Monday, July 30, 2007

This I Believe (Essay contribution)

Contributed to NPR's "This I Believe" Essay compilation:

I believe…
that technology can never save us. And I’m sure that most people would nod assent, in tacit agreement. “Of course! Who ever said it could? How silly!” And then they will continue on down the road in their computer equipped cars, with a computer in their pocket and another attached to their hip, speeding to work where, more likely than not, they will stare at some kind of computer or another, for most of the day, only to slip home at the end of the day to watch digital tv served up from a computer storage device, sipping microwave-heated tea.

If you haven’t noticed: the computers have arrived.

I’m sure that everyone would agree that the computer is a pretty clever piece of machinery. A fascinating toy, an indispensable tool – it is indisputably the work of genius. But in all my years of undergrad and graduate studies in computer science, what impressed me the most was all the countless layers of genius that lie below the surface.

We usually see only the top level – the user interface. Those who delve a little into programming begin to see some of the inner workings of the programs, or perhaps get a glimpse of the underlying libraries and drivers. They may even peer into some of the layers of the registry or the operating system. Perhaps they open the black box itself and ponder the mother board or gaze with not a little bit of awe at that metropolitan map carved inexplicably into a fingernail-sized piece of silicon. And deeper it goes, and deeper. Every layer deftly and intricately crafted and intertwined with all that lay beneath it, and each one boasting the extraordinary brilliance and genius of its creators and designers.

For me, uncovering and admiring all of those layers was like looking down through the center of a giant spiral staircase, gazing through floor after floor of a might tower (a library perhaps), and then, beyond ground level, deep into the chasms of a multi-floor basement, and on into the darkened depths into which not even grad students descend. It was an amazing realization for me, to behold the phenomenal depth of the genius of the computer.

So why do I believe that the computer can’t save us? Is it because of some fatal flaw? Some Turing-Church thesis that categorically proves the inherent limits of the machine?

No. What convinced me that the computer can never be our savior, was the realization that all of the mind-boggling brilliance of the computer -- every bit of the genius in its chips – was placed there, just so, by its creators. It was the vast intellect of the designers that bestowed such awe-inspiring complexity to the computer. Giants, on the shoulders of giants, on the shoulders of still more shoulder-riding giants, whose collective intelligence has dared to erect the most daunting structure in history. Energized by dreams more lofty than anything since the architects began drawing up plans for the Tower of Babel, these geniuses are the true masterminds. Even if someday the computers themselves begin to create even more computers, it will always be the brilliance of the original designers that will be on display. Only genius could unleash such genius.

And so, perhaps, at the end of the day, we must ask: is it the giants themselves that will be our saviors? Is it our own genius that will save us?

And as I ponder that question, I am forced to admit that it can not be so. Despite all the weight of the arguments to the contrary, I simply cannot escape the logic that all the genius in our chips – the brilliance in our collective brains – did not spawn itself (the result of some infinite chain of accidents) but was placed there, just so, by its creator. And so with overwhelming awe and wonder I am led to the inescapable conclusion, that the uncharted genius in our race is simply a dim, fingernail-sized reflection of the incomprehensible brilliance of our Designer.

And that is why I believe, that we can never be saved until we finally discover, like the builders of that Babylonian Tower did so long ago, that we simply can’t save ourselves. We need a Savior.

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