ON COMPUTERS AND THE NEW THOUGHT




l) Using computers leads one into a way of thinking which differs widely from the traditional academic modes of thought. Academic training in the usual disciplines promotes thinking about things, whether analytically (what is it? what are its parts? how is it put together?) or synthetically (what word, thought, notion should I put in here? what will be most effective here for... ?). In this mode of operation, the consideration of the project and the actual making of the project stand somewhat apart. More specifically, the thinking about the project must precede the making, and at each stage of putting thing together, questions must be asked and answered before the making can go forward.

2) Working with a musical instrument is entirely different. As long as one thinks about what he is doing, what note is being read, what finger is on what key, what dynamic and rhythmic figures are being called for.... one is a beginner, a learner and no more. But when the processes become so automatic that the mind is not conscious of them in more than a passing way, then the instrumental learner begins to become a real performer. And when the performer becomes so automatic that his thoughts can range over other things, even his emotional responses to his music, or to his audience, possibly to the ambience of that particular evening, then he starts to become a very skilled performer, possibly later a master. This is so with the martial arts, with skiing, playing tennis, with something as simple, and yet complex as walking down the street.

3) When operating a computer, one soon discovers that the fingers are doing things quicker than one had thought, and much quicker than can be explained to someone else. As a computer learner you soon discover that the expert proceeds at a speed which you cannot follow mentally, he is switching programs, opening windows, flicking among folders and into files and back into folders.... . The first reaction of an educated person is to ask:"Don't just do it, tell me what you are doing!"

But the plea never works, because the skilled operator is working on another level. The files and folders and icons represent thoughts for which there are no ready words. There are words for all of these things, to be sure, but not in transit, not in the flight of the computer-operating mind. It is most frustrating to the educated learner to ask for a lesson and then behold a swish of fingers calling upon and cancelling thoughts which have no name. (They have names, but not as the operation proceeds, any more than one note in a string quartet has the name "B flat", although it is in fact a B flat . It is part of a string of melody/rhythm, and by calling it the note it really is, you lose the whole train entirely. And it is the same in film art: If you examine the film frame by frame, you completely miss the film as film, just as you miss the frog if you examine him organ by organ and tissue by tissue.

4) The current crop of children getting into computers doesn't have this problem, because they have not yet been thoroughly schooled in the academic doctrine of words. Pythagoras said two and a half thousand years ago that the second most important thing was "he who puts names on things". Much of our academic awareness still depends on this dictum. A neat world in which each thing, each process and each idea has an appropriate tag of a word hung onto it, still dominates our educated mentality. Children don't know this so well, so they go into computers as they go into painting and plasticene sculptures, without thinking "about" what they are doing. The act of doing comes first, and there is no time for the verbal commentary. Kids are amazing in their speed of acquiring computer literacy, mainly because they have not yet become fully verbally literate.

5) A new generation of young persons is arising, which acts before it thinks, and often is embarrassed to explain what it has just done. A shrug or a gesture marks the edge of the new consciousness, and although it may be infuriating to the educated adult who asks for a word-account, which is usually not forthcoming, the young mind knows that words will slow up and disorient everything. Just so the poet doesn't want to stop and explain his tropes and metaphors and inversions, and the real orator is likely to be unaware of his asyndeton and hendiadys. Someone once said that civilization is the sum total of what people have been able to learn to do without thinking.

6) But Pythagoras' First Axiom was not about words, quite to the contrary he said "First is Number". Words are not much good in commenting on numbers, which are icons representing abstract entities of a variety of sorts. We have in every language a word for each number, but the professional finds it necessary to deal with numbers as numbers, and without the words.

7) Computers know this, and they deal with numbers as numbers, but also with words as numbers, that way achieving speeds far beyond the capabilities of regular, human language. Plato saw on an intuitive level that numbers are on a hierarchical scale "higher" than words, being nearer to thoughts, if they are not thoughts as such. I can ask you what you mean by the term "psychological", but I cannot ask what you mean by "4".

8) The split between the older educated generation and the new thinkers is, I believe, going to be marked by more than a change in values, in social notions, and in aims. The deterioration of written work in college is accompanied by a deterioration in spoken facility, and both of these mark the switch from a society which measures and marks its values by words, to a society which values thoughts operating in fields at mind-speed rates. This is not a mistake, a lack of awareness, but a mark of the progression of our society from one mode of thinking to another. Just as the loss of the age-old patterns of traditional human roles opened the door for the Industrial Age which established entirely new (if not always pleasing) roles for men and women, and just as the loss of ancient theological patterning created space for new kinds of thinking which have been set free in the last three centuries to develop what we call "Science"..... just so the break with a Word Culture, which we are going through right now without understanding exactly what it involves, is providing space for a new mode of thought of some not yet quite discernable nature.

9) This new thought-mode will certainly be faster, further ranging, and able to encompass much more data than the old ways ever dreamed of. It is no longer a question of reading the 200 great classics, or the 500 important books, or the St Johns list, or the whole Widener Library at Harvard. It is question of looking at everything, absolutely everything, with only one specific limitation: We are limited by the amount of internal memory a human brain can have. By creating a hierarchical system of files which open instantly, we can use our limited RAM on instantly selectable files of information, and thus get the illusion that we "know" everything. Of course we will know only pieces of everything, one after the other. But if our memory can be adjusted to retaion in memory the rows of files it is clicking in and out of, it will have a pretty good picture of the whole, or at least as good a picture of the whole as you can have with a human mind.

l0) Here there will be no time for words, as we search and find and realize. Sucking in vast documents, we will have to go quickly or we will never see the end of the line, the file, the sequence. But when we slow the search-and-acquire processes down, and ask ourselves simple questions, like "What does it really mean?", then we will have a need for the words again. After drawing in the air and aura and vision of a sunset, I come back to myself and others, and sit down to write a poem in words, or put together a musical fragment with my musical vocabulary of sounds and rhythms. Our old traditional, verbal tools are after all a fine system, an unsurpassed system for one important purpose: For communicating with each other.

So when I ask my eleven year old son to tell me "in words" what complicated processes he has just been going through with his computer, he falters, fidgeting with his vocabulary, until he declares that he is just "doing it" and that is enough. I suppose he really means that it is not only enough, it is positively better, and I suspect that is going to be the remark from the new generation's way of thinking. The advantage is going to be speed, hence greater scope, and the disadvantage is probably going to be a lack of communicatability, and a measure of social isolation. I can "tell" you verbally what I am thinking, but it is going to be hard for you to "tell" me by what you are in the process of doing, exactly what and where your thinking is.

The Egyptian who was expert in his use of numbers as numbers, would have been confused by Euclidean geometry, which was ten percent numbers and and ninety percent pure thought. And in his turn the Greek did in fact resist the oncoming necessity of an independent Algebra, just as Nineteenth Century thinkers with a three dimensional idea of space resisted space notions with more than three dimensions. The history of civilization (if indeed it is a history at all, and not a random set of ventures and misadventures) seems to involve a great deal of effort expended to reach new sets of perceptions, and then an even greater amount of energy devoted to preventing anyone else from inventing still newer perceptions.

11) Society is whirling outward with increasing speeds as the perimeter of the spiral of new ways of thinking spreads. Now there is hardly time to take note of where we are going, let alone how we are going. The small information we have about where we are coming from indicates that something self-defeating is involved in our psychic setup, since we continually mirror our sense of the future from what we assume we know about our past. If we abandon the ancient heritage of accepted humanness, near the center of which is language and the ability to communicate among ourselves, we wonder, quite naturally, if we are not losing everything which makes us wonderful. But since nothing new in this passage can be adopted securely without jettisoning something of the old, we may be deluding ourselves with a false fear of loss.

A world in which we approach nearer to the nature of reality, should be most welcome. Since the Renaissance science has indeed approached "nearer" to reality, while realizing at last that we may never be entitled to approach all the way. If we have to scrap some of the encumbering lumber of the word-world, which has supported and protected us for some thousands of years, we should remember that we have also also been slaves to the words of false-prophets, inquisitors, and political con-men. A new and, for the time being, rather unthinkable world in which ideas are the commodity of exchange, and words only the signposts we use for easing the press of idea-traffic, is possibly in the making, and perchance those of use who berate the loss of this or that kind of verbal facility and facundity, are missing the tenor of the new thing already coming into being.

It would not be the first time that a board of serious practitioners of an established civilization poised themselves for a fight against such loss. But if their stance precludes an awareness of the gain which arises from loss, then they would be doing us all great harm. Civilization proceeds forward by jerks, the friction involved in motion seems to hold things still for a while, until the landslide comes and, just as something sinks into the sea, something else, somewhere else, begins to rise. Being human to the core, we tend to see in short time terms only the loss, and we find it hard to imagine the new Atlantis which has been rising up, unperceived, all this time.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris