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I N T E R V I E W
Gelernter Unplugged
May 1996

His bookshelf is lined alternatively with a collection of W.H. Auden’s poetry, Computer Networks, Scripture and Translation, and paperback arcana of esoteric computer languages. Their owner, David Gelernter, is a link between the too-oft-divided worlds of artificial intelligence research and serious devotion to poetry, art, and literature.

He has written recently for Commentary, National Review, the New Republic, and City Journal, and has published a book about the World’s Fair of 1939.

He commonly writes about the danger of technology becoming a crutch, and its flashy appearance concealing little merit. Therein is concealed his ultimately humanistic approach to the value of technology: it must serve human life, and not weaken it or come to deceive it. Most of his non-technical writings, however, are about politics and public institutions.

David Gelernter, Professor of Computer Science in Yale’s CS Department, is unassuming in appearance…

YFP: If you are skeptical of the organic quality of the Internet or the use of computers in the classroom, what are you doing in Watson Hall in the CS Department?

DG: Being skeptical of computers in the classroom has nothing to do with computer science as an intellectual discipline, which as an intellectual development has been one of the most fruitful of the 20th century. It is a meeting ground between applied mathematics and aesthetics.
Computer science has more than justified itself in terms of the intellectual significance which it has achieved. Computers in the classroom are a radically different proposition—they’re not related even superficially. They are virtually never used to teach computer science. If computers are important in society, we want to teach kids about algorithms and discrete mathematics. But computers are not being used to teach computer science. That one can be a computer scientist on the one hand and against computers in the classroom on the other, is not a contradiction in terms.

YFP: In National Review a year ago you described a “dark feedback loop between bad habits which computers encourage and the bad habits we would have anyway…. Computers bring out the worst in us.” Is there a way of living with both—of having computers present as a useful tool in society without becoming crutches?

DG: Certainly we should live with them. I think the question is: Can we live with them in a more sophisticated way? Computers are demonstrably having bad effects on education, but they have revolutionized science and created computational science, which has been a remarkably fruitful discipline. We’d be out of our heads to stop using computers in the technical fields—they’re an extraordinary tool, and for that matter very useful around the house. We are an amazingly gullible society—gullible not merely with respect to technology, but gullible across the board, because we are an ignorant society. We’ve ruined our schools.

YFP: In what way?

DG: The revolution in American education that worked against high standards and rewarding merit, and pragmatically against things like tracking in schools. It worked against serious teaching of core topics, like history, arithmetic and writing, and has been underway for a long time. It is a revolution whose flip side has been self-esteem and other garbage in the classroom.
This has been going on since the early 1970s. It used to be that these bizarre and destructive ideas were promoted by people who themselves had gone through school before they had suffered these degradations. These people who babble on about self-esteem themselves have some common sense. But the people we put through school in the 1970s and 1980s are starting to emerge. They’re in college or graduating and are becoming teachers themselves. They went through degraded schools and got degraded educations.
There are many high school students who can’t place the Civil War in the correct half-century, or say what nation is to the south of the United States. More knew who Harriet Tubman was than Winston Churchill. It’s a remarkable finding. You’d have thought that when this was published—about 1989—the whole nation would go into mourning, that this would be recognized as a devastating thing. But we just shrugged, and it’s starting to have an effect on national debate. Knowing who Harriet Tubman is and not Winston Churchill—

YFP: It tears the fabric of society.

DG: And keep in mind that the way society is structured it is the bottom stratum and not the top which goes into school to become teachers. We are recycling second-generation ignorance through the schools of today. This has a devastating effect. It was always assumed in educational circles that you could chortle about things young people didn’t know, but that among yourselves you knew it was bizarre and wrong to know Harriet Tubman and not Winston Churchill.

But that understanding [of those circles] is gone, because many of the people in the education schools, making the policy, teaching the classes, themselves are nothing-headed. Not because of their own errors, but because we of the next generation up [the baby-boomers] have inflicted ignorance on them—it’s a catastrophe. It’s the worst of the Left’s many sins of pride.
We are becoming an ignorant nation. If you destroy the schools, by “dumming” them down, and everybody agrees we have done that, you’ve got to expect that cultural sophistication collapses. People can’t think straight, they can’t write straight, and we’re seeing that.

There’s becoming an extreme stratification. Obviously in every generation there are some parents who won’t put up with this. It used to be that the working and middle class could count on the school system taking that kind of sane common-sensical parental interest in their kids. But it doesn’t do that. There is a tiny elite of parents and children who know and care, who are emerging with an education.

YFP: Let me ask you about the interrelationship between technology and these social changes. I am asking you not simply because you are a figure in the news, but also an unusual scientist. Is technology capable of having a political effect? Or does it lay the ground for social change? Should we curb our use of it? You have written something like this in various articles for the New Republic and National Review in the past. Has it fundamentally affected the American psyche?

DG: I don’t think technology is very important. Technology reflects the character of the society. Technology in society is something to think about and be concerned about, but not a terribly important thing. Certainly computers are doing more damage in schools. But they are a symptom of a clogging which is social and political.

YFP: Alan and Heidi Toeffler have written a book, to which Newt Gingrich wrote the introduction, about the role of information in this so-called “third wave.” How would you characterize the Toefflers’ work?

DG: Toeffler and others like him, such as Kiehler and George Gilder, published recently on the Internet an electronic magazine Feed. It was good free market ideas mixed up with rubbish.

YFP: It’s effectively a kind of materialism, isn’t it? It rings of Marxism, in that technology fundamentally affects the fabric of society as an impersonal force like Marx’s capital.

DG: That sounds quite true. It used to be the socialists who were concerned about technology and its benevolent effects on society.
The problem with this is that it is so ahistorical. The Toefflerian argument runs that this third wave [of information, after agriculture and industry—Ed.] is beginning because geography no longer matters because of the Internet and the Web. It’s an incredibly naïve observation; it’s true that the Internet makes geography less important. However, every significant new technology since 1830 has made geography less significant. If there is one unifying theme in the history of technology, it is to make geography less important. From the rise of the railroad to the telegraph, the commercial automobile and airline, the interstate, the phone and long-distance phone network, radio, TV. The idea that this is some innovation of the Internet and a new Third Wave—it’s the kind of naivete one would expect from an earnest junior high student who is bright and trying but doesn’t know enough to speak intelligently on his topic of choice.
It’s harmless of course—Gingrich and Gore do a lot less damage babbling about laptops than Gore (or for that matter Gingrich) does babbling about the Endangered Species Act.

YFP: What is the connection between your humanism and your work in artificial intelligence? It seems a strange connection at first, as you must realize.

DG: The study of the human mind belongs in the humanities as much as in the sciences. One cannot make an attempt to understand the human mind if one doesn’t make an attempt to read Wordsworth intelligently. I think the whole study of the mind has backed itself into a bizarre corner, by failing to grapple with folk psychology, by failing to explain at least what everybody on the street knows about his own mind. The first thing a theory has to be able to do is explain a person’s common-sense backyard observations.
As a starting point you need to be able to explain to people what their state of mind is; for example, why is it that creative insights and falling asleep are similar in that you can’t get either of them by trying?
Unless you have the psychology with which you can address the basic ground-level facts that everybody knows about his mind, you’re nowhere near where you ought to be. Unless you have a psychology that explains memory and thought as two aspects of the same thing, unless you have a psychology that explains the crucial role of emotions in thinking, unless you have model of the mind that will allow a computer not only to solve a rational-analytic problem, but also to hallucinate, unless you have a computer program to free associate or fall asleep, you’re nowhere near where you need to be. You’re far from the central problems. The study of AI is the paradigmatic human effort to figure out the way things work. It’s an old and noble intellectual quest, and AI is one way of doing it—figuring out how the mind works.
The filed is in bad shape today. It’s asking the wrong questions, and it’s miles from where it should be. The pragmatic work on sensation and perception is doing well. But it has nothing to do with human cognition, which is in a deep hole.

YFP: I gather from your articles in National Review and in the New Republic, and your responses here that you are more a cultural conservative than necessarily an economic conservative. Can you explain your suggestion that the “spiritual renewal” of America must come from the Left?

DG: I’m an economic conservative also, and a supporter of the Gingrich economic plan. It’s just that economics seems so much less important than cultural issues.
I have the highest respect for National Review, but that is the one piece of mine that got so chopped up in the editing process that I can’t look at it without wincing. The Left seems to me to be morally bankrupt and utterly played out. It used to be that we associated the Left with the moral interest in society. It used to be in the 1940s and 1930s and 1920s that Leftists might be naïve, but they were arguing the moral point in defense of the poor and in sticking up for workers, whereas the Republicans would quite pragmatically say that we can’t go around do-gooding, but must do what is best for society as a whole—they had a practical business sense.

Today however the Left is in a position of defending upside-down morals, for example that it is nobler and more virtuous for a mother to have her children, have a career, make money and get prestige, than for her to sacrifice her career for her children. That’s a morally upside-down proposition.

It seems strange that the Left, which used to believe that there were moral and spiritual values more important than making money, standard of living, and personal prestige, should now advocate that the ideal mother should leave her children and go to work. It seems incredibly anomalous that the Left, which used to stick up for humanistic values, would be in the place of defending bizarre legislation like the Endangered Species Act, which has the effect of forcing human beings to defer to animals, which is morally degrading.
There was this famous incident with the kangaroo rat in Los Angeles. Twenty-nine homes burned in the ’93 wildfires. The homeowners were forbidden to plow ditches around their houses because to do so would upset the kangaroo rat. The kangaroo rat is on the Endangered Species list. So we have a situation in which homes burned and people’s lives were endangered for a policy which is morally nonsensical.

I have Gore’s book here, Earth in the Balance, trying to figure out what in the Hell is in these people’s minds. Gore hits on the idea of duties to nature—of the inherent value of nature. Now these are pagan ideas. Judeo-Christian society is based on the premise that fundamentally there is no such thing as a duty to nature; men have duties to other men and to God.

That this pagan idea of duty to nature would have been railroaded into national policy by the decisions of the Federal Courts and defended vociferously by the Left; and that the Left would be saying, “To Hell with this guy’s house burning, it’s more important to preserve this rat,” is a morally upside-down position. The Left used to value humanism, and is now in this unbelievable position.

YFP: Perhaps the Left in America today is post-liberal—for example contemporary feminism is influenced by postmodernism, as are some of the ideas of education and group rights.

DG: That seems to be a more coherent explanation than is necessary. The basic impulse on the Left today is just reaction—reactionary defense—the cultural status quo which put the Left in the driver’s seat, because of the Right’s dereliction. The Right has consistently refused to argue moral issues in moral terms.

YFP: Is that why you wrote that the Left might be the place for the spiritual renewal of America?

DG: I don’t regard it as completely impossible—it seems to me not completely inconceivable that somewhere on the Left there would arise this change. It might arise in feminism, because the Left has boxed itself into this preposterous corner defending careerism at the expense of children.

YFP: Especially because contemporary feminism is moving past simple equality toward a separate and unequal role, re-embracing the maternal role or the more exclusively feminine role. This struggle is borne out in the debate over pornography. Perhaps by moving beyond equality it is returning to older roles.

DG: In a sense it is. The date rape phenomenon seems to me absolutely fascinating. It is absurd in a lot of ways. The use of the term “rape” for date rape is particularly preposterous and morally degrading—it tends to erase the meaning of rape.

But there’s something here of women asking that the protection afforded them in the past by society be put back, which they used to be able to rely on. A woman used to be able to count on the fact that if she told her boyfriend that she didn’t want to sleep with him, society would rally to her side, to defend her virtue. Society gave up defending the virtue of women 20 years ago. And it’s been great for men. Obviously I’m not complaining.

But the date rape phenomenon seems to be the first inkling that women have had that the feminists who set the agenda, and created the conditions of modern women’s lives, have been acting out of the best interests of men, perversely, and have in virtually every case been opposing the interests of women. They have succeeded in wreaking havoc on the lives of women.

When a woman would stay home and rear her children, she could count on society rallying to her defense instead of piling up on her and telling her what a jerk she was. Society would protect a mother who felt drawn to rear her children. Feminism has exposed women to the predatory forces of society, and of men. It has been the greatest crime against women in the history of women.
The Left may come to realize this. After all there are some intelligent people on the Left—not many.

YFP: In your article in the New York Times on the World’s Fair of 1939 (from your book on the subject) you talked about the death of “the democratic authority culture” and the decay of public institutions of meaning. Is this an irreversible trend? Has the “nobility of our grandparents” left our society for good? It shows no sign of returning. Is it possible to return, or is the future necessarily yet unexplored?

DG: There is an excellent reason to want to go back. Fifty years ago we needed a utopian future. Now we need a utopian past, the reason being that the United States was a better place 50 years ago. In too many concrete ways to ignore. It goes without saying that in some ways it was worse: it was poorer, it was much more bigoted. But 50 years ago a city like New Haven had good public schools, no street crime to speak of, public morale was high, there was a cogent sense of community, a shared vision of the future, and a feeling of the nation moving forward, all grounded on a civilized living standard. Such a living standard requires good public schools, without which you’ve lost it all, and safe streets.

YFP: Is it possible to go back?

DG: The Left and even the Right get so hysterical when they see even the signs of romantic interest in the past. The First Lady goes on in her book about “nostalgia merchants.” Frank Rich has attacked romanticizers of the 1950s. The theme that emerges again and again is, What kind of a crazy idiot would want to go back to the 1950s and 1940s and 1930s? But I think nostalgia is normal—it’s part of the normal human way of living. What’s wrong with being nostalgic? Everyone’s always been at least somewhat nostalgic. I think there’s something they’re worried about. I think they know that nostalgia is different today from how it used to be.

In every other half-century of American history standards of living improved—but in this half century they improved only economically. The bedrock of society—the schools, the cities, the social contract, the institution of the family, the role of religion in public life, these bedrocks have gone to Hell and collapsed; we’re in the middle of a moral and spiritual crisis.

YFP: Is the place of those lost institutions to inspire us, or are we to simply wistfully realize that they are forever past? It seems a huge prospect to return, if we can even return.

DG: To say wistfully that we have lost something is a valuable first step. If you were to go to Manhattan, and grab the average younger person off the street, he would have no concept of a city like Manhattan with no street crime. But back then street crime just wasn’t an issue. There were bank robberies, but no street crime to speak of. Harlem was a safe and thriving neighborhood, although it was dirt poor. It was culturally sound, and the public schools were fine and universally respected. You could get a good education there. Public school teachers were respected, as was the mayoralty and city government. The average young person now wouldn’t believe that such a city could exist.

It seems to me that romanticizing the past today is an act of rebellion. It’s a tremendously important political statement that says: We won’t stand for this kind of country, and we know we don’t have to. We’re not Marxists hypothesizing utopia that has never existed. We’re utopians talking about a state of affairs that used to hold. We don’t want to give up the tremendous legal progress we’ve made; for example, bigotry is illegal today and socially unacceptable. Nor do we want to give up our economic growth. But in the process of getting these things we’ve given up the heart and soul of civil society, and by God we’re going to go back and get that heart and soul. If Hillary Clinton is going to call us nostalgia merchants, then to Hell with her.

YFP: Is there a necessary connection between the loss of public authority vested in respected institutions, and a turn inward or toward private pursuits, perhaps via individualizing technology such as the Internet? Just how radical would your nostalgic reformation of society be? Must technology in part be rejected?

DG: What’s happened has gone far beyond just individuals drawing apart. They have drawn apart further, in part even because of technology, for example in the ubiquity of the telephone.

But a much deeper thing than that happened in the 1960s. The basic cultural premises of the nation were challenged by young people—which is perfectly fine, as premises exist to be challenged. But the remarkable thing is that the establishment didn’t defend itself. It crumbled. Instead of saying, “I know you think that American democracy is not a crucial development on the world scene, but you’re wrong. I know you think that you don’t have to study American and European history, but you’re wrong. You do have to study it.” Instead of standing up for its own culture, America is crumbling.

This is unprecedented in history. The generation that had let it crumble had built the strongest, most successful, most triumphant nation that had ever been. But it crumbled before infantile challenges—challenges that were perfectly acceptable (that’s the job of young people). But ordinarily those kinds of challenges are met by people in authority saying, “We understand your idealism, and it’s fine, but you don’t know enough, and you’re wrong.”

When I try to understand what happened, the explanation that I keep coming back to is this: American society in the 1950s worked beautifully in many ways; it was a rich, happy country, with high morale. The condition of blacks was improving, bigotry was being erased slowly, technology was improving, but something important happened then. I think it has to do with the dwindling role of religion in public life. The political and public sphere, the schools, universities, organization, used to have religion mounted prominently as a bouquet in the center of the table. It was understood that the degree of piety differed, and the nation was not particularly pious in terms of observance, but religion was a constant in daily life.

If you go back to FDR’s radio addresses, you are struck by the fact that he can’t open his mouth about any question of policy or state without mentioning God. That’s the way public life worked.

But in the 1950s and 1960s we became too sophisticated for our own good. We thought that we could maintain a cultural and moral even keel without constantly talking about God, as FDR did, without keeping up the pretense that government was acting in a religious capacity. This was a Christian nation—or a Judeo-Christian nation. That used to be agreed. But we came to a point where we really no longer wanted to talk about this being a Christian nation anymore. This laid the ground for the collapse in the 1960s.

YFP: What is the direction of American politics? I’m particularly thinking about the individual autonomy that comes with Internet access, and the strange shape of the political community that comes with it. Can we perhaps expect a custodial state in which individuals are too lazy to take part in government, and the sense of civic duty has been eroded sufficiently for Washington to further centralize in order to care for the nation as children who want to be left alone?

DG: Well, that’s a depressing idea. I guess we are moving that way, in the respect that we’re not teaching our children anything in schools anymore. There will always be a small elite of the well-educated and those with a drive to learn, and every now and then some guy from Peoria will break into the small elite himself. But you can see that we’re moving in a direction in which the depth and brilliance and joy of civilization and art and scholarship will be something of which only a tiny minority will be aware.

The age of the educated middle class is ending. What that means politically I don’t understand. In terms of the federal government, Bill Bennett is the one Republican who speaks with authority on moral issues and in visionary terms. I don’t know why no one is talking about proposing him for Vice President.

YFP: Thank you, Professor Gelernter.

—Colin Wilder, Senior Editor, is trying to save the West from nihilism.

 

   
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