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Joseph Weizenbaum: an appreciation

April 04, 2008

Edge has posted Eliza's World, a brief article I wrote about Joseph Weizenbaum, who died last month. It begins with my favorite sentence from Weizenbaum's classic Computer Power and Human Reason:

"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?"

Read on.


Nick I would argue very strongly that his quest might be termed quixotic but at great peril of diminishing its core truth.

In an age of material wealth and consumerism the insidious creep that technology presents brings both hope and considerable threat, not least upon the larger picture that frames humanity and nature.

The epochal curve into modern times brings much light and the corresponding reach of it’s polar opposite, darkness.

Whatever words might be used to describe these elements, they both have untold power that ultimately reach far beyond what language can embrace.

His words, “the wordless glance that a father and mother share over the bed of their sleeping child,” demonstrate that he gazed through the illusionary curtain that separates truth from logic.

In that regard I would agree with you Nick, a person of heroic proportions.

Regards, Alan

Posted by: alan [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 4, 2008 10:06 AM

Indeed. We seem to read some of same books.
I blogged on the day after he died.

I suppose the simplest way to paraphrase him would be just because something is technically possible, doesn’t make it ethically correct. He challenges computer scientists to think beyond just technology. He spent most of his life thinking about what it is to be human.

As technology impacts more of our lives, It would be good for more software developers and their users to do the same.

In the post I linked to a Davos panel discussion. I don't think he got the respect there he deserved. It was one of his last public appearances.

Posted by: Thomas Otter [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 6, 2008 12:45 PM

Thomas, thank you so much for the Davos link. Interesting to hear the juxtaposition between the panelists.

The conversation had a long way to go to reach the high standards that Mr. Weizenbaum represented in the discussion.

Indeed a giant who has left much of great importance to be considered.

Warm regards, Alan

Posted by: alan [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 6, 2008 10:44 PM

One of the first - if not the first - and the best analysis on the overpowering implication of technology and its pervasive rôle was that of Jacques Ellul, published in French (as La technique ou l'enjeu du siècle - Technology, the challenge of the century) in 1954. Thanks to Aldous Huxley, Ellul got recognition in the US (much more than in France, actually), and he published in 1964 The Technological Society in English - with many titles to follow.

Posted by: Miklos [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 14, 2008 05:14 AM

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