Broken looms and IBM machines

I don’t know about you, but watching Watson demolish his human opponents in Jeopardy last week got me thinking about wooden shoes. Called sabots in French, these shoes were flung into weaving machines during the Industrial Revolution by angry workers. Clogs in cogs save jobs, or so went the reasoning. Ineffective at stopping automation, sabots nevertheless had a lasting impact on the English language. Sabotage became our word for the subversive use of footwear (and other implements of destruction).

I always tut-tutted at those misguided laborers for shoe-flinging in the name of job security. Who were they to stop progress? But watching Watson, I felt a pang of sympathy for the Luddites of the 19th century. Because as a knowledge worker, Watson is starting to work on my side of the street, and my reptile brain is not very happy about it. The speed with which mechanical brains are improving is intimidating. Even so, it’s easy enough for my non-reptile brain to calm down and be grateful for progress. I remind myself that it was ever thus. Progress has been intimidating humans since the invention of the pointed stick.

It was with these thoughts that I got a note from Jay Czarnecki pointing me to Adam Gopnik’s essay at the New Yorker, The Information: How the Internet Gets Inside Us. It’s a smart smart piece about the overwhelming wonders of the Internet. He divides Internet pundits into three categories: the pessimistic Better-Nevers, the Pollyanna Never-Betters, and the equivocal Ever-Wasers. As he says:

One’s hopes rest with the Never-Betters; one’s head with the Ever-Wasers; and one’s heart? Well… one’s heart tends to move toward the Better-Nevers, and then bounce back toward someplace that looks more like home.

We humans can never escape the feeling that that which frees us enslaves us. I wonder how Watson feels about it.

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