The politics of programming

control board

For the last post of the year, I give you a short excerpt from The Glass Cage.

It’s commonly assumed that any technology that comes to be broadly adopted in a field, and hence gains momentum, must be the best one for the job. Progress, in this view, is a quasi-Darwinian process. Many different technologies are invented, they compete for users and buyers, and after a period of rigorous testing and comparison the marketplace chooses the best of the bunch. Only the fittest tools survive. Society can thus be confident that the technologies it employs are the optimum ones — and that the alternatives discarded along the way were flawed in some fatal way.

It’s a reassuring view of progress, founded on, in the words of the late historian David Noble, “a simple faith in objective science, economic rationality, and the market.” But as Noble went on to explain in his 1984 book Forces of Production, it’s a distorted view: “It portrays technological development as an autonomous and neutral technical process, on the one hand, and a coldly rational and self-regulating process, on the other, neither of which accounts for people, power, institutions, competing values, or different dreams.” In place of the complexities, vagaries, and intrigues of history, the prevailing view of technological progress presents us with a simplistic, retrospective fantasy.

Noble illustrated the tangled way technologies actually gain acceptance and momentum through the story of the automation of the machine tool industry in the years after World War II. Inventors and engineers developed several different techniques for programming lathes, drill presses, and other factory tools, and each of the control methods had advantages and disadvantages. One of the simplest and most ingenious of the systems, called Specialmatic, was invented by a Princeton-trained engineer named Felix P. Caruthers and marketed by a small New York company called Automation Specialties. Using an array of keys and dials to encode and control the workings of a machine, Specialmatic put the power of programming into the hands of skilled machinists on the factory floor. A machine operator, explained Noble, “could set and adjust feeds and speeds, relying upon accumulated experience with the sights, sounds, and smells of metal cutting.”

In addition to bringing the tacit know-how of the experienced craftsman into the automated system, Specialmatic had an economic advantage: a manufacturer did not have to pay a squad of engineers and consultants to program its equipment. Caruthers’s technology earned accolades from American Machinist magazine, which noted that Specialmatic “is designed to permit complete set-up and programming at the machine.” It would allow the machinist to gain the efficiency benefits of automation while retaining “full control of his machine throughout its entire machining cycle.”

But Specialmatic never gained a foothold in the market. While Caruthers was working on his invention, the U.S. Air Force was plowing money into a research program, conducted by an MIT team with longstanding ties to the military, to develop “numerical control,” a digital coding technique that was a forerunner of modern software programming. Not only did numerical control enjoy the benefits of a generous government subsidy and a prestigious academic pedigree; it appealed to business owners and managers who, faced with unremitting labor tensions after the war, yearned to gain more control over the operation of machinery in order to undercut the power of workers and their unions. Numerical control also had the glow of a cutting-edge technology — it was carried along by the burgeoning postwar excitement over digital computers. The MIT system may have been, as the author of a Society of Manufacturing Engineers paper would later write, “a complicated, expensive monstrosity,” but industrial giants like GE and Westinghouse rushed to embrace the technology, never giving alternatives like Specialmatic a chance.

Far from winning a tough evolutionary battle for survival, numerical control was declared the victor before competition even began. Programming took precedence over people, establishing a misanthropic design philosophy that now dominates our thinking about automation. As for the general public, it never knew that a choice had been made.


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The singularity is always near


I’ve been at least vaguely aware of Samuel Butler’s 1865 essay “Darwin Among the Machines” for a long time (mainly through quotations in George Dyson’s excellent book of the same title), but I hadn’t read it in full until I stumbled on a copy online a couple of days ago. It’s a strange and remarkable piece of work, and one that echoes loudly today. In fact, given the dire new predictions about humankind’s coming servitude to artificially intelligent machines, the essay’s resonance may be greater than ever. As a public service, I’m posting the whole thing here. Read it while baking your figgy pudding*:

There are few things of which the present generation is more justly proud than of the wonderful improvements which are daily taking place in all sorts of mechanical appliances. And indeed it is matter for great congratulation on many grounds. It is unnecessary to mention these here, for they are sufficiently obvious; our present business lies with considerations which may somewhat tend to humble our pride and to make us think seriously of the future prospects of the human race. If we revert to the earliest primordial types of mechanical life, to the wedge, the inclined plane, the screw and the pulley, or (for analogy would lead us one step further) to that one primordial type from which all the mechanical kingdom has been developed, we mean to the lever itself, and if we then examine the machinery of the Great Eastern [steamship], we find ourselves almost awestruck at the vast development of the mechanical world, at the gigantic strides with which it has advanced in comparison with the slow progress of the animal and vegetable kingdom. We shall find it impossible to refrain from asking ourselves what the end of this mighty movement is to be. In what direction is it tending? What will be its upshot? To give a few imperfect hints towards a solution of these questions is the object of the present letter.

We have used the words “mechanical life,” “the mechanical kingdom,” “the mechanical world” and so forth, and we have done so advisedly, for as the vegetable kingdom was slowly developed from the mineral, and as in like manner the animal supervened upon the vegetable, so now in these last few ages an entirely new kingdom has sprung up, of which we as yet have only seen what will one day be considered the antediluvian prototypes of the race.

We regret deeply that our knowledge both of natural history and of machinery is too small to enable us to undertake the gigantic task of classifying machines into the genera and sub-genera, species, varieties and sub-varieties, and so forth, of tracing the connecting links between machines of widely different characters, of pointing out how subservience to the use of man has played that part among machines which natural selection has performed in the animal and vegetable kingdoms, of pointing out rudimentary organs which exist in some few machines, feebly developed and perfectly useless, yet serving to mark descent from some ancestral type which has either perished or been modified into some new phase of mechanical existence. We can only point out this field for investigation; it must be followed by others whose education and talents have been of a much higher order than any which we can lay claim to.

Some few hints we have determined to venture upon, though we do so with the profoundest diffidence. Firstly, we would remark that as some of the lowest of the vertebrata attained a far greater size than has descended to their more highly organised living representatives, so a diminution in the size of machines has often attended their development and progress. Take the watch for instance. Examine the beautiful structure of the little animal, watch the intelligent play of the minute members which compose it; yet this little creature is but a development of the cumbrous clocks of the thirteenth century — it is no deterioration from them. The day may come when clocks, which certainly at the present day are not diminishing in bulk, may be entirely superseded by the universal use of watches, in which case clocks will become extinct like the earlier saurians, while the watch (whose tendency has for some years been rather to decrease in size than the contrary) will remain the only existing type of an extinct race.

The views of machinery which we are thus feebly indicating will suggest the solution of one of the greatest and most mysterious questions of the day. We refer to the question: What sort of creature man’s next successor in the supremacy of the earth is likely to be. We have often heard this debated; but it appears to us that we are ourselves creating our own successors; we are daily adding to the beauty and delicacy of their physical organisation; we are daily giving them greater power and supplying by all sorts of ingenious contrivances that self-regulating, self-acting power which will be to them what intellect has been to the human race. In the course of ages we shall find ourselves the inferior race. Inferior in power, inferior in that moral quality of self-control, we shall look up to them as the acme of all that the best and wisest man can ever dare to aim at. No evil passions, no jealousy, no avarice, no impure desires will disturb the serene might of those glorious creatures. Sin, shame, and sorrow will have no place among them. Their minds will be in a state of perpetual calm, the contentment of a spirit that knows no wants, is disturbed by no regrets. Ambition will never torture them. Ingratitude will never cause them the uneasiness of a moment. The guilty conscience, the hope deferred, the pains of exile, the insolence of office, and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes — these will be entirely unknown to them. If they want “feeding” (by the use of which very word we betray our recognition of them as living organism) they will be attended by patient slaves whose business and interest it will be to see that they shall want for nothing. If they are out of order they will be promptly attended to by physicians who are thoroughly acquainted with their constitutions; if they die, for even these glorious animals will not be exempt from that necessary and universal consummation, they will immediately enter into a new phase of existence, for what machine dies entirely in every part at one and the same instant?

We take it that when the state of things shall have arrived which we have been above attempting to describe, man will have become to the machine what the horse and the dog are to man. He will continue to exist, nay even to improve, and will be probably better off in his state of domestication under the beneficent rule of the machines than he is in his present wild state. We treat our horses, dogs, cattle, and sheep, on the whole, with great kindness; we give them whatever experience teaches us to be best for them, and there can be no doubt that our use of meat has added to the happiness of the lower animals far more than it has detracted from it; in like manner it is reasonable to suppose that the machines will treat us kindly, for their existence is as dependent upon ours as ours is upon the lower animals. They cannot kill us and eat us as we do sheep; they will not only require our services in the parturition of their young (which branch of their economy will remain always in our hands), but also in feeding them, in setting them right when they are sick, and burying their dead or working up their corpses into new machines. It is obvious that if all the animals in Great Britain save man alone were to die, and if at the same time all intercourse with foreign countries were by some sudden catastrophe to be rendered perfectly impossible, it is obvious that under such circumstances the loss of human life would be something fearful to contemplate—in like manner were mankind to cease, the machines would be as badly off or even worse. The fact is that our interests are inseparable from theirs, and theirs from ours. Each race is dependent upon the other for innumerable benefits, and, until the reproductive organs of the machines have been developed in a manner which we are hardly yet able to conceive, they are entirely dependent upon man for even the continuance of their species. It is true that these organs may be ultimately developed, inasmuch as man’s interest lies in that direction; there is nothing which our infatuated race would desire more than to see a fertile union between two steam engines; it is true that machinery is even at this present time employed in begetting machinery, in becoming the parent of machines often after its own kind, but the days of flirtation, courtship, and matrimony appear to be very remote, and indeed can hardly be realised by our feeble and imperfect imagination.

Day by day, however, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them, more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life. The upshot is simply a question of time, but that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants is what no person of a truly philosophic mind can for a moment question.

Our opinion is that war to the death should be instantly proclaimed against them. Every machine of every sort should be destroyed by the well-wisher of his species. Let there be no exceptions made, no quarter shown; let us at once go back to the primeval condition of the race. If it be urged that this is impossible under the present condition of human affairs, this at once proves that the mischief is already done, that our servitude has commenced in good earnest, that we have raised a race of beings whom it is beyond our power to destroy, and that we are not only enslaved but are absolutely acquiescent in our bondage.

For the present we shall leave this subject, which we present gratis to the members of the Philosophical Society. Should they consent to avail themselves of the vast field which we have pointed out, we shall endeavour to labour in it ourselves at some future and indefinite period.

I swiped the headline to this post from a piece Kevin Kelly wrote back in 2006. It’s also worth reading.

*Wikipedia is brilliant on figgy pudding: “Figgy pudding is a pudding resembling a paler coloured Christmas pudding containing figs.” Where does one begin in singing the praises of such a sentence?


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MOOCs and the distance-learning mirage


“I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill, and you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your 20 students. But I’ve taken the red pill, and I’ve seen Wonderland.” –Sebastian Thrun, 2012

Now that we’ve begun to talk of MOOCs retrospectively, the time has come to update my previously published survey of the history of hype and wishful thinking that has for more than a century surrounded distance-learning technologies. I am adding a new entry to the list. I suspect it won’t be the last addition.

Mail: Around 1885, Yale professor William Rainey Harper, a pioneer of teaching-by-post, said, “The student who has prepared a certain number of lessons in the correspondence school knows more of the subject treated in those lessons, and knows it better, than the student who has covered the same ground in the classroom.” Soon, he predicted, “the work done by correspondence will be greater in amount than that done in the class-rooms of our academies and colleges.”

Phonograph: In an 1878 article on “practical uses of the phonograph,” the New York Times predicted that the phonograph would be used “in the school-room in training children to read properly without the personal attention of the teacher; in teaching them to spell correctly, and in conveying any lesson to be acquired by study and memory. In short, a school may almost be conducted by machinery.”

Movies: “It is possible to teach every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture,” proclaimed Thomas Edison in 1913. “Our school system will be completely changed in 10 years.”

Radio: In 1927, the University of Iowa declared that “it is no imaginary dream to picture the school of tomorrow as an entirely different institution from that of today, because of the use of radio in teaching.”

TV: “During the 1950s and 1960s,” report education scholars Marvin Van Kekerix and James Andrews, “broadcast television was widely heralded as the technology that would revolutionize education.” In 1963, an official with the National University Extension Association wrote that television provided an “open door” to transfer “vigorous and vital learning” from campuses to homes.

Computers: “There won’t be schools in the future,” wrote MIT’s Seymour Papert in 1984. “I think the computer will blow up the school. That is, the school defined as something where there are classes, teachers running exams, people structured into groups by age, following a curriculum — all of that.”

Web 1.0: The arrival of the web brought the e-learning fad of the late 1990s, as universities and corporations rushed to invest in online courses. In 1999, Cisco CEO John Chambers told the Times‘s Thomas Friedman, “The next big killer application for the Internet is going to be education. Education over the Internet is going to be so big, it’s going to make e-mail usage look like a rounding error.”

MOOCs: The New York Times declared 2012 the “the year of the MOOC.” “Welcome to the college education revolution,” wrote the ever-hopeful Friedman in a column heralding massive open online courses. “In five years this will be a huge industry.” The MOOC “is transforming higher education,” declared the Economist, “threatening doom for the laggard and mediocre.” Academics were equally bedazzled. “There’s a tsunami coming,” said Stanford president John Hennessy. Opined MIT president Rafael Reif: “I am convinced that digital learning is the most important innovation in education since the printing press.” Harvard’s Clayton Christensen predicted “wholesale bankruptcies” among traditional universities.

All of these mediums and devices have come to play valuable roles in education and training — which is something worth celebrating — but none of them turned out to be revolutionary or transformative. There may be a deeper lesson here, a lesson about how easy it is to overlook the intangible virtues not just of classrooms but of presence.

Image: detail of John Tenniel illustration for 1865 edition of Alice in Wonderland.


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Facebook’s automated conscience


Last week, Wired‘s Cade Metz gave us a peek into the Facebook Behavior Modification Laboratory, which is more popularly known as the Facebook Artificial Intelligence Research (FAIR) Laboratory. Run by Yann LeCun, an NYU data scientist, the lab is developing a digital assistant that will act as your artificial conscience and censor. Perched on your shoulder like one of those cartoon angels, it will whisper tsk tsk into your ear when your online behavior threatens to step beyond the bounds of propriety.

[LeCun] wants to build a kind of Facebook digital assistant that will, say, recognize when you’re uploading an embarrassingly candid photo of your late-night antics. In a virtual way, he explains, this assistant would tap you on the shoulder and say: “Uh, this is being posted publicly. Are you sure you want your boss and your mother to see this?”

It’s Kubrick’s HAL refashioned as Mr. Buzzkill. “Just what do you think you’re doing, Dave?”

The secret to the technology is an AI technique known as machine learning, a statistical modeling tool through which a computer gains a kind of experiential knowledge of the world. In this case, Facebook would, by monitoring your uploaded words and photos, be able to read your moods and intentions. The company would, for instance, be able to “distinguish between your drunken self and your sober self.” That would enable Facebook to “guide you in directions you may not go on your own.” Says LeCun: “Imagine that you had an intelligent digital assistant which would mediate your interaction with your friends.”

Yes, imagine.

“Look Dave, I can see you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.”

If and when Facebook perfects its behavior modification algorithms, it would be a fairly trivial exercise to expand their application beyond the realm of shitfaced snapshots. That photo you’re about to post of the protest rally you just marched in? That angry comment about the president? That wild thought that just popped into your mind? You know, maybe those wouldn’t go down so well with the boss.

“And as our senses have gone outside us,” Marshall McLuhan wrote in 1962, while contemplating the ramifications of what he termed a universal, digital nervous system, “Big Brother goes inside.”

This post is an installment in Rough Type’s ongoing series “The Realtime Chronicles,” which began here. A full listing of posts can be found here. Also see: Automating the feels.


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