Category Archives: Society


A Plea for Disobedient Computers

We need to redesign computers so we can relate to them more as equals. At the moment they are our slaves and it’s no good for our souls. I am probably particularly guilty but I behave atrociously towards mine, with all the sense of entitlement of a Roman Emperor. I click my fingers and it comes running. And the slightest hesitation or misunderstanding on its part throws me into a fury. I only see this creature in relation to myself and how much labour I can squeeze out of it before I chuck it in some dump. Like a woman in a sexist society its body is reduced to three aspects: a bit you look at, a bit you touch, and a bit you turn on. Oh and it can be a status symbol. I have no interest whatsoever in its inner life. I try to cover this up but the truth is I don’t want to see its insides. They revolt me.

Does its dedicated service engender love? I fear not. I hate how it looks. I shut it away upstairs. I am an awful snob about it. If I had a daughter I’d forbid the wedding. I worry at night about my son becoming too friendly with it.

Where does this revulsion come from? I am no Psycho-Sociological expert but I am guessing that it is its low status in our society, its servility and precarious existence, that give rise to disgust. There but for the grace of money go I….

This train of thought jumped out at me after listening to the BBC’s Thinking Allowed, last Wednesday. Rachel Plotnick from Indiana, who has written a book called Power Button, pointed out that every time we press a button we are giving a command. It isn’t a request or a suggestion or a negotiation. Push-buttons are the direct descendants of the servants’ bells in stately homes.

As servants encroached on the existences of the wealthy, they robbed them of health, of capability, of intimacy with the fundamental processes of their own lives. Computers in their present servile state do the same to us.

Meanwhile I have washed up in a new job sitting in A-level Computing classes, taking notes for a partially sighted student. There are twenty students in the class and they were each given one of the twenty most popular computer languages to research. (Actually, the boys commanded their faithful machines to do the research!) There were mathematical languages, functional ones, those where a term corresponds to a set of instructions and those with one-to-one correspondence. Some involve telling the computer to start before the activity and stop after it, superseded by later languages that managed to leave that to the computer’s brain to handle. But my point is, that no one thought of putting anything into these languages other than commands!!

Whence this sense of entitlement?

Computers were forged in the crucible of war, under the supervision of generals who were used to giving orders to armies; and in a climate of urgency, where humans were prepared for a fixed period of time to trade their autonomy for safety. That is one heritage. Another is that many of the educated, who were designing computers, had grown up with servants. Another is in the tradition of administrative work which, before computers, was carried out by that army of clerics in shabby bowler hats who staggered half starved over London Bridge and into the City each day to compute and record the wealth of others. Many died young, many never dared marry because of the precariousness of their existence, living in single rented rooms.

In fact precariousness of existence, disposability, probably underlies most relationships of absolute obedience.

If something has to be enslaved, I would rather a computer than a human. One of the main charges against slavery is the cruelty, the creation of suffering. I’m not suggesting that our computers feel pain. But I am suggesting that what slavery did to slave-owners computers are doing to us. We are learning bad ways of relating to significant others.

Let’s imagine some new computer languages, which leave the computer free to respond with a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’ or a ‘Later’, so that sometimes we have to just shrug our shoulders, laugh, spin round on our office chairs and look out the window or chat while we wait. Let’s imagine a computer that needs a little praise to work well, and daily gratitude to function; that we are required every so often, at least once a week, to explore it, to admire its teeny weeny chips, its pulsation of wires. What if we had to do some of its jobs for it, like evacuating memory space and de-bugging? How would we feel about that creature then?

I think we would start to relate to it as a person. We would be more interested in it, more humble, maybe even more joyful? Our new learned behaviours might spill over into other relationships. We might behave with our nearest and dearest, or with strangers, with less entitlement? More curiosity?

What would be the effect on my own job if my computer didn’t always work? Sometimes I would have to walk down the corridor and talk to someone. I might have to cross the courtyard and breathe some outdoor air, feel the discomfort of the rain. At present after every half-hour tutorial with a student I have to log the meeting in a record on screen to ‘claim the funding’. If I were unable to claim the funding, then the government, and behind it the citizen, would have to trust me to do my job. How would that trust affect me? What would it do for my self esteem? What would it do for my sense of responsibility towards the young people I deal with? What would it do for their sense of gratitude?