CMC Magazine / February 1, 1996
Hopes and Horrors, by Rob Kling
Some important writings about the social changes linked to computerization criticize utopian assumptions. In fact, some authors articulate a comparably dark "anti-utopian" view of computerization.
Joseph Weizenbaum, in his popular book, Computer Power and Human Reason, observes:
"Our society's growing reliance on computer systems that were initially intended to "help" people make analyses and decisions, but which have long since surpassed the understanding of their users and become indispensable to them is a very serious development. First, decisions are made with the aid of, and sometimes entirely by, computers whose programs no one any longer knows explicitly or understand since no one can know the criteria or rules on which such decisions are based. Second, the rules and criteria that are embedded in such computer systems become immune to change, because, in the absence of detailed understanding of the inner workings of a computer system, any substantial modification of it is very likely to render the whole system inoperable and possibly unrestorable. Such computer systems can therefore only grow. And their growth and the increasing reliance placed on them is then accompanied by an increasing legitimation of their 'knowledge base.'" (pp. 236-237).
Weizenbaum criticizes visions of computerized databases which record historical data because they usually eliminate important information which is too complex or costly to include:
"The computer has thus begun to be an instrument for the destruction of history. For when society legitimates only those "data" that are in one standard format, then history, memory itself, is annihilated. The New York Times has already begun to build a "data bank" of current events. Of course, only those data that are easily derivable as by-products of typesetting machines are admissible to the system. As the number of subscribers to this system grows, as they learn to rely more and more upon "all the news that [was once] fit to print," as the Times proudly identifies its editorial policy, how long will it be before what counts as fact is determined by the system, before all other knowledge, all memory, is simply declared illegitimate? Soon a supersystem will be built, based on The New York Times' data bank (or one very much like it), from which "historians" will make inferences about what "really" happened, about who is connected to whom, and about the "real" logic of events (Weizenbaum, 1976:238)."
Weizenbaum's observations gain more force when one realizes that journalists often don't simply report "the facts". They tend to rely upon standard kinds of sources, voices of publicly legitimate authority, in framing stories. For example, when a university alters a curriculum, deans and professors are more likely than students are to appear in the resulting news story. Gaye Tuchman characterized reporters in search of a story as casting a selective "newsnet" around their favorite kinds of sources. Journalists often don't cast their nets to give equal voice to all kinds of informed parties. While reporters are much more likely to go to "the grass roots" today than they were in the 1950s, each newspaper prints a mix of stories in a style that reflects a relatively stable character. Even if the mastheads were interchanged, one would not confuse The New York Times with a small town weekly newspaper.
Moreover, Weizenbaum speaks with authority about future events ("Soon a supersystem will be built . . ."). Without special design, nothing in the database technology itself would be likely to give the user a clue about its real limitations in representing a narrow range of perspectives. I don't worry much about professional historians who have developed strong criteria for verifying events by appeal to a variety of corroborating sources. Nonetheless, the convenience of database technology makes it very tempting for others to rely on it as a primary source, without appreciating its shortcomings. That is the cautionary note that one might draw from Weizenbaum's bitter observations.
But Weizenbaum's argument is primarily polemical. He doesn't discuss any virtues of news databases, or conditions under which they might not have the deleterious consequences he identifies. After all, news databases can substantially assist in useful research as long as they do not become a sole source of information.
The next two selections illustrate different styles of technological anti-utopian writing.