The Computer has Created the Information Economy

Everyone will agree with this, because they all have heard it before. They know the words, they can repeat them by heart – but they have no idea what they mean.

An entirely new world has opened up before them – but few can see it.

They know the computer has opened up new business possibilities, and has attracted lots of money, in some places. But they cannot imagine why.

Getting acquainted with this new world is not easy – because it is so different.

I became acquainted with it by accident. I needed a new career, because the old one, as an Electronic Engineer (U of Illinois, 1979) was finished. The Vacuum Tube, that it was based on – had been replaced by the Transistor – and a host of Silicon-based Integrated Circuits.

I did the only sensible thing – and went to work for the Computer Industry – as a Technical Writer. A huge career change!

I was forced to live with the Computer every day – and gradually got to like it. I got the first personal computer – that made me much more productive, as a writer. I started to program the thing – and became a programmer myself. I didn’t plan any of this – it just happened! I had become a Computer person, and could not go back.

The whole world could not go back – and we plunged forward, into the unknown. We became part of the Information Economy – with most people having no idea what that was.

I cannot explain it, and I have tried. You have to live with it, intimately – before you can understand it.

Does this sound like Sex? It sure does. And the result will be new beings, like none before them.


The Computer Has Made Some Things More Efficient

And this has made some people upset (to put it mildly) – because it was taking their jobs away from them. There are jobs the Computer can do better – and cheaper. And more of these are being discovered all the time.

No one can deny this, but some Computer apologists are eager to assure us – this is only a temporary situation. In the long run, they say, more jobs will be created.

I am not convinced of this – because I can see huge improvements in Software, with no improvements in making more jobs. These, I must remind you, were part of the Industrial Economy. And that has mostly gone away – mostly to China.

There are jobs in the Information Economy – and good-paying jobs. But only for people with special skills. I have worked with some of these – and I can tell you: they have exotic minds.

The Computer itself has an exotic mind. Artificial Intelligence is sometimes more intelligent than people are. It can work with huge amounts of data, and look for subtle patterns in it.

The Internet lets it to gather information from all over the world – and to issue orders between computers, all over the world. While most people, right in the middle of this – are not aware of what is going on.

A tragic situation, obviously – but a new kind of tragedy, we are not aware of yet.

The Computer has Made People Worse

The combination of the Computer and Capitalism has not improved the Human Race. They have created an authoritarian business ethic, that has made most people less important. As a result, they do the smart thing – they identify with this shift in power – so they can get some of it for themselves. And overlook any ethical considerations this involves.

And, most important of all – this change has destroyed people’s ability to understand what is going on. They have become stupid, as the Computer has become smarter.

The Computer is better at understanding Data – and the more of it there is, and the more complicated it is, the better. Precisely what the human mind is not good at. And this what makes Computerized Capitalism so powerful.

The world has become more complex, no question about it. But it could still be understood – if people wanted to. They don’t – they just want to destroy it. Because it has destroyed them.

This, it seems to me, is the central dynamic of our time. A vast orgy of destruction, that no one wants to see. Everyone is saying “I’m not responsible, someone else is;”

Which is simply a lie.

The Computer Can Help Us Think, But It Cannot Help Us Feel

The reason for this is simple – the Computer is a machine, and any input for it has to be digitized – turned into a number. This is a fact we tend to overlook, in our foolish belief, that the Computer can do anything.

People operate entirely differently, and have emotions, that have a powerful influence on them – for good, and for bad. In fact, most of people’s emotional life is imaginary (or religious) – and the Computer has no access to it.

We were overwhelmed by the Machine, in the 19th Century, and tried our best to be one – with disastrous consequences. And our analysis should begin with this, with Industrialization.

This made us feel superhuman – because we did acquire marvelous new powers (including Classical Music) – but we also became socially degenerate – as the Holocaust proved.

People have social instincts that can be either good or bad. And their machines have a big influence on this. This effect has not been understood – the social interaction between People and their Machines. Including the latest machine – the Computer.

The developed world has been swept by a destructive mania recently – marked by the election, in the US, of Trump. With similar movements in the UK and the EU.

This is a social phenomena, no question about that – but one that few have tried to understand – or even acknowledge. The people involved do not want to understand it – but just do it. If it wrecks the world – that is fine with them. This is a religious approach – if the world is impure, it must be destroyed!

The important new technologies of our time are Television and the Computer – both networked technologies, that have made people stupid and destructive. As the Computer has become smarter – its users have become stupider. Why should they think – if their TV or Handheld can think for them?

What Did We Learn From Making the Computer?

When we made the Computer we made it much like ourselves. And now we have nearly finished that job – we can look back on ourselves in a new way.

Or some of us can do this. And this constitutes the gap between those in the know – and those not in the know. The vast majority of people, at this time.

This is always the case when cultures go through a big change – when the Western World went through the Middle Ages (that lasted for a thousand years) and moved into the Modern World. This resulted in people so different – we can no longer remember what we were like before.

Let’s start at the beginning – how we made the Computer like ourselves. Without thinking about it – we were very clever about how we did this.

We were clever when we designed the Hardware – with a separate, programmable Memory. But we were extremely clever when we developed the Software – the Brains of the Computer.This development is still going on – at a very rapid pace.

This has resulted in huge problem – we live in the Internet World, that controls us – but we do not control it. This is always a problem when we are possessed by a successful new technology – but this time it is worse than ever.

Each technology makes huge demands on us – and we have always responded by changing ourselves to make us more compatible with it.

But the result of adapting to Television was a disaster – to make ourselves compatible with this, we had to become nothing but consumers – and not able to think for ourselves.

But I see I have messed up this posting completely. I started to write about the Computer, and then I switched to Television – and wound up in a swamp, up to my ass in alligators.

I will have to start once again – describing how the Computer drained the swamp. At least for some of us.

What has the Computer Done To Us?

I did not ask what the Computer had done for us – which is the way this question is usually phrased. It has given us marvelous new capabilities – but also huge new problems. It is the problems I want to write about today.

It has made Business more powerful – but at the same time, it has made People less powerful.

What do I mean by Business and People?

By Business (business with a capital B) I mean Big Business – Global Business, in fact. It can now prey on everyone, everywhere. It has given the worst kind of people the most power. And we should not be surprised by what they are doing with it.

What do I mean by People? I mean the mass of people – who were trained by Industrialization to be workers in its factories. They were supposed to do their job – and not question what they were doing. They were parts of the Industrial Machine.

The Computer is the latest machine – and it is doing what machines always do – form large organizations of people, that can be used by the rich and powerful – to become richer and more powerful.

Welcome to the Post-Decision Age

I, Cringely

He is on to something here – something important.

What Kahneman and Tversky figured out is that we have ancient brains that generally don’t do the math because math has only been around for 5,000 years or so while we as a species have been walking the Earth for 2+ million years. Our decision-making processes, such as they are, are based on maximizing survival not success. Early hunter-gatherers weren’t so bothered with optimization as just not being eaten. This put an emphasis on making decisions quickly.

So we can make policies but we can’t implement them at any scale without help. And with the rise of machine learning, Big Data, and the relentless advance of Moore’s Law, computers have become so fast and so smart that we think they can sight shoot at instinct speeds. And maybe they can, but it’s for sure that normal humans no longer understand the underlying algorithms and may be unable to regain control.

I hate to pee on his parade, but we lost control a long time ago. And all the Computer has done is make us (or at least some of us) aware of it.

Artificial Intelligence is trying to help us here – with improved programming techniques. Where we we break out each part of the decision process – and test each part separately. However, it takes some moxie to do this – and this moxie has to be provided by some very smart people.

I’m doing my feeble best – by studying the Java computing language. Maybe sometime we can catch up with the Computer.

But I’m not betting on it.