Monday, 29 September 2008

The Computer Says No

Much as I have mixed feelings about "Little Britain," as with all good comedies, it has some important things to say about attitudes, behaviours and stupidities. The rather overdone sketches around "The Computer Says No" character are a case in point.

The other day, my mother told me that she went into a shop in Stoke and received "The Computer Says No" treatment. Being my mother, she immediately bristled and retorted (in excellent received pronunciation): "We're in charge of the machines, you know, not the other way around." The shop assistant looked flabbergasted, and obviously didn't agree with her: if The Computer says no, that's that.

And actually, unfortunately, I agree with the shop assistant. Unfortunately, unfortunately, unfortunately, The Computer is in charge. Unfortunately, unfortunately, unfortunately, the machines are in charge of us, not the other way round. Despite all evidence to the contrary, despite the lessons of the twentieth century, we as a stupid race persist in over-trusting machines and raising them to positions of authority over us. So much of what we do is determined by machines, whether it's email telling us what to do, electronic timetables and diaries telling us where to be, electronic rulebooks telling us what is allowed, Word for Windows telling us what to write, etc. etc.

This is amazing, really, given the history of the twentieth century, which, if it taught us anything, should have taught us that machines, computers, technology are not good in themselves and should definitely not be raised above human beings in terms of power. Despite all evidence to the contrary, we as a race persist in believing that technology = progress - that technology is somehow a good in itself. We entrust the future of the world to computers; we entrust the apocalypse to machines (in the forms of bombs).

If this doesn't demonstrate the infinite stupidity of the human race, it demonstrates a couple of other things: firstly, the infinite ability we have for ignoring the lessons of history (gosh, if only we witnessed the Somme, surely we'd learn not to trust machines with our destiny); and secondly, and I think more importantly, our infinite insecurity. The human race has learned not to trust itself. We don't trust our own instincts, our own goodness, our own freewill, our own choices, and have, therefore, given our destinies over to machines. Isaiah Berlin once said that the twentieth century was the century of the inhuman; and I think that's because we've learnt not to trust the human, and put ourselves in the mechanical hands of computers, machines, technology.

In the end it's worth remembering that there is a difference between technology and human beings: however awful human beings can be, at least they can also be human once in a while. The more like machines they are (see "Little Britain"), the less human they are, the worse things turn out.

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