Month: December 2016

Logic by Machine

We don’t talk about computers like we used to. Whilst writing up my PhD thesis, I came across this teaser video for my Nybble project. It was designed to elicit the interest of potential dancers and the public who may come to view the work. The dialogue is taken from a 1962 film called Logic By Machine, commissioned by IBM and put out on the equivalent of KQED-TV / National Educational Television (which I believe became PBS?).

There is a poetic, dreamy discussion of the potential that computers have to change the way we see ourselves in the world:

The computer is then given the problem in the form of numbers or instructions pertinent to arithmetic. It is the arithmetic logical task that the computer is organised to do. Once instructed, it can do as much arithmetic in a minute as a man in a lifetime.

A man in a lifetime…the lifetime of all mankind is but a brief moment in the long history of this earth of ours. And only yesterday in the history of mankind has man made any significant advance in his control over his earthly environment.

Dialogue written by Richard Moore. The rest of the film is also worth watching for the speech by the incredible Richard Hamming‘s explanation of exponentiality within computing.

Rock music

Whilst in Korea last year, I came across this incredible rock playing an instrumental version of Celine Dion’s Oscar-winning My Heart Will Go On.

Hold me, Jack.

A cybernetic argument against post-truth

As far as I see it, the Trump team’s rejection of facts, and the idea that we live in a post-truth world is nothing more than a refusal to engage in conversation with any other entity. It is a lazy and dangerous argument, and a threat to democracy. I will explain why.

In the 1970s Gordon Pask proposed a cybernetic theory of communication. It is called Conversation Theory, and it relates to the way in which we communicate with other individuals. 

It begins from the basic premise that our minds are machines which have the purpose of learning. Each mind forms concepts — that is, understandings of topics — which are in some way malleable. If you could only define the term tree within your own mind once, for example, you would not be able to see any new types of tree as trees. Instead, your definition of tree changes each time you experience, discuss, or think about a tree. The redefinition of concepts, the reaching of new understandings, is an essential part of learning.

One way we reach new understandings is via conversation. A conversation is an interaction between two individuals, in which both state and re-state their understanding of a concept, until they can both agree upon a mutually satisfying definition. A conversation requires the individuals involved to define and redefine their understandings.

Political opinions vary wildly, and largely depend on different definitions of terms like freedom and rights. In a democracy, every individual can form and hold their own definition of such terms. My freedom probably looks different to your freedom. We may not agree on the exact definition of the word, we may disagree wildly on where freedom starts and stops, but we will both agree that there is such a thing as freedom. Indeed, by talking to each other, we will probably learn something about the others’ opinions, we may modify our own ideas, and at the very least we may learn something.

Conversation in politics requires a basic premise: that there are definitions of certain concepts that both parties can agree upon. These are known as facts / truth. A fact may be that WWII was from 1939–45. An opinion might state that it could have ended sooner, had x been done by y. We can all agree on the fact — but we are able to disagree about the opinion.

If we cannot agree on facts, or the fact that there are facts, then our entire conversation will be spent simply restating these premises, rather than discussing potential problems and solutions. It is dangerous to believe that we live in a post-fact world, because it denies the possibility of ever engaging in meaningful conversation. Stating that there is no truth is the same as stating that we will never understand each other. Without meaningful conversation, you have no voice, and there is no democracy.

This is not a new idea. It has been tried and tested in Russia by the Putin regime, whom Trump has repeatedly stated he admires

Reject the idea that we live in a post-truth world. It is toxic, poisonous, and threatens democracy. It is an idea that exists merely to silence all of our voices, and shut us all out of conversation. Whether you are on the left or the right, this affects us all.

Notes and articles


Conversation theory