The purpose of this exam is to give you an occasion to think about the semester’s required readings, our discussions in class, and the ideas you wrote about in your papers, as you write three short essays about themes that have been with us since our discussion of Turing’s 1950 paper, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” There are three parts to this exam. The first asks you to write about three authors whose works address a topic concerning the consequences of computing for our thinking about minds, brains and bodies. The second asks you to write about a topic concerning the consequences of computing for our thinking about social practices and institutions, using the essays/chapters you’ve taken responsibility for (in Webster’s Information Society Reader) to illustrate your views. The third part asks you to write a short reaction to Cass Sunstein's republic.com that can (but need not) include comparisons with the chapters from Webster.
This exam is only slightly different than the one I would have given in a 3-hour in-class block, so please do not spend much more than 3 hours on it; I will not hold your writing on this exam to the high standards I did when reading your papers, but at the same time I will have no opportunity to ask you the meaning of particular statements, and there will be no opportunity to rewrite the exam, so please write as clearly as possible and please (please) proofread your exam before sending it in.
The exam is due by noon (EST) on Wednesday, February 13th.
The “mind-body problem” has been debated in philosophy for centuries, but by the late-20th century some considered the problem reduced to a “mind-brain problem”: namely, the problem of understanding and articulating the nature and status of mental states and mental phenomena in light of advances in the understanding of the brain. Ironically, the invention of electronic computers in the 20th century only complicated this problem in both its classical and contemporary forms, as the capabilities of computers and the power of the concept of “information” have caused us to question the significance of the body, the mind and the brain in thinking about the self and its qualities. Each of the following topics addresses this consequence of computing in one way or another. Choose one of the topics, and write an essay that presents the views of three authors while communicating your views as well. You may of course make reference to other texts as well, though you are not required to do so. Please know that none of the topics has been formulated to elicit a "right" or "correct" view or response, and your essay will be evaluated based on the quality, coherence and inspiration of your insights, arguments, and readings of the texts you discuss.
1. The Imitation Game. In A.M. Turing's 1950 paper, "Computing Machinery and Intelligence," he introduced the "imitation game" as a provocative alternative to an analytic approach to the question "Can Machines Think?" In the second section of the paper, he writes of this alternative approach:
"The new problem has the advantage of drawing a fairly sharp line between the physical and the intellectual capacities of a man. No engineer or chemist claims to be able to produce a material which is indistinguishable from the human skin. It is possible that at some time this might be done, but even supposing this invention available we should feel there was little point in trying to make a "thinking machine" more human by dressing it up in such artificial flesh. The form in which we have set the problem reflects this fact in the condition which prevents the interrogator from seeing or touching the other competitors, or hearing their voices."
A number of the works we've read this semester can be interpreted as commentaries on Turing's substitution of this "new" problem for the old, and his arguing for the validity of the imitation game. Choose three (3) texts, required or recommended but not including Turing's paper, and write a brief essay about the significance of the imitation game in assessing the consequences of computing. The essay should describe and evaluate the opinions of each of the authors in light of Turing's argument(s), and present your own views as well.
2. Materiality and Information Patterns. In her 1999 book, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics, N. Kathryn Hayles describes the characteristics of a "posthuman" condition. She writes:
"What is the posthuman? Think of it as a point of view characterized by the following assumptions. … First, the posthuman view privileges informational pattern over material instantiation, so that embodiment in a biological substrate is seen as an accident of history rather than an inevitability of life. Second, the posthuman view considers consciousness, regarded as the seat of human identity in the Western tradition long before Descartes thought he was mind thinking, as an epiphenomenon, as an evolutionary upstart trying to claim that it is the whole show when in actuality it is only a minor sideshow. Third, the posthuman view thinks of the body as the original prosthesis we learn to manipulate, so that extending or replacing the body with other prostheses becomes a continuation of a process that began before we were born. Fourth, and most important, by these and other means, the posthuman configures human being so that it can be seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines." (pp. 2-3)
A number of the works we've read this semester can be interpreted as illustrations and/or critiques of Hayles' characterization of the posthuman. Choose three (3) texts, required or recommended, and write a brief essay exploring the significance of one (1) of the four characteristics as it relates to those texts. Your essay should describe and evaluate each of the texts as an illustration or critique of the posthuman characteristic you've chosen, and should include your own view concerning the accuracy and validity of Hayles' characterization in light of your own experience.
3. The Natural and the Artificial. In the Introduction to his 1947 classic, Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, Norbert Wiener argued that the computer was an obvious model for the nervous system. Noting the similarity between the "all-or-none character of the discharge of the neuron" and "the single choice made in determining a digit on the binary scale", he argued that the problem of interpreting the nature and varieties of memory in the animal has its parallel in the problem of constructing artificial memories for the computer." (p. 22) More than a half-century later, the rapid development of both biology and computing has produced some "difficult cases" that call into question the precision and value of the distinction between the natural and the artificial. In the introduction to a recent book, The Natural and the Artificial: An Evolving Polarity (MIT Press, 2007), the editors (Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and William R. Newman) write:
Bioengineering has proposed strawberries with genes taken from fish, ‘‘genetic artists’’ boast of having made a phosphorescent rabbit by implanting DNA from jellyfish, and in Mexico, genetically modified ‘‘Frankencorn’’ has possibly made its way into the wild, hybridizing with varieties of maize hitherto untouched by humans. Are such living entities rendered ‘‘artificial’’ by the human intervention that modified their genetic makeup? If so, does it not follow that hybrids produced by old-fashioned cross-breeding are human-made as well, and that every tomato or pear that we eat is an ‘‘artificial’’ product? … If we turn to the realm of cold, hard silicon, similar questions emerge. Computer science has bridged the chasm between man and machine, giving us ‘‘Deep Blue,’’ the IBM product that defeated Garry Kasparov at chess. Unsatisfied with this conquest, the computational laboratories of MIT are building robots that simulate human emotion, while researchers at Carnegie Mellon are devising ways humans may one day give up their biological bodies, allowing computers to become the recipients of their consciousness, digitized and uploaded into a suitable machine-readable matrix. Assuming the eventual feasibility of this science fiction scenario, where then would the line be drawn between an artificial and a natural human being? (p. 1)
A number of the works we've read this semester can be interpreted as commentaries on the distinction between the natural and the artificial. Choose three (3) texts, required or recommended, that you think speak to this issue, and write a brief essay about the significance of the distinction in light of the development of modern computing. The essay should describe and evaluate each perspective on the natural and the artificial, and present your own view concerning the significance of the distinction.
While the topics in Part One of this exam concerned the consequences of computing for our thinking about our selves and our bodies, the topics in Part Two ask you to think about the consequences for human institutions and social practices. Whether in the realm of science, economics, culture or politics, the impact of computing has been enormous. Choose one (1) of the topics, and write an essay that communicates your thoughts as clearly as possible, while drawing on specific examples and/or arguments from the texts you've read in The Information Society Reader. You may of course make reference to other texts as well, though you are not required to do so. Please know that none of the topics has been formulated to elicit a "right" or "correct" view or response, and your essay will be evaluated based on the quality, coherence and inspiration of your insights, arguments, and readings of the texts you discuss.
1. The Factory, the Office and the World of Work. The contrast between the factory in Modern Times and the cubicle-filled office in The Matrix hinted at a number of distinctions between the nature and significance of work in an industrial society, and in a post-industrial or "information" society. Write a brief essay discussing changes in the meaning of work (for workers, owners and society generally) that seem a consequence of computing, and use the texts from your assigned part of The Information Society Reader to support your argument(s). The essay should describe and evaluate the position of each author, but the emphasis should be on your own ideas about the importance of work is and should be (in the past, in the present and in the future).
2. Got (Social) Problems? The concept of an "information society" calls attention to the ways that technology can influence social practices and social problems, and futurist writing that has accompanied the development of computing shows an enormous range of opinions concerning the possible impact of technology on human practices, as well as the degree to which human social problems can be "solved" by technology. Perhaps the only thing that can be said certainly is that an information society has the potential to transform the nature, if not the difficulty, of the most pressing problems faced by a sovereign nation or a well-defined society. In the excerpt from Managing in the Information Society (1990), reprinted in Webster, Yoneji Masuda writes:
In industrial society there are three main types of social problems: recession-induced unemployment, wars resulting from international conflict, and the dictatorships of fascism. The problems of information society will be future shocks caused by the inability of people to respond smoothly to rapid societal transformation, acts of individual and group terrorists such as hijackings, invasions of individual privacy and the crisis of a controlled society. (pp. 17, 20)
Write a brief essay that responds to Masuda's claim about the difference between social problems in industrial and information society, and use the texts from your assigned part of The Information Society Reader to support your argument(s). The essay should describe and evaluate the position of each author, but the emphasis should be on your own ideas about the difference(s) between the social problems we faced in the past, and those we face in the present and the future, and the degree to which these are consequences of computing.
3. The Third Wave vs. Digital Liquification. In "Cyberspace and the American Dream," by Esther Dyson et al, and "Who Will Be in Cyberspace," by Langdon Winner (in Part One of The Information Society Reader), we see sharp differences of opinion concerning the value of the social and economic transformations that technology generally, and computing in particular, make possible. Using the texts from your assigned part of The Information Society Reader, write a brief essay in support of one of these visions (or some combination of the two). Your essay should describe and evaluate the position of each author (you don't have to describe or evaluate Dyson or Winner if you don't wish to), but the emphasis should be on your own ideas about the future that computing does or does not make possible/probable.
In his 1999 book, republic.com, Cass Sunstein expressed great concern that the customization of information and community, made possible by computer networks, could pose a serious threat to the health of a democracy. In particular, he argued that a healthy deliberative democracy depends on citizens encountering opinions/information they do not choose, and on their having non-trivial common experiences -- he worried that a medium like the Web, for example, allows citizens (and perhaps encourages them) to have neither these kinds of encounters nor these common experiences. Write a brief essay reacting to Sunstein's concerns, and specifically to his claims about the promises and perils of virtual communities. You may make reference to any other books/articles you wish, but you need not do so; what is most important is that you make clear your opinion about the role computer networks can and cannot play in a healthy democracy.
Computing and Its Consequences: Required Texts:
© 2008 Roger B. Blumberg