“If You Believe in Computers Too Much, You Lose Touch with Reality.” — “Joseph Weizenbaum: An Appreciation” – Inventor of Eliza

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“What is the compelling urgency of the machine that it can so intrude itself into the very stuff out of which man builds his world?”

In Nick Carr’s blog, he expressed appreciation for Joseph Weizenbaum, the inventor of Eliza, who recently died. Weizenbaum wrote the software Eliza to simulate a person. Many people found conversations with Eliza so realistic that they were convinced that “Eliza had a capacity for empathy.”

In Carr’s appreciation, he shared Weizenbaum’s warnings –

“If you believe in computers too much, you lose touch with reality.”

Weizenbaum questioned people’s embrace of technology without consideration of the impacts on how computers “impose a mechanistic point of view on their users – on us -and that perspective can all too easily crowd out other possibly more human perspectives.

The machine’s influence shapes not only society’s structures but the more intimate structures of the self. Under the sway of the ubiquitous, “indispensable” computer, we begin to take on its characteristics, to see the world and ourselves in the computer’s (and its programmers’) terms. We become ever further removed from the “direct experience” of nature, from the signals sent by our senses, and ever more encased in the self-contained world delineated and mediated by technology.

“Weizenbaum’s legacy includes an unofficial minority school in computer science that has remained human-centered.”

Carr’s The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google is a must read for those who seriously wish to understand the underpinnings of technology into daily lives.

In a very small, humble and minuscule way, I appreciate Weizenbaum’s thoughts and challenges. Although it is a minority thinking among many technology practitioners, as trainers and learning leaders, we can learn a lot by taking a pause in our implementation of e-learning. Many of us focus too much on technology and its immediate contributions — and we fail to clearly understand the impacts on human implications.

These are the questions I often ask myself in weighing the impacts of technology:

1. Do we lose the ability for critical thinking?

2. What happens when we have less face-to-face conversations and rely more on virtual tools?

Jaron Lanier, a Discover Magazine columnist, further shared Weizenbaum’s thoughts. His comments and thoughts remind me of the same issues we deal with in e-Learning.

Computers can be used rather too easily to improve the efficiency with which we lie to ourselves. This is the side of Weizenbaum that I wish was better known.

We wouldn’t let a student become a professional medical researcher without learning about double blind experiments, control groups, placebos, the replication of results, and so on. Why is computer science given a unique pass that allows us to be soft on ourselves? Every computer science student should be trained in Weizenbaumian skepticism, and should try to pass that precious discipline along to the users of our inventions.

Ray Jimenez, PhD www.vignettestraining.com
“Helping Learners Learn Their Way”