and share our stories.

Presumably man’s spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems.

Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think”

For several iterations through the seminar, that word “presumably” leapt out at me, signalling a poignant, wary hope as well as a frank admission that all hope is a working assumption and can be nothing more. This time, however, the word “review” glows on the page. Re-view. Why look again? How can repetition make the blind to see? Ever tried to find something hiding in plain sight? Ever felt the frustration of re-viewing with greater intensity, while feeling deep down that the fiercer looking merely amplifies the darkness? (Ever tried to proofread a paper?)

We console ourselves with the joke, attributed to Einstein, that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing again and again while expecting different results. Yet we hope that thinking, mindfully undertaken, may contradict that wry observation. We hope that thinking again can also mean thinking differently, that a re-view strengthened by a meta-view can yield more insight and bring us a better result than the initial view did. Look again. Think again. And, in Vannevar Bush’s dream of a future, a dream that empowered epochal making, looking again and thinking again would be enriched, not encumbered, by a memory extender, a “memex”:

[Man] has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records more fully if he is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion and not merely become bogged down part way there by overtaxing his limited memory.

What is this experiment? When exactly did we sign the papers giving our informed consent to any such thing?

Our ingenuity is the experiment, the problem, the hope. Our birthright may also be our death warrant. Is that the logical conclusion?

Yet, in the application of science to the needs and desires of man, it would seem to be a singularly unfortunate stage at which to terminate the process, or to lose hope as to the outcome.

The word “science” signifies more than simply the methodological revolutions emerging in Renaissance Europe. For me, it signifies knowing. We in the humanities enact our own experiments in knowing, exerting our own ingenuity both constructively and destructively. We too are makers.

Re-view. Analyze more completely. “Encompass the great record and … grow in the wisdom of race [i.e., species] experience.” As we may think, and create and share “momentary stays against confusion.”

No way out but through.

On “As We May Think”

I am in awe of minds like Vannevar  Bush, who in 1945 foresaw that “wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified.” I admire his vision and his ability to ponder complex problems with unusual clarity and practicality. It is visionaries like him who move the world forward, for better or worse. To an extent I also admire his self-confidence, his seeming lack of doubt that any ideas or inventions of his or his colleagues might not be on the right track, might not in fact “improve his food, his clothing, his shelter” and might actually lock mankind into a whole new kind of bondage after it is “released from the bondage of bare existence. “ But part of me wishes that he had some self-doubt  and some reservations about his ideas.

Last night I listened to an NPR interview with evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman (, who explained that many modern “diseases […] occur because our bodies are poorly or inadequately adapted to environments in which we now live.” To that I would add that we have created these environments, with great intentions and expectations that these environments would be better for us.

I see a similar disconnect or contradiction between what our human minds are capable of grasping and the hugely complex and interconnected world we have created. It seems that our imagination and creativity run far ahead of our physical and mental capacity to keep up with the changes we make in (and force onto?) our world. Is it in anyone’s capacity anymore to comprehend, organize and manage the world’s vast knowledge, data and information in any meaningful and comprehensive way?

Where I hope for some doubt, or humility or reservations by our society’s greatest movers and shakers is in the recognition that:

  • Any organizing scheme will be skewed by some special interest or naturally limited perspective.
  • The power and means to create organizational infrastructure(s) are in the hands of very few people, even though the impact of any such scheme is vast and inescapable for most (if not all) of the world.


As We May Think, in 2013

I meant to post this week about the forthcoming reading, though after today’s seminar, I’m thinking more about As We May Think, and there’s enough rattling around in my head to warrant a post-seminar entry on that topic. We’ll see how the week goes regarding a post on this week’s very interesting reading.

Predicting the Future

I was struck as we discussed Vannevar Bush’s work that the group had a radically different reaction to the piece than the first group I read it with. My first encounter with As We May Think was in library school, where the general reaction was more astonishment at the spot-on-ness of Bush’s technology predictions (surprise despite the evidence that his predictions influenced the creation of said technologies) than questioning. Then again, one entire section of his article is devoted to libraries (section 6), and another is devoted to what we’ve come to know as hyperlinking and is deeply related to classification (section 7). For a library crowd, who is primed to be thinking about the nature of information and information retrieval, it was an amazing read.

Giving it a second read, about a decade later, I found it even more remarkable. Initially I saw the connection between what Bush was describing and the personal computer as pretty clear, as well a clear reframing of how one might access text (No remote building of books! All available at your desk! Keyword searching rather than card catalogs!), and the primacy of links between information (rather than linear organization we have hyperlinks, metadata, and social information to help navigate the landscape!). I also saw clear connections from what he was saying to digital photography and speech-to-text technologies that were beginning to be more common at the time.

Now, more than anything, I was stunned at his prediction for Google Glass as he described a scientist who could instantly snap photographs during experiments, create speech records as tasks were performed, and generally keep an ongoing log of the processes, all from a headset with a small camera by the wearer’s eye. It gives me pause and causes me to consider his predictions in the last section regarding what can only be interpreted as a brain implant to facilitate storing information and retrieving from thought rather than manually inputting it with our hands or hearing it via the bones in our ears.

I adore that he brings up that there is so much to read that one couldn’t possibly read it all when producing information. True today as it was in the 40s.

What of Libraries?

I gave a related talk for faculty at my previous institution. The basic outline of the talk was why the library is changing and the role of the librarian. It’s here:

The content was basically that we, as a culture, are transitioning from information scarcity to abundance, from linear organization to hyperlinked, from complicated systems of retrieval to complicated evaluation of what is found, from acquiring information to using it. When I read Bush’s article I see that the writing was on the wall even then.

Where the Dream Was Not Realized

I can see where people might be critical of Bush’s ideas, and I have some critiques of my own.

Access and Copyright: Though my critiques are less with Bush as a thinker and more with what we did with his ideas. Primarily my issue is that of ownership of information. Bush imagined a future in which every person would have their own library, where the cost of acquiring information (in financial terms–he didn’t address the cognitive work of building a collection) was minimized. That has not been the case. The closest I can see to this is in the ebook market. If you have an extensive collection of ebooks (as I do), you likely don’t own them. If your ebook reader is associated with any of the mainstream providers, you essentially have a leasing agreement for your ebooks. There are terms of service agreements that you might be violating if you share them, and you can’t move ebooks between competing devices. Further, that’s only true for the books you buy. To have an entire collection of works as Bush imagines, you probably have to be affiliated with an academic library, and then there are limits to what you might have access to depending on organizational size and budget, vendor arrangements, or the fact that not everything is digitized. Even when you have full access to an academic library, some materials have restrictions on how many people may view them at the same time, and notes you make on ebooks, for example, are only persistent if you create an account. All of that to say we’ve come so far, but not yet gotten to Bush’s idealized state. (As an aside, in seminar, I brought up Cory Doctorow and his approach to open information and DRM free works, if you’re interested.)

Meaningful Links: We’ve all seen the power of linking on the web, of the vast, interesting information you can find due to friends on social networks sharing links. What I find saddest in the realization of Bush’s vision is that though we created the basic link making system, it lacks some of the depth of what he described. If I share a link on pinboard, for example, I have to be intentional enough to include text and tags to explain why. And in those shared links I hardly ever think to reference another site I’ve seen that’s relevant. I would love to annotate files on my hard drive, Google Drive, or Dropbox, to explain why I’m keeping a given file, what stage it’s in, or what it’s connected to, but the best hack I’ve found to achieve this is to put the file in an Evernote note with a description, which is hardly a good file saving system. I’m always posting professional links to my PLN on Twitter or Facebook, but they’re barely contextualized in 140 characters, and certainly not tying into something greater. And as much as I learn from my colleagues who likewise share links, I often long for something to tie together the big themes. So, I think, I really am just pining for the “new profession of trail blazers, those who… [establish] useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record” in a deeper way than we’ve yet seen.

All of that to say, though I might have a few criticisms, I find Vannevar Bush to be amazing in his foresight and cultural impact. In so many ways he was spot on, and our world would likely look very different if we hadn’t had his work as part of the larger cultural discussion. I look forward to reading As We May Think in the years to come, as new technologies emerge and things that seem like magic today become more commonplace.

Introduction: Mother of All Demos

Engelbart’s 1968 “Mother of all Demos” of an MVC system including real-time collaboration over a network (pre-dating the Internet) is just incredible, always an inspiring watch.

I’m excited to continue our discussions in the New Media Faculty Seminar: Awakening the Digital Imagination. The very beginning included the “call and response of fantasist and engineer, philosopher and inventor. Borges (◊01), the storyteller-librarian, and Bush (◊02), the soldier-scientist”.

Should be an interesting semester. The class is filled with faculty from all over campus, from early technology adopters and enthusiasts, to critics and luddites (-;