Pages: pp. 14-15
In Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz, there is a wonderful scene in which Dorothy and her companions reveal the true wizard. Their quest to destroy the Wicked Witch of the West over, they enter Oz's inner sanctum, where he declares, "I am everywhere, but to the eyes of common morals, I am invisible." 1
After the Wizard rebuffs our heroine's request to return home, Toto pulls back a curtain and reveals a humbug, the once Great and Terrible Oz. He valiantly continues his deceit shouting, "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain." 1
Our present world is full of Dorothys, scarecrows, lions, tin men—and yes, humbugs—all on a quest of simply living. And yet, in our increasingly computing-haunted world, a curtain exists between the general public and computer technology. For the most part, the public is amazed by and warms itself by the glow that arises from behind that curtain but is also content to leave said curtain closed. Similarly, we geeks labor behind our curtains, mostly remaining content in advancing the machinery of our inner sanctum to some perceived good. I say this not to disparage the innocence of the public or the technical focus of the geeks. This is as it is in every domain.
It's neither possible nor desirable to know everything about every thing. It's no one's fault that a curtain exists. However, behind this curtain of computing lies a technology that's transforming every aspect of the human experience. As such, it's reasonable to ask how much we should open this particular curtain. What should the general public care about the machinery of computing, and to what degree should we wizards care about the implications of the machinery we devise?
There's value in mystery. As Einstein himself noted, "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science." 2
Much of science is propelled by the journey of working to pull back the curtain on the mysteries of the universe. As Neil deGrasse Tyson observed, "Where ignorance lurks, so do the frontiers of discovery and imagination." 3
Yet, when we stop asking how, when we instead surrender to the invisible itself, then we abandon the better angels of our nature. Carl Sagan said it best when he wrote of "these demon-haunted worlds, regions of utter darkness" and the role of science in shining a fierce and bright light on such discoverable mysteries. 4
Our failure to even desire to pull back the curtain that surrounds a mystery is never a good thing. As the Black Death coursed through medieval England, people fled the cities (if they could afford to), turned to their faith (which might attend to their spirit but could not attend to their bodies), or yielded to medical practice that had barely advanced beyond Galan's time (which certainly did not attend to their bodies).
Centuries later, the citizen scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek peered through his newly created microscope, revealing the inner life of cells and bacteria for the first time. His work was part of the chain of discoveries that pulled back the curtain on the root causes of the plague, namely, the bacterium Yersinia pestis. Today, computing has allowed us to fully sequence its genome. The curtain has been torn—but much mystery still remains, and that's a wonderful thing because it compels us to keep asking "how?"
Made a century after van Leeuwenhoek's discovery, the painting An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump by Joseph Wright has always moved me. Here, Wright portrays an experiment of Robert Boyle, recreated by another citizen scientist and revealed to a diverse group. In the audience, we see a couple looking at one another in silent connection; youth expressing varying degrees of curiosity, concern, and fear; two men in quiet contemplation and a third offering a dispassionate explanation of the phenomenon; and finally, the scientist himself, the only person looking outside the plane of the painting, inviting us to look inside, behind the curtain.
The biology of Yersinia pestis and the physics of a vacuum are examples of organic and natural phenomena that were once deep mysteries—they can now be somewhat explained by science. To be clear, I use the word "somewhat" intentionally: science is like the young child who recursively asks "why?" There's no meaningful end to the chain of questions one can ask about a mystery.
We often delight in mysteries of our own making. Just before Wright's painting, Jacques de Vaucanson unveiled his Canard Digérateur, a mechanical duck that pooped. Following Wright's painting was the infamous Mechanical Turk by Wolfgang von Kempelen, a "machine" that played chess. In both cases, their creators delighted and deceived their audiences by implementing a device that carried out a very visible act in a very invisible and mysterious way.
Computing has contributed to another modern industry—a very profitable one at that—whose business is that of creating illusions. Of course, by this I mean the movie industry. With modern special effects, filmmakers can create entirely new worlds or manipulate simulations of our current world in ways that are virtually indistinguishable from reality. Actually, that's not quite correct: with these illusions, we can create new realities.
Natural phenomena represent discoverable mysteries. With computing, we build upon certain discoverable mysteries: information theory, complexity theory, and algorithmic analysis to name a few, all of which are at the core of computer science. In our work, we then wrap the fruits of these discoverable mysteries into illusions of our own making, illusions in which we hide great complexity but whose surface delivers value to some set of users.
That brings us back to the Great and Terrible Oz. Reframing his declaration in our context, we might observe, "Computing is everywhere, but to the eyes of common mortals, computing is invisible."
To what degree should we wizards care about the implications of the machinery we devise? In his provocative article, "Why The Future Doesn't Need Us ," William Joy wrote, "I may be working to create tools which will enable the construction of the technology that may replace our species. How do I feel about this? Very uncomfortable." 5
I respect William's position, but I've always taken a different perspective, on two fronts. First, I know I'm working on technology that may replace our species. Computing is a technology that has the power to extend us, transform us, and perhaps even destroy us. Second, I'm quite comfortable with that prospect: it's a privilege to contribute to such work, and I am confident in the strength of the human spirit to absorb, adapt, and evolve. Indeed, to do otherwise—to resist change, to stagnate—is a kind of death for our species.
Now, it's not that every line of code one writes has moral implications. However, as Voltaire once said, "No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible." We geeks generate snowflakes and collectively we have started an irreversible avalanche. It's therefore our responsibility to craft the most beautiful and useful computing artifacts we can, with the expectation that others will come after us, using our inventions in unexpected ways. Code as if your life depended on it, for in a number of dimensions—some direct, some very subtle—it absolutely does.
What then should the general public care about the machinery of computing? For most, it's simply not important to know precisely how a computer works. Give a young child an iPad, and you'll be amazed at just how quickly she learns to work it. Part of this is the beautiful simplicity of a tablet computer, and part of this is the playful intuition of a child. As one grows up digital, there are a certainly a number of basic computational skills that grow in importance. Knowing how to interact with a computer, how to bend it to our will, is just as important in our time as knowing how to engage with a horse was in Wright's time. To this end, I'm encouraged by the work of Jeannette Wing and her colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University on computational thinking ( www.cs.cmu.edu/~CompThink). As they note, "The impact of computing extends far beyond science, however, affecting all aspect of our lives. To flourish in today's world, everyone needs computational thinking."
For the general public, it's still important to know a little of what's behind the curtain of computing. An informed and educated populace is far more able to reconcile its past, reason about its present, and intentionally create its future.
Each of us plays the role of the Wizard and of Dorothy at one time or another; these are just two of the masks we wear. In so doing, we may reasonably place a curtain between us from time to time, but we should never fear to pull it open.