October 12, 2010

My Work Has Nothing To Do With Computers

I recently purchased a computer, and am still learning how to use the canned programs that come with it. The main thing that you are struck with in the process of learning about a computer is how totally, incredibly stupid it is. ... You give it a series of a hundred or a thousand sensible commands, and it executes each of them in turn, and then you press a wrong key and accidentally give it a command which goes counter to everything that you have been trying to do, and it will execute that command in a millisecond, just as if you had accidentally hit the wrong button on your vacuum cleaner at the end of your cleaning, and it had instantly and to your great surprise sprayed the dirt that you had collected back into the room. And you feel like, "Jeez, machine, you ought to know I didn't mean that. What do you think I've been doing here for the last hour?" And then you realize that that machine has not the foggiest notion of what you are trying to do, any more than your vacuum cleaner does.

The machine, you see, is nothing; it is utterly, truly, totally nothing. And all of the fascination and the speculation about the computer, about "what it is going to do" and "how it will change things" in baseball and in other areas is completely misguided, because it is not going to do anything and it is not going to do change anything.

We are going to do things with the computer. You and I are going to change the world, and we're going to change baseball, and we're going to use the computer to do it. Machines have no capabilities on their own. Your car cannot drive to Cleveland. What machines do is extend our capabilities. ...

We are going to change our lives, using the computer, far more than we have changed our lives using the automobile, far more than we have changed our lives using the television machine. I have no doubt that this is true, because the computer extends our capabilities, for good or evil, in far more sweeping and comprehensive ways than the automobile, which in truth expands only our ability to move around, or the television, which expands only our ability to observe. I am not afraid on balance. ...

There is, you see, no such thing as "computer knowledge" or "computer information" or "computer data". Within a few years, everyone will understand that. The essential characteristics of information are that it is true or it is false, it is significant or it is trivial, it is relevant or it is irrelevant. In the early days of the automobile, people would say that they were going to take an "automobile trip". That lasted about ten years; after that, people went back to taking trips as they had before. ... After the novelty wore off people still traveled in automobiles, but they ceased to identify the trip with the machine and returned to identifying it with its purpose. ...

Computer people are not going to be running baseball in a few years ... The rise of the computer age is not going to put computer specialists into positions of power any more than the rise of the auto age put auto mechanics and bus drivers into positions of power. Don't worry about it.

I am engaged in a search for understanding. That is my profession. It has nothing to do with computers. Computers are going to have an impact on my life that is similar to the impact that the coming of the automobile age must have had on the professional traveler or adventurer. The car made it easier to get from place to place; the computer will make it easier to deal with information. But knowing how to drive an automobile does not make you an adventurer, and knowing how to run a computer does not make you an analytical student of the game.
The Bill James Baseball Abstract: 1984 (pp. 165-66)

12 comments:

L-girl said...

Computers are going to have an impact on my life that is similar to the impact that the coming of the automobile age must have had on the professional traveler or adventurer. The car made it easier to get from place to place; the computer will make it easier to deal with information. But knowing how to drive an automobile does not make you an adventurer, and knowing how to run a computer does not make you an analytical student of the game.

This is great - I love it.

There is, you see, no such thing as "computer knowledge" or "computer information" or "computer data". Within a few years, everyone will understand that.

It might be difficult or impossible for most people now to understand what he meant by that. We might think "computer knowledge" means "knowledge of computer systems" - IT.

But in 1984 "computer knowledge" had a different connotation, something no one would say anymore - exactly as James says, the way no one says, we're going on an automobile trip.

FenFan said...

These nuggests are great - thanks redsock!

redsock said...

When I was looking through daily newspapers from 1918, it was always reported that Owner X was speaking via the "long-distance telephone". I have no idea when that stopped.

This was the part that I loved:

"... they ceased to identify the trip with the machine and returned to identifying it with its purpose."

redsock said...

The entire essay is worth reading for his comments on how much a part of our lives computers would be -- as important as words on paper.

What is unique (exciting, terrifying) about the computer is that it extends our capabilities to such an enormous extent and in so many areas -- in more different areas, I think, than any new invention since the tire iron. The reason for this is that almost everything which can be done on paper can be done easier and faster (some would say better, but I'm not convinced of that yet) on a computer. Since all our lives revolve to a large extent around literacy, around works on paper and numbers on paper, our lives are in time going to revolve to the same extent around computers. Whether we like it or not.

He wrote that in 1983!

MacLeodCartoons said...

Some of my cartoons were up in a gallery in town here and the curator had categorized them on their little labels as "computer drawings". I thought that was funny - kinda quaint. I just think of them as drawings, and my newspaper editor just thinks of them as drawings, but to this old art gallery guy they were "computer drawings". On a different note, I wonder of Bill James ever predicted that in the future computers would be used to add purses to pictures of A-Rod....

johngoldfine said...

I was teaching at Job Corps in 1983--and one day a bunch of boxes arrived holding Apple Computers all loaded with Bank St Writer.

I wish I could tell you that I had 1/1000th of Bill James's intelligence and prescience. My reaction to my first computer experience was completely Luddite: "What a fucking waste of time learning all this shit when there's handy paper and pencil that will do the job a thousand times faster."

In the last 23 years of working with computers and writing programs, I've seen every impediment disappear: students not knowing how to type, not knowing how to start computers, not knowing what a word processing program looks like and how it works, not knowing about disks and files and flashdrives and internet and printer queues, and so on.

Now, we're back to where Bill James told us we would be. We're back to writing, with the same old problems writing always has. But writing on computer is still and always will be different than with paper and pencil, thank god.

L-girl said...

He wrote that in 1983!

I love this essay, but I don't think knowing this in 1983 was especially prescient. Many people understood this by then, although it was before the age of the personal computer.

L-girl said...

But writing on computer is still and always will be different than with paper and pencil, thank god.

Yes, it is a zillion times better.

I hate writing with paper and pencil. Hate it and cannot do it.

I have always only been able to write successfully when typing - first on a manual typewriter, then an electric typewriter, then a computer. The only exceptions used to be my travel journals, and thankfully laptops and internet cafes have solved that issue.

johngoldfine said...

"I don't think knowing this in 1983 was especially prescient."

It was compared to my response!

redsock said...

I don't think knowing this in 1983 was especially prescient. Many people understood this by then, although it was before the age of the personal computer.

For me, it seems like it might as well have been 1883!

But personal computers seems to be what is talking about -- having them in our lives as much as pencil and paper. He could not have meant that we would be using computers in all of our jobs. Many jobs would not be applicable.

redsock said...

FenFan - Thanks! They are good for a day when I have nothing else!

L-girl said...

He could not have meant that we would be using computers in all of our jobs. Many jobs would not be applicable.

That isn't what I meant either. Never mind! :)

It was compared to my response!

Ha! Very true. He is a forward-thinker, that's for sure.