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You think that you understand technology but when you arrive at The Known World, you discover a land where software pirates sail the seven seas, Derek the Rocket Scientist holds a communal barn raising to install his solar roof, and the future of technology policy is perpetually debated by the Society for the Promotion of Goodness and its rival, the Association for the Prevention of Bad Things.  These are some of the people and institutions that populate The Known World and help explain the nature of society and technology.

This blog contains the essays of David Alan Grier, which appear each month to discuss the ideas, the culture and the stories of the digital age. These blog postings and podcasts come from the column of the same name in Computer.

This podcast is brought to you by Computer magazine, the flagship publication of the IEEE Computer Society.

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Uncharted Territory

Innovation is not always a calm thing.  It can challenge our fundamental way of looking at the world and leave us not entire certain of our position.  A recent talk by a friend on his new ideas for organizing work led to a disruptive evening and an lingering question that hovers over everything that we do.  


The Honest Give-and-Take

We are our data.  There are perhaps a fews other bits to our identity but we increasingly seem to be nothhing but a historic collection of data that drag through the days.  I generally try to protect that collection, though my reasons are perhaps not as good as they ought to be.  Nonetheless, I occasionally find a reason to defend by protectiveness as I did the day that I met a data mechanic.


The Logical Steps of John McCarthy

 I belong to one of those lists that anticipates the passing of great engineers and scientists.  Over a week ago, it circulated the story, not well verified, that John McCarthy, pioneering computer scientist, had checked into a hospital for reasons unknown.  We lit an symbolic incandescent light in his honor, much the way that the employees of THomas Edison kept a lamp burning his final illness.  On the 24th we had to extinquish the light and acknolwedge that another member of the pioneer generation had left us. 

For the next couple of days, we had to bear the burden of a popular media that was trying to explan Dr. McCarthy's accomplishments and the reasons that made him important.  Most of these accounts stubmled over technical facts, misappropriated credit and generally misled the public.  As they treat so many persons in the public eye, they tried to make the case that McCarthy deserved our attention rather than the case that how he represented a profund change of thought. 

Few engineers labor in the adulation public eye.  They are judged by the ideas that they push not the attntion that they hold.  McC arthy was a leading part of the process that attempted to understand the relationship of human thought to predicate logic.  He did important work but he never dominatd the public arena for any period of time.  He did his work in the way that the best of due, with the careful attention to detail, the review of our peers and the cautious concern for his ultimate vision. 

Edison was a rare engineer who moved in the public eye and served a public purpose.  At the end, his live was properly represented by a light buring in the night that would be snuffed when he departed.  McCarthy was not that kind of engineer.  He accomplished much within our sphere and left much for others to do.  No light properlly represents this work, as it is better seen as a collection of ideas that McCarthy pushed into our lives and let cascade through culture.  It is possible to conconct a story to suggest that he deserved the world's attention but it is more accurate to state that he attended to the world's problems and let the results of that attention for others to build upon rather than extinquish.  



The Policy Structure

 At a recent meeting of my research group, one of the members raised the issue of policy decisions.  We had been discussing new ways of gathering public health data with social media.  The speaker suggested that the major institutions of public health might be interested in surpressing such techniques, as they would threated the existence of these bodies. 

As with all things, the answer is both yes and no.  Information technology began systematically replacing human organizations long before Robinson identified such institutions as information processors in his 1923 book.  At the same time, that replacement process has been highly dependent on the market.  Technology replaces organizations when it can do the work more inexpensively or get more results for the same cost.  That border is fluid, as the cost of organization and technology is far from fixed.  The political machines vanished, or at least weakened considerably, with the rise of the public opinion infrastructure.  Public health may face some of the same pressures but it has different forces shaping its market - notably the deep concern we all share for the well-being of our selves and our loved ones - and hence the border between technollogy and organization will likely be quite different.


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David Alan Grier

David Alan Grier is a computer scientist, an established observer of the technology industry and a writer on issues of science and society.  In addition to producing The Known World, he has written two books,  When Computers Were Human, (Princeton University Press, 2005), which is the story of the workers who did scientific calculation before we had electronic computers.  In addition he has published Too Soon to Tell: Essays for the End of the Computer Revolution, (John Wiley/IEEE Computer Society, 2009).  A video of When Computers Were Human can be found here while a brief talk about Too Soon to Tell is found here. 

He is currently an associate professor at the Center for International Science and Technology Policy at the George Washington University.  

Despite sharing a common hometown and a common birth year with David Alan Grier the actor, he is an entirely different person.


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