CMC Magazine: December 1998

Philosophy and Computers 101

Book Review: The Philosophical Programmer: Reflections on the Moth in the Machine
By Daniel Kohanski
St. Martin's Press,1998
$22.95 (US)
ISBN: 0-312-18650-9

Reviewed by Van W. Kloempken

Computer programming and design is not a field usually thought of as being fraught with ethical complications. It is a dry, academic field better left to those polyester clad, pocket protected specialists who prefer the company of a computer to that of a fellow human. Daniel Kohanski, in his new book The Philosophical Programmer: Reflections on the Moth in the Machine, tries to change all that. In clear and simple language Mr. Kohanski takes apart the computer, exposing its innermost workings in such a way that even the most neophyte computer user can understand.

Mr. Kohanski begins by pointing out that there are characteristics "unique to computers and computer programming that present us with ethical challenges unlike any we have ever faced before." He goes on to identify seven of these characteristics as:

  • A computer's ability to magnify the effects of our actions.
  • The level of precision that computers require to operate properly.
  • The alienation they engender by separating the actor from the effect.
  • The unwarranted credibility given to computer output simply because it came from a computer.
  • The ability of the computer to manipulate information.
  • Our inability to understand how and why it does what it does.
  • The fact that computers are requiring less and less human intervention to operate.

After an all too brief discussion of each one, the author arrives at a tantalizing conclusion: "Any ethical structure recognizes that human beings are capable of doing deeds that it therefore forbids; we are slow, however, in coming to the realization that these codes of ethics must be extended to apply to our autonomous tools as well."

Kohanski believes that before we are capable of pursuing the line of ethical inquiry he has opened up, we must become intimately familiar with the inmost workings of a computer. By the time he picks up his philosophical theme in the concluding chapters, most readers will have lost interest.

He implies that computers can separate us from the consequences of our actions like no other tool ever has but they are still just tools. We are the agent and therefore responsible for what computers do. All sorts of evils occur when "the computer is down" and the system that failed takes the blame. Kohanski challenges us to accept responsibility for our actions. "The computer did not fail," he says, "the programmers, the designers, the operators, the users -- they failed."

It is at this point that the book takes a disappointing turn. Apparently, Kohanski believes that before we are capable of pursuing the line of ethical inquiry he has opened up, we must become intimately familiar with the inmost workings of a computer. He spends several chapters, indeed, the bulk of the book, explaining in great detail what a CPU is, what ROM and PROM are, RAM and bits and bytes, operating systems and data definitions, and on and on. We learn what ACSII and EBCDIC stand for, how to convert machine language into hexadecimal and more. We learn more than we want or need to know about the technical side of computers. By the time Kohanski picks up his philosophical theme again in the concluding chapters, I fear most readers will have lost interest.

For the most part the book lacks those humorous anecdotes and personal insights that are the hallmark of good technical literature. This is not to say that I didn't learn anything. On the contrary, I learned that the term "bug" originated when a moth crawled into an old tube-type computer and died. Operators had to remove the "bug" before the machine would work properly and the term stuck.

And Kohanski does make a couple good points. For example, he says that "the generations to come will have been raised on computers from childhood and will have a trained instinct for both the expressiveness and the limitations of a display of information." The sad part is that he never expands on the insight. What are some of the ethical consequences of whole new generations imbued with a new, instinctive way to communicate? Surely, there must be many possibilities.

Perhaps nothing shows the influence computers have on modern society better than the year 2000 problem. Kohanski points out that this was not necessarily an oversight on the part of programmers. In most cases, the decision to leave the century out of date calculations was a conscious one resulting from economics. It was a way to conserve storage space (which back then was very costly) and to make programs run faster. The rate at which technology was advancing, even back in the 1960s and 1970s, led everyone to believe that the programs they were creating would be obsolete long before the turn of the century. Kohanski points out how pervasive the problem is and asks the question, what Y2k-type problems are we creating now and will we be able to recover from the next one.

Reflections is just that -- a collection of loosely connected reflections. Computer buffs and hobbyists might enjoy its historical perspective but anyone seriously interested in an ethical discussion should look elsewhere. Reflection asks many of the right questions, but suggests no answers.

Van W. Kloempken ( is currently a senior consultant with Data Dimensions, Inc. an international consulting firm that specializes in assisting businesses find technical solutions to their problems such as the year 2000, risk management and managed growth. He's been in the IT industry for over 14 years, serving as technical writer, marketing director and MIS manager.

Copyright (c) 1998 by Van W. Kloempken. All Rights Reserved.


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