Saturday, July 13, 2019

When Did We Give Up On Human Beings? Another example of how computers are making us stupid


Our genius educrats have somehow gotten the idea into their heads that computers are going to help them to educate children. In fact, a few of them want to replace teachers with machines (check out Larry Cuban's books). But in reality, computers do little to make us smarter and a whole lot to make us more stupid.

I have many examples of this, but today's lesson in how computers are sucking our brains out involves trying to make a reservation at a hotel. 

I have a conference I am supposed to attend in the coming weeks and I am not sure whether a reservation for me has already been made by our conference person, who I can't reach on the weekend. So, this morning, I call the hotel to ask if I already have a reservation in my name so that, if not, I can go ahead and make one.

Now this is a simple logical procedure. Admittedly, I have written three logic textbooks, so I have an understandable advantage in being able to think about how this should go:

If I do not have an existing reservation, then I would like to make one. And if I do have an existing reservation, then have a nice day. It's not that complicated. In fact we can put it in simple logical notation:

~P > Q.P > ~Q

But this is overcomplicating things because ALL I NEED TO KNOW IS WHETHER I ALREADY HAVE A RESERVATION AND IF NOT I NEED A ROOM.

So I call the hotel, and a person answers. Ha ha, just joking. Of course it is not even conceivable that that could happen and, instead of a person answering, I get an answering system with five options, none of which exactly fits my situation. But I remain confident that if I can outwit the phone system and talk to a real person he or she can simply look my name up an see if it is already on the system and, if not make a reservation for me.

Finally I get to a point where I can press '0' to talk to an operator. I press the button, and an actual human being answers. I tell her what I need. See if you can find any reservation on the system and if there is not one there, then sign me up.

And here is where things begin to gets Kafkaesque.

I have to go through a battery of questions, none of which is relevant. "Can you provide me your confirmation number sir?" 

"If I had a confirmation number," I say, "then I would know that I had a reservation. But I don't know that I have a reservation, therefore I don't know of any confirmation number" (thinking that a simple modus tollens form of reasoning might have some force with this person). But no.

"Okay sir, so when will be your arrival date?" I give her a date. She asks me to confirm it. "The departure date sir?" I give her the date. She asks me to confirm it again. "And what's the purpose of the stay sir?" I tell her. I remind her that I am not sure I am not already in the system, and if so, all these questions are irrelevant and could she please just search my name to see if it is not already there.

"Okay, sir, so how many rooms and adults?" 

"Uh, one," I say, despondently. She confirms.

"Can I have your name, sir?" I tell her, now with some hope that we might be getting the crux of the issue--THAT I MAY ALREADY HAVE A RESERVATION. She asks how it is spelled. 

"Okay, sir, are you a Hilton Honors member?" Now we're back to square one. I ask again about whether I am already on the system so we don't have to go through all this. But it is as if I never said anything and I am confronted with another question.

It dawns on me that this operator is not only not hearing me, but is not aware of my actual existence. She does not recognize me as a fellow human. She is not cognizant of my being-in-the-world. She is, in fact, not aware of any other important concepts that the German philosopher Martin Heidegger attempted to capture in terms with way too many hyphens. She does not acknowledge me other than as a voice on the other end of the line which is feeding her information that must be converted into data that must be typed onto the keyboard and transmitted to some central system somewhere that is controlling this evil hotel.

The computer she is punching information into has, Borg-like, taken over her soul. She is not operating the computer; the computer is operating her. 

I quickly try to think, what can I say that will help me escape from this surreal vortex? "If ~P, then Q and if P, then ~Q," I say, thinking this may be language the Master Computer behind all this will understand. But no. Even logic does not fit into the algorithm. The voice on the other end simply asks the next question in the sequence.

Finally, realizing that this call could go on for days without a resolution of the thing that needs to be resolved, I say, "Ma'am, I think it might be easier if I just try to see if I can contact the person that normally handles my convention arrangements."

"Okay sir. Is there anything else I can do for you?" I consider suggesting that she take the red pill and escape the Matrix, but then think better of it.

I eventually just conclude that it is unlikely I am already registered at the hotel, take a chance and manage, on another inordinately long call, to simply schedule a reservation.

Now I realize that a lot of people will read this and think that this is no big deal. This is just the way it is. And maybe I am just getting old and curmudgeonly (a reality which I long ago embraced), but are we really that far gone? When did we give up on simple things like judgment?

This is not an insignificant question. When did we give up on human beings?

I'm sure some people would laugh now at the section in Plato's dialogue Phaedrus about Socrates' warnings about the invention of the technology of writing: that, rather than increasing knowledge and wisdom, it would do precisely the opposite. But I'm totally on board with this idea. And if writing only threatened to do this, more sophisticated modern computer technologies have closed the deal.

I'm sure the people on the other end of calls like these are nice people just doing their jobs. But the process in the context of which they were no more important than some random circuit in the computer they were wired into apparently excluded them from making simple judgments that would have cut through all the technological nonsense.

Human beings don't need an algorithm to operate, and even when they need to do something that requires a procedure, they can abandon the procedure at any point at will. A computer does not have an algorithm that allows it to escape the algorithm, but humans do. 

The people who think that we can replace teachers with computers by sitting whole classrooms of children down at Chromebooks to be taught (yes, this is actually happening in public schools, and on a large scale)--that, in other words, teachers can be replaced by computers--need to find another line of work.

The only thing such an education will be able to produce is a bunch of socially-challenged button pushers who can follow a script, but can't make simple judgments about basic things.

The public school policymakers who blather on about "critical thinking skills" and think that somehow computers are going to help in this process need to employ a little critical thinking themselves, and I'm not confident they know how to do that.

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