The True Computerist


Tom Pittman

Several years ago, when the idea of a personal computer was still only a gleam in my eye. I made an observation about my work as a computer programmer. I suppose the same thoughts have occurred in the minds of painters, sculptors, composers and other artists down through the ages. I perceived that I was giving existence to something which had not existed before -- I was creating ex nihilo, out of nothing. To be sure, most of the programs I wrote were mere copies or adaptations of other programs, and nothing new in themselves. And, the taxman to the contrary, there was no tangible substance to the work of my hands. But every once in a while I could stand back and look on my work and say, "See what I made!"

I do not wish to quibble at this point with those who claim that nothing is truly a creation. As I said, most of the programs I write are merely copies or adaptations of some other programs. I am not talking about those. Nor do I particularly wish to quarrel with behaviorists or social biologists who reduce every activity of Man to the effects of his environment or his genes. What I am getting at here is the particular feeling that only comes with knowing you have created something new. It is not quite the same as the feeling an expert technician gets in his craft, the sense of doing a job well. I have felt that often, and I continue to take a certain pride (if you will pardon my immodesty) in the high technical quality of my work.

There is a difference between the technician and the artist. The technician is building to an existing pattern or plan; the artist is making a new plan. The technician has a standard by which to measure his work; the artist is his own standard. Of the technician's work you can say "He did (or he did not) meet the requirements of the specifications"; of the artist's work you can only say "Ahhh!" or "Yecch!"

I wish the boundary between the technician and the artist were that clear-cut. It is seldom so. What the artist creates is, whether he likes it or not, subject to technical criteria. If he is painting a portrait or a landscape, you can apply the purely technical judgements to it of whether or not it adequately conveys an image of the subject. You can even determine if the paints have been mixed correctly, or if they are likely to deteriorate and change color with age. Is the perspective and lighting believable? Into this technical fabric, however, is woven the art, the quality that makes Duerer great and Cranach so-so.

I am a programmer, not a painter. It is much harder to see the "art" in a computer program. Donald Knuth sees it and the title of his monumental work on programming is "The Art of Computer Programming"[1]. I only hope nobody asks me to point to some program and say "this is art, not technique." Perhaps I am a coward and lack the fortitude to defend such an assertion, Perhaps there is no defense and I dislike making indefensible assertions. No matter. My point is that the assertion can be made, and that it has meaning (at least for most of us).

I raised the issue in connection with a rertain feeling I got as I reviewed my work, when I saw it as a creation. You see, in that instant I as a Christian thought I could feel something of the satisfaction that God must have felt when He created the world: "And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good."[2] If man is, as Christians believe, created "in the image of God"[3], then perhaps I had learned something about God. In this I have a definite advantage over the painter and the composer: I can create something that will interact with me, as man interacts with God. So far it is a strictly intellectual interaction, and for the most part very predictable - my creation does what I programmed it to do, which is (usually) what I had intended. I consider my insight to be only a pale reflection of the divine, but...

Yet in my relationship to the computer and to the programs I write for it there is another dimension, wherein lies a very grave danger. The danger is that I will lose my sense of perspective, and forget the relationship between God, myself, and the computer.

Theodore Nelson in his popular book, Computer Lib, refers to a "computer priesthood."[4] By this he means that the computer technology has built up around itself a kind of mystery religion or gnosticism, with the computer professionals acting as the priests of that religion. Gnostic religions in history have had a body of secret knowledge (the word "gnostic" is derived from the Greek word for "knowledge") which only the insiders have access to. Just from a technical point of view this was, and continues to be, a very real problem. The use of computers in our time requires such a heavy technological background that outsiders are locked out.

To be introduced into this computer gnosticism has, until only recently. required skill with a soldering iron (not just "Which end is hot?" but the proper way to apply solder to microelectronic circuits, special soldering tools, etc.), understanding of how to read resistor codes and the cryptic markings on integrated circuits, proper work habits for protecting delicate MOS components from static electricity, and the ability to decipher inadequate instructions and third-generation xerox drawings. With a small but increasing number of exceptions, the novitiate computerist is required to know (but is not given instruction in) binary, octal, and hexadecimal number systems, machine language programming, real-time I/O control, ASCII code translation, and memory management. Unless he is willing to remain in the outer circle playing games that someone else wrote, the new gnostic is compelled to learn a foreign language something like Latin (BASIC) and be able to construct in that language esoteric hymns called Loops, Subroutines, Conditionals, Assignments, Input/Output and Data statements. I can assure you that the language requirement is not going to disappear for many years. We may get new languages, but that will only mean that the insider must know more, not less.

Until the advent of personal computers in 1975, Computerism was successfully restricted to the elect who went through the necessary training and were employed in the computer departments of those corporations, educational and government institutions rich enough to be able to afford thern. It was a closed society. With the advent of the truly personal computer the ranks have been opened up to admit something over 100,000 new converts, but the careful observer will notice that it is still a closed society. The outsider is not really given much reason or help to join. Almost all of the magazine articles are directed to intermediates, not beginners. There are a very few books aimed at the novice (but not the totally uninitiated!), but they tend to get lost in the vast majority of books for the more sophisticated. By contrast, the number of Christian books aimed at the novice and uninitiated far exceeds those that require a significant background in theology. Computerism is still a closed society, though much larger than it was five years ago.

So far I have been talking only about the phenomena of gnostic computerism, the appearances of the society. There is a deeper level that is much more serious. It is where we, the practitioners of this arcane art, begin to believe as we act. When we actually come to depend on the Computer to solve all our problems and to resolve even the mysteries of life, we have taken the final step toward making the Computer our god. At this level, opening up the secrets of computerism to all comers makes no difference at all; whether the Computer is a gnostic god or an evangelistic god is of little consequence, because we are talking about individual attitudes towards the machine. That is you and me, not "us" or "them." Institutions are formed from the aggregate of individual attitudes and beliefs.

Before I get into what the Computerist believes, let me say something about the nature of belief. All of us prefer honesty over deceit (at least in the other person), kindness over malice (when all other things are equal), and so on. In the words of Marmmy Yokum, "Good is better than evil, because it's nicer."[5] But when it gets down to cases, with two of you out on the raft in the middle of the Pacific and food for two days, the choice of who eats the food and who dies of starvation depends on what you really believe. Or closer to home, it's rush hour and you are late to work; there is a long line of cars behind yours and you come to an intersection where a little old lady wants to cross the street you are on. This is where belief affects our lives. Your faith -- your religion, if you will -- is what makes the decision when it could go either way, but for different reasons. Notice here that I am not using the term "religion" to mean the religious institutions of society. Many of these function only as social institutions with little or no effect on the lives of the adherents. Instead I use the definition that equates religion with whatever is foremost in a person's thoughts and actions. In this sense everyone has a religion: some of us are Christians. Others are Egoists, "Moneyists", Scientists, Marxists, Sexists or Computerists. The focus of our attention is our god.

So what is it that the pious Computerist believes? Which way will his decisions go, when it gets down to the crunch? Let me list a few "articles of faith" that affect the every day life of the practicing Computerist:

1. The computer is more interesting than most people. I love to spend time with my computer. It is fun to write programs for it, to play games on it, and to build new parts for it. It is fascinating to try to figure out what part of the program it is in by the way the lights flicker or the radio buzzes. It beats dull conversation any day.

2. It is most important to be sure the computer is properly taken care of. When it finishes its present task, I must drop everything and go startup its next task, or turn off the disk drives to save wear and tear on the moving parts. If there is a power failure, first go shut down the peripherals (save the disk, turn off the paper tape punch, etc.), then come back and get a candle to light up the house.

3. The computer will be a big benefit in all kinds of ways. It is not connected up yet, but "soon" it will control the sprinklers, serve as a fire/burglar alarm, maintain the Christmas card mailing list, control the stereo tape deck, monitor the central heating, maintain the inventory in the pantry, provide menu planning, remind us of important dates, write form letters to people we don't like, educate our children, and so on. The key concept is that all these things are in the very near future. The computer has not yet fulfilled these promises, but it will very shortly now.

4. The computer needs just a little more (memory) (speed) (disk space) (peripherals) (fidelity in its cassette drive) (better BASIC) (newer CPU) (noise suppression on the bus) (debugging on this program) (powerful editor) (bigger power supply) before it can do this or that.

5. The computer can make money for us on the side, and eventually it will pay for itself.

6. Spending all this time on my personal computer will give me job skills that will improve my wage-earning ability and make me eligible for a promotion.

7. The computer can be used in the company business to improve profitability.

8. There is no need to buy this software package or that circuit board; I can design one better.

9. Let's arrange our next vacation to coincide with the Computer Faire. Wow! what a way to spend a vacation! Then we can swing by these manufacturers and/or these stores and see the latest widgits.

10. To stay on top of the field it is necessary to subscribe to all five of the "Good" computer magazines. The other six are merely repetitious or uninspired or are beholden to their advertisers; they are not worth the subscription price. But when a good one comes sit down immediately and do not get up until I've gone through the whole magazine.

11. Never miss a club meeting. This is where it's at. The juicy little news bits, the how-to-fixits for the problem that has been bugging me for the last two weeks, hearing about the interesting things that I can do with my computer -- that is the real thing! Besides, they might have some free software.

12. Visit the local computer store at least once a week. They are always getting new hardware in, and sometimes you can pick up some good rumors or a new book. You never know when you might bump into an Interesting Person at the store.

None of these claims, by themselves, are particularly wrong or indicative of misdirection. But taken as a whole, they reflect an attitude that the computer is, in Paul Tillich's words, "the ultimate concern."[6] The computer becomes the object of one's devotion, the provider of one's needs. The computer has become the Absolute, the god in one's life. It is the work of our hands and the image of our minds; are we going to let it become the Lord of our lives?

I would like to take exception to some of the "articles of faith" listed above. I have been there and I know the attitudes behind them. But I also know what is wrong with some of them.

1. Clearly the computer is a fascinating device. Its complexities are overwhelming. I said this at the beginning, and I do not deny it now. But being the product of our own imagination, the computer probably cannot exceed our own intelligence. It may be faster and more accurate. It may do some things (like play chess) better because of this greater speed and accuracy, but it can never give us true interaction on a human level. I realize I am going out on a limb in saying this; roboticists will gladly point to claims that humans would never leave the surface of the earth. Those claims were obviously wrong, I may be wrong also. But I can point to the difference between a technician and an artist with which I began this essay: We may be able to build robot technicians, but not robot artists. In any case it is unlikely to happen in your or my lifetime. The computer is a tool, and we should recognize it as such.

2. The computer is a delicate machine and as such it requires care and maintenance. It is relatively expensive (today) and abusing it is not economically reasonable. But it is still a machine; it is not as important as any human being.

3. The computer is capable of many kinds of benefits. But honestly now, how many of those things do you think you will actually get your computer to do? How many people do you know or have you heard of whose computer actually does those things, or even just some of them? Have you considered the transducers and mechanical linkages required to give the computer a meaningful selection over your music collection? Do you have any notion of the software effort needed to implement a computerized calendar or heating control (I mean beyond what is more easily done without a computer)? Have you ever stopped to think how much manual effort is required to maintain a computerized pantry inventory? Have you considered the massive data entry requirement to build a data base for a decent menu planner? If educators and computer professionals working with large government grants cannot make much headway in Computer Assisted Instruction, are you going to master it in your spare time? Don't get me wrong. Many of these things are practical goals for computer implementation, but most of us, working on it as a hobby, will not get very many of these exciting applications working in any meaningful way.

4. In the microcosm, the need for a little more of this or that for the computer seems very reasonable. A few years ago the Sunday supplement of some newspaper reported a survey on the money wishes in America. The result was that the average American would be happy if he or she had $13.21 more. Parkinson's Law holds that expenditures will always meet or exceed income. The same law applies to computer memory, speed, peripherals, and so on.

5. Several of the magazines are touting the economic rewards potential in the personal computer. They are wrong. Suppose you did get a little extra money on the side computing bowling handicaps. What is to stop the local bowling alley from seeing the profit potential and buying their own computer? Maybe you will sell a neat game to a national distributor, but how many others are pushing games to the same distributors? Anyway, have you invented any neat games? Obviously some computers pay for thernsgives (mine does), but far more only promise to do so.

6. Right now there is a shortage of people with microprocessor experience. Five years ago there was a shortage of COBOL programmers, but there is a glut now. People with drive and dedication, who make themselves valuable to their company, have no trouble finding work. People who stay up late nights on their own projects and are too tired to give the boss an honest day's work, who spend hours on the telephone ordering parts on the company bill for their personal computers, will find trouble finding and holding any kind of job.

7. Yes, computers have improved the profitability of some companies. More often they have only promised to do so. You do not replace a bookkeeper with a computer; you give her a raise and call her a computer operator. It is still some time before we will see much business software available and usable.

8. This one is subtle. Of course you can design one better. The computer is above all things an optimist's machine. But you won't. You don't have the time to get around to it, or it seems to have some problems when you do get it built: it never seems to work exactly the way you planned.

9-12. By now the computer has moved out of the den and into the rest of your life. It will consume all of your spare time, and even your vacation, if you let it. It will empty your wallet and tie up your thoughts. It will drive away your family. Your friends will start to think of you as a bore. And what for?

A few years ago I was doing some technical writing for a major electronics firm, and I had described some control circuit in terms such as, "the device provides such-and-such functions..." One of the people assigned to review my work reprimanded me: "Only God 'provides', circuits just..." I can no longer recall the exact details of the exchange, but I have not forgotten the message. God provides. Electronic circuits in general, and computers in particular, are not God; they provide nothing. They may be works of art, a beauty to behold, but in the final analysis, they are tools and they perform certain functions at our command. If we forget that computers are only tools, perhaps we will also forget that people are not tools. When we know Who is God, we also know who we are, and what computers are. In the words of the Second Commandment,

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God.[7]


[1] Donald E. Knuth. The Art of Computer Programming. Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley 1975.
[2] Genesis I 31.
[3] Genesis I 27.
[4] Theodore H. Nelson, Computer Lib, p.2 Chicago: 1974.
[5] Al Capp. Lil Abner Sunday comics approx. 1974.
[6] Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, New York: Harper 1957. Most of this book is nonsense, but Tillich does have a good understanding of what constitutes idolatry.
[7] Exodus XX 4,5.