Too Much of a Good Thing

Racks of computer servers

You can have too much of a good thing, like rich food, exercise, partying, or electronic communication.  All of these topics merit careful consideration, but this seems to be an especially good time to reflect on the last one.  The news is full of stories about how, in various forms, electronic communication is extending the boundaries of human intelligence, making it easier to do business, and promoting freedom around the globe.  But is it?

One thing is certain: expectations are high.  Take the recent publicity generated by the IBM super-computer Watson. The electronic whiz handily defeated two “Jeopardy!” champions.   “What we have done is advance artificial intelligence by miles,” says John E. Kelly III, IBM Senior Vice President and director of IBM research.

The victory prompted journalists and experts to reflect on human vs. machine questions both frivolous and profound.  The consensus is that computers have not yet achieved true intelligence and humans need not worry yet about ceding their position as the smartest entities on the planet.  For better and worse, self-conscious and willful computers like Hal, from Arthur C. Clark’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, will for a long time be more science fantasy than fact.  Yet, closer to current reality, a widely shared opinion has emerged that computing power will soon dramatically change many business processes. Kelly and others anticipate that super-computing will have an impact on myriad operations, from call centers to hospitals.  It is easy to imagine Watson’s cousins answering questions on the phone about your bank account or providing directions to the nearest Wal-Mart.  In Emergency Rooms, electronic physician’s assistants are already providing real-time support in managing voluminous medical records and diagnosing complex medical conditions.

Social activist Wael Ghonim credits Facebook with starting Egypt’s Jasmine Revolution.  In a CNN interview, Ghonim said about Facebook’s co-founder, “I want to meet Mark Zuckerberg one day and thank him.” Then Ghonim continued: “I’ve always said that if you want to liberate a society just give them the Internet.”

Other commentators offer far less dramatic accounts of the admittedly stunning technological advances in multiple forms of electronic communication.  All in all, the more sober perspectives bring a welcome balance to a topic that lends itself to hyperbole.  Consider a few moderate voices.

Abraham Verghese, physician and author of the novel Cutting for Stone, worries about the decline of basic bedside skills.  A machine too often gets in the way of human touch at those times when human touch matters most.  Physically examining the patient is an important ritual that establishes trust.  It sends the message: “I will see you through this illness.  I will be with you through thick and thin.”

While New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman acknowledges that electronic tools like Facebook and Google Earth have helped empower oppressed masses across the Middle East, he also recognizes the power of human factors.  Among others, he cites Barack Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s commitment to good governance.

Fouad Ajami, Johns Hopkins professor and Middle East expert, also provides a needed historical context for recent events.  He notes that for centuries crowds of people have periodically gathered to express collective sorrow or elation, and usher in new political regimes.  His observations about Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya reach back much further than the founding of Facebook.  For him, the unrest sweeping across Northern Africa resembles the European revolutions of 1848.  You can be sure that no one was texting or Facebooking at that time.  Not only that, but a brave new world of widespread and permanent political freedom failed to emerge following those revolutions.  In a similar way, the fall of the Soviet Union had, at best, mixed results.

Human beings down through history have displayed a strong urge to believe in revolutionary brave new worlds, electronic and otherwise.  My advice: resist the urge.  Better to focus on the hard work it takes in the real world, even with technology at our disposal, to work with others and build effective governments.