Title: Democracy and Computers -- Pitfalls, Possibilities
20 - March - Lecture
22 - March - Discussion
Lecturer: David Gelernter, Professor of Computer Science
David Gelernter is professor of computer science at Yale, chief scientist at Mirror Worlds Technologies (New Haven) and chief technology advisor at the K12 internet school. He is the author of "Mirror Worlds" (1991), "The Muse in the Machine" (1994, about poetry and artificial intelligence), the novel "1939" (1995), the memoir "Drawing Life" (1997), "Machine Beauty" (1998, about aesthetics and technology), and "The Empty Computer" (forthcoming). He has published lots of technical articles in the usual places, and essays and fiction in Commentary, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, ArtNews, National Review, Time Magazine and elsewhere. He is a former culture columnist at the New York Post and serves as art critic at the Weekly Standard.
Lecture Description:

Are computers good or bad for democracy? (Or are they just irrelevant?) We need to ask first: what's good for democracy in general? Citizens who are well-informed, thoughtful, and feel responsible for the community. On that basis we might easily guess that computers are no good for democracy. They are said to make people well informed, but ARE Americans well informed? (About what? We aren't even well-informed about computers.) It seems unlikely that computers make us thoughtful. (The kind of thoughtfulness that is most useful to a democracy centers, presumably, on experience,
knowledge -- especially of history -- and common sense. Computers haven't contributed much in any of these departments.) And it seems possible that, in the long run, computers and the internet diminish
our sense of responsibility to the community, insofar as they tend to connect us directly to the things we want instead of requiring that we work through human intermediaries.

We might even guess that computers are not merely no good for democracy, that they are actively bad for it. Computers and the internet, we might guess, have become American society's Big Theme
(having lucked into the role when the Cold War retired). This topic more than any other is covered relentlessly in the press, fretted-over in the schools and discussed endlessly by everyone everywhere.
American society shows alarming signs of being molded around computers like limp plastic around a metal form. And we might easily guess that, as Big Themes go, this is a bad one -- because it is morally, spiritually and intellectually empty. Not that computers are intrinsically a vacuous topic, not at all; it's just that we like to treat them as if they were.

But this story doesn't have to be wholly negative. There are many things computers might do for democracy, in principle. They might diminish our sense of responsibility to the community, but they might also reconnect the community. Eventually they might in fact make citizens better informed. They might help us recover from the plague of passive reliance on professionals and experts that has afflicted us for so long. They might improve our schools. We make such developments more likely when we refuse to take the goodness of computers for granted, and insist on approaching them with the critical skepticism for which we are so highly celebrated.

Copyright 2001, David Gelernter







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