SC210--Week 8--Lecture notes

Volti, Ch. 12, Printing

Volti, in Ch. 12, makes a number of interesting points. First, he reinforces some of our earlier discussions of how technologies serve the educated, technically skilled elite by making it clear that for a very long time after its invention, the technology of writing fit the pattern. (I love the story of the Psalm 51 "neck verse"!) As record-keeping grew ever more essential, the skill of literacy spread. When movable metal type and the printing press made possible the mass production of books, it took off in a very big way. One can draw obvious parallels with the automobile, the computer, and others.

Second, he stresses that technologies such as printing can have tremendously pervasive effects on society. Once information was widely available and more people had access to it, it became more and more possible to question authority, to be skeptical. Both Protestantism and science--both of which are rooted in that change--came along very quickly. The ever-increasing demand for literacy led to a rapid increase in the education industry. Less charmingly, perhaps, the mass production inherent in printing led into the industrial age and the "dehumanization" of the worker. And new ideas--human rights, for instance--could spread much more rapidly than ever before. Combined with the new ability to question authority, the idea that people had rights other than those granted by their absolute owners and rulers led in due time to the American, French, and Russian revolutions (and others) and the deaths of millions.

Is the printing press thus as deadly an invention as gunpowder? One could argue that--guns kill but ideas motivate--but it seems a bit of a stretch. Like many technological developments, the hazards lie less in the technology itself than in what people do with it. And one of the things that sprang from availability of information, skepticism, and challenging of authority was science, which has been a powerful force for human welfare.

Third, Volti stresses that the society of the time was ripe for printing and literacy. The Protestant Reformation happened because printing made it possible to unify a number of revolts against the Catholic Church, and the ensuing demand for Bibles and tracts helped drive the spread of literacy and printing. Thus printing was perhaps more of a facilitator than a cause.

Still, it is well worth wondering whether we might say that the world we know today owes more to the single technology of the printing press than to any other. We will discuss this on-line.

Volti, Ch. 13, The Electronic Media

In Ch. 13, Volti turns to the electronic media, meaning radio and TV. Initially for experts (its early major use was ship-to-shore communications), radio quickly fell into the hands of amateurs, hobbyists, who realized that it had other potentials (news, weather, entertainment). The story seems familiar to anyone familiar with the rapid development of the Internet (from BBS's onward) and the World Wide Web (personal Web sites galore!).

Radio and TV differ from print. Print has the advantage of being permanent and encouraging skepticism (by permitting easy comparison of two or more sources laid out on a table before one). Radio and TV sound and image have a more convincing immediacy, however, and they don't permit easy comparison of sources--although the newer technologies of the VCR/DVD-R, cable, clicker, and TIVO (etc.) have changed that a bit.

They also provide rapid access from a central point, and they don't need special training to understand. That is, there is no equivalent of "literacy." Thus tyrants love them because they can reach their subjects easily and control what their subjects hear/see; in them they have a technological equivalent of the pre-Gutenberg pulpit, which similarly ensured that people heard only what the priest (or other authority) wanted them to hear. Of course, tyrants also hate radio and TV because radio/TV signals cross borders easily (e.g., Voice of America). Books are easier to keep out of a country.

The difference between print and radio/TV is interesting in another way as well. The "Printing Revolution" encouraged skepticism and critical thinking, and as it gained momentum, it created a demand for literacy and education. Radio and TV need no skill comparable to literacy in order to be understood. They can be understood as soon as we learn to understand spoken language, and their immediacy means that they penetrate our minds--bypassing the critical sense--very efficiently. Because they don't encourage easy comparison, they don't encourage skepticism. They are thus in a sense anti-literate, and they--especially TV--have even been blamed for the decline of literacy. A danger is that as we add easily available video-editing tools to the ones we already have for audio and image, what we see or hear on radio and TV becomes less trustworthy. But it is still very convincing, which means that people with a message they wish to put across will always love it.

Many people get quite worked up about government control of TV--violence, sex, etc.--with some objecting that censorship is evil and some crying just as loudly that it is essential to protect the family, flag, national honor, whatever. It is interesting to note that radio and TV did a great deal to get government into the business of controlling technology, but not really in a censorship way--the job of the first regulators was primarily to ensure that different stations' signals did not interfere with each other. At least, that was the case at first. Soon came the "public interest and service" requirements on broadcasters' licenses, which opened a door to censorship.

Should we censor? Should we control radio and TV content? Video game content? (Certainly video games are violent enough! They also encourage a kind of addiction.) Almost anything will offend someone. The Southern Baptists voted to boycott anything connected to Disney (including several cable networks, ABC, theme parks, publishers, etc., etc.), because the company attacks the American family; they ended the boycott when they decided other issues needed attention and Disney started paying attention to Christian issues. Some things may have demonstrable effects on society--watching TV murders seems to make kids more violent, commercials encourage rampant materialism, trash tabloid TV encourages sensationalism. But what, if anything, should we stop?

As for the Internet, Volti discusses the Digital Divide, which remains real but of ever less importance. Access and usage increase every year. In 2011, more than three quarters of North Americans had access! Compare these statistics to those Volti cites, and note that the problem is clearly diminishing; even in Africa usage is up (from 2007's 5.3 to 13.5% of population, a whopping 150% increase!). Today discussion of access disparities in the U.S. tends to focus on access to broadband, not access to the Internet.

Note also that the Internet has both its benefits and its drawbacks. The latter in particular involve new forms of misbehavior, notably in connection with intellectual property.

Conscious Machines and the Singularity

Where is it all going?  Do you know what the singularity means?  One definition is that it is that moment when the future becomes unpredictable, even from week to week, because technology and society are changing so fast.  Another is that it is that moment when computers become conscious, begin to think, and take control of their own further improvement--and since computers can "think" much faster than we can, the future rapidly becomes unpredictable!  Some add that the singularity may even involve uploading the human mind into the computer, thus giving us at last a kind of immortality. There is an obvious connection here to robotics and computer-controlled manufacturing (of which 3D printing is an example), as well as to some of the other things we have covered in this course.

Could computers ever really become conscious beings?  Debate over this question has raged for more than half a century, ever since the earliest computers were first dubbed "thinking machines."  Philosopher John R. Searle, "Is the Brain's Mind a Computer Program?" Scientific American (January 1990), argues that mind and consciousness are special.  They are what brains--not computers--do.  Computers, he says, do no more than manipulate symbols.  They do not know what the symbols mean.  Yet the alternative view is there as well.  In 1950, Alan Turing, an English mathematician and logician, devised a test to determine whether or not a machine was intelligent.  The "imitation game" or "Turing test" considered whether or not one could converse with a person and with a computer (through a teletype so that neither could be seen and the human could not be heard) and, after a suitable period, tell which was which.  If the computer could pass for an intelligent conversationalist, Turing felt, then it would have to be considered intelligent.  This spring, Brandon Keim, citing Robert M. French, "Dusting off the Turing Test," Science (April 13, 2012), suggested that it may not be long before a computer finally "passes" as an intelligent conversationalist.

The essayists for Issue 15, Christof Koch and Giulio Tononi, and John Horgan, are just as opposed.  Koch and Tononi argue that because consciousness is a natural phenomenon, it will eventually be artificially created.  To test for such consciousness, however, will require something other than the classic Turing test.  John Horgan argues that since no one has the foggiest idea of what consciousness really is, it seems highly unlikely that we will ever be able to create an artificial consciousness.  "Engineers and scientists should be helping us face the world's problems and find solutions to them, rather than indulging in escapist, pseudoscientific fantasies like the singularity."

Questions for Discussion

1. In what sense does the world we know today owe more to the single technology of the printing press than to any other? Would America's distinguishing emphases -- on technology, individual freedom, and universal education -- even be possible if the printing press had never been invented? What aspects of the Modern Age would remain if the press and its effects were somehow to be removed from history?

2. Like radio and TV, the Internet is a medium of electronic communication. Yet it also has a strong print component. Is it more like print or radio/TV? Does it encourage skepticism and critical thinking? See

3. It seems unlikely that Internet usage--being connected--will diminish over future decades. In fact it will probably increase and play an ever larger role in the world of work. How do you see it affecting life on the job--especially life on your job?

4. Google on "mind uploading."  Do the potential benefits appeal to you?  Or does it scare your socks off?  Details please!