The Ignorant Computer

Consider the (likely tens of gigabytes of) software in your computer. What sorts of knowledge does that software embody? What things does it “know” so you don’t have to? A lot of details about hardware management, at a minimum: how to interact with thousands of different devices, the details of interfaces and protocols, the often complex algorithms necessary to make the best use of large but limited resources.

And that’s only at the operating system level. Standard programs know how to access resources over the Internet and render a multitude of formats, how to beautifully display fonts, how to perform mathematical calculations, draw graphs, and show videos. They even know sophisticated image and data manipulation techniques.

Yet all of this impressive knowledge has very little to do with most of what we do, only with what computers do. Schedulers know about timezones, but not about how much sleep you need. Word processors are more focused on typography than on writing. It will be much easier for you to find a software add-on to convert between any two file formats than to teach your spreadsheet to recognize whether two addresses are close or not.

Modern software is, no doubt about it, an impressive set of tools. Yet they are mostly ignorant tools, and, what’s worse, this trend seems to be worsening over time. Even something as traditional as a list of contacts is still very difficult to keep synchronized between our different platforms and devices; trying to teach our email clients to, e.g., be aware of cultural differences between two countries so they can prevent us from making a faux pas (taking too long to respond to an email, lack of a final salute, etc) seems to be, if not outside our technical capabilities, certainly outside of our focus of interest. We have made big advances in data portability, and yet procedural knowledge is by and large still locked inside black boxes of non-reusable (by users) computer code.

This is a wasted opportunity, because our greatest advances have always been found not in improved computers, but in the way they allow us to make use of knowledge we weren’t using. If the impact of the Industrial Revolution was largely based on giving to individual workers energy sources more powerful than the human body, and the impact of information technologies is based on giving individual workers access to automated, networked processes, an equally strong impact can be expected if we find an equally effective and pervasive way to increase the amount of knowledge that is directly applied to our everyday tasks.

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