• Too Early for Dr. Who References?

    Posted on September 28th, 2011 Rebecca No comments

    Cybermen (2006)

    Although it may be too early in the course to admit Dr. Who fandom, this week’s readings deem that admission completely appropriate, I think!

    Both the Wiener piece (“Men, Machines, and the World About”) and the Licklider piece (“Man-Computer Symbiosis”) immediately brought to mind the Cybermen of Dr. Who’s world; Wiener, for bringing the prefix “cyber” into English usage and Licklider, for envisioning “human brains and computing machines…coupled together very tightly” (p. 74).  You can read more about the Cybermen here, but the general idea is that they were originally a species of humanoids that began adding artificial parts in order to preserve themselves, ultimately developing an emotionless race that will “delete” anything incompatible with system (which is, of course, often their downfall, especially when battling the Doctor).

    I think that both Wiener and Licklider (or “Lick,” as I’ve discovered he was known to acquaintances) would be Dr. Who fans.  The show portrays both good and bad uses of technology–technology used to its potential, and technology abused past its potential.  Lick seems to see the almost unbridled potential of technology, emphasizing how it can “amplify” human intelligence.  The Doctor would agree with this–he’s no Luddite!  The Doctor’s time machine–the Tardis–provides a perfect example of this (as does his sonic screwdriver, etc.).  When technology is developed and used “properly,” it like the Tardis, can break down barriers (such as language) that prevent humans from reaching their potential.

    But, like Wiener, Dr. Who (the show) highlights “the use of human power for other purposes than the greater glory of God” (p. 72).  Wiener’s invocation of the monkey’s paw and the genie in the bottle are scary references–much like the Cybermen, or the Daleks (the Doctor’s other arch nemesis).  Wiener and Vannevar Bush both fear the potential (probable) use of technology for anything other than helping the human race meet its potential for good and growth.  However, neither offers much in terms of knowing when we’re crossing that line into those “other” purposes.  So, thinking about Bush, Weiner, Lick, and the Doctor, I suppose that’s my ultimate question:  at what point does intelligence amplification become, in a word, evil?  As  Jill noted, Wiener’s awareness of this potential of technology seems mainly influenced by his  hindsight (guilt).  But again, I think he only came to these conclusions because of his experience.

    So, those of us tinkering with technologies without similar (personal) experiences may be having the difficulty that Licklider referenced when he wrote that “many problems that can be thought through in advance are very difficult to think through in advance” (p. 75). None of this provides an answer, or even a question (as Poincare might point out, p. 75), but it does bring to mind Melvin Kranzberg and his first law of technology:  Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.