Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The World in Its Own Terms

The New York Times Magazine last Sunday focused on technology on education. Lots of good reads but what caught my eye was an article by Microsoft Research's Jaron Lanier, basically arguing that computational thinking ruins your enjoyment of life.
A career in computer science makes you see the world in its terms. You start to see money as a form of information display instead of as a store of value. Money flows are the computational output of a lot of people planning, promising, evaluating, hedging and scheming, and those behaviors start to look like a set of algorithms. You start to see the weather as a computer processing bits tweaked by the sun, and gravity as a cosmic calculation that keeps events in time and space consistent.
This way of seeing is becoming ever more common as people have experiences with computers. While it has its glorious moments, the computational perspective can at times be uniquely unromantic.
Nothing kills music for me as much as having some algorithm calculate what music I will want to hear. That seems to miss the whole point. Inventing your musical taste is the point, isn’t it? Bringing computers into the middle of that is like paying someone to program a robot to have sex on your behalf so you don’t have to.
And yet it seems we benefit from shining an objectifying digital light to disinfect our funky, lying selves once in a while. It’s heartless to have music chosen by digital algorithms. But at least there are fewer people held hostage to the tastes of bad radio D.J.’s than there once were. The trick is being ambidextrous, holding one hand to the heart while counting on the digits of the other.
Lanier is mostly upset that a computer can predict his likes and dislikes so easily. Sorry Jaron, you are just not as complex as you thought you were.


  1. I find the whole dichotomy to be false.

    Its like saying knowing that sex is just a reproductive mechanism will destroy your enjoyment of it ... I don't find that to be the case.

  2. Bringing computers into the middle of that is like paying someone to program a robot to have sex on your behalf so you don’t have to.

    Shouldn't the analogy be "a computer deciding who you should have sex with"?

  3. Jaron is really only complaining that his music recommending algorithm isn't very good.

    Maybe that will happen, and in a hundred years, or a thousand, algorithms and databases will conjure spring flings and all-night parties.

    He thinks this hasn't happened already?

  4. This is not just CS, this is also true about science, the same feeling that people had when they first faced Newtonian physics and start to see everything mechanical. This has nothing to do with science or computer science by itself, this is about an ideology that has become attached to science because of historical events. Remember that science does not explain why, it only produces models that can be used to make predictions and only to some limited extent. The fact that after so many years we can NOT predict the whether for next month is a sign that the life is not that simple.

  5. I avoided learning an instrument while young because I thought it would ruin my enjoyment of music. Maybe seems a bit silly now.

  6. Jaron is really only complaining that his music recommending algorithm isn't very good.

    Maybe he's complaining because its actually very good and its just made him realize that he has very bad taste in music.

  7. What a silly thought. Someone should write an article about how thinking computationally improves quality of life.

    And maybe toss in a 20 second skit of Bender from Futurama talking dirty to a TI-89.

  8. Even if one no longer had to have sex, they still could. Even if ones view of the world becomes programmatic and derivative, they could still think creatively.

  9. Two words about Jaron Lanier's essay: bore --- ing.

    What we *should* have is a century-by-century contest to identify quotes asserting the opposite.

    To begin:


    Feynman (20th century): "Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars — mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is "mere". I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination — stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern — of which I am a part... What is the pattern or the meaning or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little more about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?"

    Pope (18th century):
    On the Tyranny of Dulness
    (excerpted from The Dunciad)

    Beneath her foot-stool, Science groans in chains,

    And Wit dreads exile, penalties and pains.

    There foam'd rebellious Logic, gagg'd and bound,

    There, stripp'd, fair Rhetoric languish'd on the ground;

    His blunted arms by Sophistry are borne,

    And shameless Billingsgate her robes adorn.

    Morality, by her false guardians drawn.

    Chicane in furs, and Casuistry in lawn,

    Gasps, as they straiten at each end the cord,

    And dies, when Dulness gives her page the word.

  10. "It’s heartless to have music chosen by digital algorithms."

    Grandma, is that you?

  11. Old man yells at kids to stop playing on his lawn. News at 11.

  12. I think what he is trying to say is that the dating phase of your life when your were trying to discover a life partner is itself a part of life.

    It is this part of life you would miss if a computer could match you with a perfect life partner. In some cultures this (human) computer is called "mom", and I know people who miss this phase of life when they should be discovering their own life partner.

    Similarly some people could miss the romance of discovering their own music taste, if a computer could match them with perfectly desirable music.

    The sex analogy, albeit sexy, seems a bit confusing.

  13. "In some cultures this (human) computer is called "mom"..."

    or "dad" since he is the head of household who can decide how much to sell his daughter for in marriage.

  14. Reminds me of this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSZNsIFID28

  15. We are talking recommenders aren't we. A small hint:

    Look again at the name. It is a recommender not an enforcer, like in "fixed" marriages. It's as if your family tries to arrange you a date with that cute daughter of that family friend. And I say... why not?

    Unless you have such a weak personality that do as told always.

  16. Perhaps one key problem Jaron is highlighting is that computer science always tries to optimize things. If you go through life with this perspective, it limits choices (to the optimal). Thus it is silly to find your own music because an algorithm can optimize better and faster than you can yourself. So by not using the algorithm, you are settling for a non-optimal solution, which is anathema to our field.

    However, there are a lot of dreamers that lack our bias for “optimizing” everything, and do enjoy finding their own music. It does not bother them, that an algorithm could find “better” music more to their liking. On the other hand, I just feel like an idiot, knowing I spent hours doing something that a computer could have done better. Who is right?

    Jaron, a relentless optimizer, tries to add another dimension to the optimization problem—how much “heart” the process has in it. Thus, perhaps grouping blindly is an optimal process after all, because it has “heart” even if the results are less than optimal. Meanwhile, the dreamers are just enjoying their hand-picked music, no justification of optimality required.

  17. He talks more sense than most HP researchers