Software Makes Us Stupid
Daniel T. Johnson, 2000 Dec 08

I can't imagine this is a novel idea, but my Internet searches didn't turn up a single use of this phrase, which maybe tells us something. Maybe it's that everyone is either intimidated by computers or in awe of what they can do. But having grown up with the computer revolution almost from it's inception (I was born in 1948), I think now the very power of software applications is distancing us as a technical and scientific community from understanding the things we work with. We spend our time figuring out how to make software packages do things, at the expense of direct work with the physical reality they represent. We play computer games and think we're engineering oil fields. Virtual reality banishes mere mental models, the medium is the message, and we get stupid.

I mean both the plural, "us" as a team or organization or society, as well as us as individuals, because we rely so heavily on software for technical communication. If we can't visualize it, i.e. render it with computer graphics, we can't say it, at least not in a way that captures the attention of our colleagues. I've always been a very visual thinker, and I've long expressed frustration with words and arm waving and chalkboard diagrams, but at least with that everything is equally difficult. With software, some things are marvelously easy, but only those things the software package is capable of -- we have incredible speed and power to model and visualize a small subset of what might be, or of what we can imagine or draw by hand. Software guides us into thinking and communicating in terms of things it can do and show, which may be a small subset of all the possibilities. In my professional life in a technology team of a major oil company, I have a unique perspective on software for modeling petroleum reservoirs. In such complex and relatively inaccessible natural systems, the "space" of possibilities which appears in software is a very restricted subspace, and imposes a strong selection bias in our work. We need to keep this selection bias firmly in mind when using modeling and visualization software, but good visualization is very seductive, and we tend to forget its biases -- we get stupid.

Implicit in the claim that software makes us stupid is that we're smarter without it, but that's not simply so. Software can be a very powerful aid to thought and understanding, and is an essential part of the technological revolution which is transforming and enriching our world. The challenge is to use it appropriately, as a technical tool, and not let it determine our choices. Decades ago philosopher Marshall McLuhan considered analogous issues with respect to mass media and then-new electronic communication technologies like television, and coined the memorable and much-disputed phrase "the medium is the message" in his 1964 book Understanding Media. The idea is that much as we'd like to be masters of our destiny, technologies are not just instruments of our intentions but have their own necessary attributes which inexorably shape our thinking and behavior. I think a lot of the controversy about McLuhan's ideas is about how determinative the technology is, and how powerless we are to control it, and I think a better reading would be a more interactive model where we have a degree of control, not limitless, but neither is the technology itself totally determinative. Perhaps we should say "the medium modifies the message," but that doesn't seem like a memorable message. Even acknowledging the problems with the TV wasteland, few people seriously propose banishing the technology, but McLuhan's and other critiques do serve to enlighten individual choices, business decisions, and public policy. Similarly with software, I'm definitely not saying we'd be better off without it, but I do want to call attention to the pitfalls, and raise awareness that virtual reality is not necessarily virtuous, that software solutions can capture our attention in a way that makes us less effective scientists, engineers, and business people. Thinking carefully and talking about this issue at some length is worthwhile. But to really get the message across, a memorable summary statement is needed. So spread the slogan, "software makes us stupid."

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