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Garry Kasparov, Computers, and Time

February 22, 2010
Dennis Lewis

Dennis Lewis

I wrote and published this essay in 1999. A lot has changed since then, but the trend continues. For example, our phones, now themselves amazing computers, have become “smart,” smarter, very often, than those of us who use them. And the computer-driven Internet, with all the “social media” that depend on it, has begun to reshape our lives in ways we can just barely comprehend. More than ever, we are being called to take a fresh look at who we are, how these new technologies are conditioning us, and what we really need for a healthy, happy, and conscious life.

In May 1997, an IBM supercomputer by the name of “Deep Blue” beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov in a six-game match, throwing him and many others who believe in the supremacy of the human brain into a “deep” funk and a heavy analysis of what went wrong. Not long after the competition, Kasparov said that he wanted a rematch, but only if it would take place with “better conditions for a human player.” One of the conditions he demanded was more time for rest between games.

While we may question Kasparov’s overwhelming need to beat a powerful computer at chess, his reaction to his loss to Deep Blue is an important reminder for us all. Computers, unlike people, don’t need rest. They are not alive, and they operate under a completely different concept of time than we do. It is just this different concept of time that gives the computer its power to achieve so many of the spectacular results that it has achieved in science, industry, business, and almost every other aspect of society.

In spite of its spectacular results, however, and the way in which it has become an integral part of modern life, the computer has never really lived up to its early image as an “electronic savior,” an intelligent machine that would greatly increase productivity, help solve that complex problems that face both society and civilization as a whole, and give us more “free time” to do the things we really want to do. While it has freed some of us from the repetitive, menial tasks that our jobs often require, it has created an entirely new category of repetitive, menial tasks—all oriented toward keeping the computer running smoothly.

It is clear that modern life as we know it in the western world would be next to impossible without the computer. What is not so clear is the heavy price we are paying for the changes it has wrought. Like the clock, the computer has not only altered the outer world in which we live, breathe, play, and work, but it has also begun to transform the inner world of our mind, feelings, and perceptions.

The Mechanical Clock: “Time is Money”

When the mechanical clock, which may have originated as a machine to call monks to prayer, entered into the general life of 14th century European society, it had a powerful effect in ordering the daily activities of life—a situation that we take for granted today. Instead of light and darkness regulating the working day, the huge town-square clock became the taskmaster. The effect was so profound, in fact, that by the middle of the I5th century, merchants, businessmen, and others began to see that “time is money”—a radical new vision that eventually gave rise to the demand for a “portable” clock that could infiltrate and coordinate every aspect of life to increase productivity and communication.

It does not take much observation to discern the legacy we have inherited: the “portable clock” has become so much a part of our lives that it carries us with it wherever it goes. “Being on time” has become one of the core values of modern society, a value which had (and has) little meaning for traditional peoples. If we’re not on time, we’re usually late, which means that we’re supposed to be somewhere other than where we are. It is sobering to stand on any street corner in any large city in America and watch people as they rush about in order to avoid this experience. It is even more sobering to catch a glimpse of ourselves as we hurry through our day in a continual race against time.

Logic and Productivity at the Speed of Light

But the computer, with its own internal clock, is having an even more far‑reaching influence. With its ability to perform tirelessly at all hours of the day and night and to give us instant results, the computer is ineluctably conditioning us to an entirely new way of living, a way of living in which time becomes inseparable from productivity (or at least, busyness). Instead of the circular imperfection of the heavens, or even the circular perfection of the quartz timepiece, the computer gives us the linear perfection and capaciousness of “technotime.” Time is no longer, as J. B. Priestly defined it, “the horse we are riding.” It is not even money. It is rather logic and productivity at the speed of light—the relentless, “productive” march of electronic impulses through ever-smaller, more-efficient, and more-powerful microchips that process our data faster than we, as human beings, can comprehend or use the results. Time that is not timely is wasted time; a computer that is not computing or processing something is wasted productivity.

Those of us who have worked with computers know just how compelling this “processing” can be. The multi-dimensional human values of love, belief, intuition. contemplation, and perception gradually give way to the one-dimensional values of the computer: on or off, yes or no, black or white, right or wrong, logical or illogical, on time or late. And the human rhythms of work, rest, relaxation, play, and so on, all based on perceived need, are replaced by the electronic rhythms of data access, movement, and manipulation, which in a sense are not rhythms at all—at least not rhythms that can be discerned by human beings.

The computer, then, with its technotime measured in billionths of a second and its insistence on fast, efficient, logical manipulations of data, conditions us to a new image of ourselves, an image in which the speed and breadth of our own thoughts, feelings, and sensations are seen as increasingly inadequate to the challenge of living. How far this conditioning will go is difficult to foresee, but the movement from the room-sized computers of the 1970s to the “laptop” and “handheld” computers of today, like the movement from the huge town-square clocks of hundreds of years ago to the tiny watches (with their built-in alarms) of today, indicates that the process is well underway. It will become increasingly difficult to resist viewing the computer’s values of linear efficiency, speed, and logical perfection as the values by which human beings should live—and to remember that it is our imperfections and mistakes that often lead us into new avenues of creativity and growth.

If Garry Kasparov must play “Deep Blue,” let us at least be thankful that he publicly demanded better human conditions such as more rest between games. Those of us who use computers to do our jobs—to write, calculate, design, communicate, and so on—can perhaps learn something from this. Let us hope that we are sensible enough to arrange time off, too—time enough each day to get away from our computers (or whatever else consumes our time), breathe some fresh air, sense the earth beneath our feet, and quietly remember what being alive is really all about.

Copyright 1999-2010 by Dennis Lewis

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 23, 2010 4:29 am

    great article – very relevant

    Art you on Facebook, Twitter etc.

    • February 23, 2010 7:08 am

      Sharon, yes, I’m on Facebook and Twitter. On Facebook, dennis.lewis. On Twitter, denlew. Hope to see you there.

  2. February 23, 2010 5:20 am

    “People as Machines” has been the analogy since, at least, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Working as a carpenter in the 1980’s and beyond, speed was the tyrant I lived under. I was a very fussy talented finish carpenter, but the boss and the crew wanted it all done more quickly at the sacrifice of quality. Others on my crew may have done certain jobs more quickly than me, but the results spoke for themselves. Do it right at an even pace once or do it fast twice to get it right. Artificial “helpers” were created to make life better. I see the real problem as the lack of stable loving interactive families taking a seat in the back of the industrial revolution’s bus.

  3. roshan mathew permalink
    April 6, 2010 11:44 pm

    wonderful article sir, no flattery but i really loved reading it and have developed an insight into your way of thinking. hope for more intellectually stimulating articles from you sir.

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