Technoscepticism and the machine-proof Muir

I don’t know about you people, but I don’t wanna live in a world where someone else makes the world a better place, better than we do.

Gavin Belson, a big tech CEO, in the comedy series Silicon Valley

Can Wearable Devices Save Your Relationship? This is a question posed in the headline of an online article that…

Okay, I can’t do this. I had no intention of reading that piece. A link to it appeared in a computer-curated column to the right of an article that I had willingly sought out. And I clicked on the link because that is what I was meant to do, as a human living in 2021. Yet, unless the piece that I was redirected to was going to describe how a rubber band around the wrist can help a partner remember an upcoming anniversary – or something similar – I knew that I would just not be interested. I simply have no appetite for allowing machines into intimate and ancient human relations.

The article that I was taken away from, the one that I had found with free will, was a piece by the polymath Jared Diamond lamenting the curious popularity of the QWERTY keyboard, despite it being – in comparison with an alternative created in the 1930s by a pair of designers that included the distant cousin of the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák – “unnecessarily tiring, slow, inaccurate, hard to learn, and hard to remember.” (He notes that pumpnpkin – sorry, pumpkin – is a particularly challenging word to type.)

There is even a tale that circulates about how the QWERTY configuration was favoured because of its slowness, at a time when the jamming of keys by overly speedy typists was a major hindrance to efficiency. While this seems to be a myth, the keyboard layout would surely have had to fare pretty badly in comparative tests for the story to have arisen.

At least there is one field in which QWERTY is not outperformed, that being the resulting script’s intrinsic expressiveness. All machine-produced writing scores badly here; none can compete with handwriting’s eternal charm. More on this in a bit. (I typed that last statement with an excitement invisible to you.)

Despite all the shortcomings, it seems unlikely that the QWERTY layout is going to be displaced as the dominant keyboard configuration for Latin-script alphabets. In a ‘landscape’ of possible designs, where altitude corresponds to desirability, QWERTY’s hillock is covered in a shadow cast by the peak that is the alternative conceived by Dvořák’s distant cousin. Yet, in such topography, the favoured technology is like a mountaineer with a tendency only to ascend.

As someone with serious misgivings about many technological ‘advances’ – from apps that nurture the consumer cult of ‘everything on demand’ to frivolous devices whose construction accelerates the rape of the Earth – I do find there to be something oddly amusing in the resilience of the QWERTY keyboard. At a minunimin – sorry, minimum (that’s another tricky word to type) – it challenges the hubris inhering within the ideology that is the perpetual improvement of human life through technology.

But then, I suppose, I should not be too harsh on the forces that control how technologies become popular, for there is a parallel with evolution in the wider world. It might be tempting to think that natural selection seeks the very highest point in the adaptive landscape. Instead, the process tends to find points in the topography of possible states that are locally optimal (better than close alternatives) but not necessarily truly optimal (the best possible adaptation). Nature, too, will not descend a hill in order to climb a mountain.

Furthermore, I have to admit, on occasion, that those monstrous technology companies are close to something very positive for the world. Take the aspiration of driverless traffic, for instance. Now, there is a goal that I could really get behind, with the small modification of dropping the first six letters.

Anyway, I include a link to Diamond’s article in the reference list at the end, so that it is there, should you want to read it. Please do not be lured, though, by the list of links beneath the references, under the ‘Related’ heading. There are many brilliant posts on the Earth Tongues blog, but the ‘Related’ selection has not been made with any human input.

In general, I am sceptical of unwanted advice from computers. And, thus, in purportedly intelligent suggestions that are crude or obviously wide of the mark, I find another source of amusement. To give an example, let’s say that I am at work and writing an email in which I want my tone to be soft and non-dictatorial, not least because I have detected a trepidation in the person to whom I am writing. The language I opt for is: “Something that you possibly need to change is the title. As it stands, it is perhaps too long. And it is somewhat cryptic.” Outlook, however, has other ideas for my communication and suggests that I avoid words which express uncertainty and might lessen my impact. The recommended alternative is as follows: “Something that you need to change is the title. As it stands, it is too long. And it is cryptic.” The tone has changed dramatically, but then I guess that Outlook has not, like me, picked up on the nervousness of the recipient.

Another example is the recommendation, based on my history of digital music purchases, of artists that I should listen to. I have found these to be often uninspiring, sometimes massively inaccurate, and always less helpful than suggestions from a person who knows at least a little bit about my preferences. A true grasp of musical taste, like a subtle understanding of human emotion, remains beyond the horizon for computer intelligence. So too, for that matter, does the capacity to react angrily to criticism, although I have turned off the facility for commenting on this post just to be on the safe side.

Then there are those moments when I encounter a computer masquerading as a human, such as the one that issues this sort of statement through the public address system at my local railway station: “I am sorry to announce that the 17:40 to Bedford is delayed by fifty-nine minutes.” There is amusement for me in the use of I, and the idea that this computer could be sorry, just as there is in the exactness of the announced delay, when no one on the platform would have minded it being called a round hour. (This precision alone would have been grounds for failure in the Turing test.)

The converse of all this frivolity is the deep satisfaction that I gain from performing tasks that are way beyond the capabilities of machines. Maybe, in part, this is a response to all those defeats inflicted on me in chess as a kid by my first computer.

Such a task that I am currently undertaking is the transcription of one of John Muir’s notebooks from the 1870s, describing his experiences in Yosemite, as part of a project being run by the University of the Pacific. I am happy to admit that modern technology has made it far easier for me to become involved in work being coordinated at an institute over 5000 miles from where I live (and, for that matter, to get that figure of 5000). I’m not about to cut off my nose to spite my face.

Moreover, modern technology will make the results of the work by me and the other volunteer transcribers more readily accessible to potential Muir researchers. Personally, I consider this to be a good use of machines, not least because it is one in which humans are in control. A comparison might perhaps be drawn – or, I order you to draw a comparison, as Outlook might suggest – with the automated tilting bed that Muir constructed to wake him at a chosen hour, before he turned his back on mechanical invention. Note that Muir did not leave it to the bed to decide when the best time might be for him to rise.

At times, Muir’s handwriting is rather difficult to decipher, and a successful completion of the task might combine knowledge of the geology and natural history of Yosemite, the phenology of species (in relation to the dates of entries), the social circumstances of the era, the vocabulary and shorthand that he used, and the things that he thought worthy of writing about, as well as consideration of the local and broader context in which the difficult words are located. Unlike Jared Diamond, I am no polymath, but I have persisted with the trickier words and, at least on a couple of occasions, have experienced that rewarding sensation that comes from at last solving a really good puzzle.

Now that I am onto pleasure, I have truly left the domain of computers, but I will continue with my flow nevertheless. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the transcription work is the intimate access that it provides into Muir’s incomparable mind, in facets of his writing that range from the corrections that he made to the way that the bars of his t’s had a tendency to become detached, sometimes wildly so, when he was (I guess) desperate to capture a thought before it disappeared.

Another of the more pleasurable parts of the work for me is discovering something that I had not previously been aware of from reading Muir’s published works. Within the pages that I most recently transcribed, I came across a deliciously sarcastic warning against the human temptation to tinker with nature’s beauty. I present this here, with light edits, by way of a conclusion:

The Nevada Fall is about 650 feet high and in general interest usually ranks next to the Yosemite Fall among the five main falls of the valley. A short distance above the head of the fall on the north side, the river gives off a small part of its waters which, flowing down a narrow cañon just to the north, forms a cascade in the narrow boulder-filled channel and finally meets the main stream again a few yards below the fall.

 

But some time last year the Commissioners [the governing board of the then state park of Yosemite] came to regard these cascades as a waste of raw material, a damaging leak that ought to be stopped by a dam compelling all the water to tumble and sing together.

 

Accordingly the enterprising landlord of the upper hotel was allowed a few hundred dollars to “fix the falls,” as he says, and by building a rock dam he has well nigh succeeded in abolishing the Liberty Cap Cascades,* though no corresponding advantage is visible in the main fall.

 

Tinkering the Yosemite water works would seem about the last branch of industry that Yankee ingenuity would be likely to undertake.

 

But that men such as the Commissioners should go into the business of improving Yosemite nature, trimming and turning the waterfalls properly to fit them for the summer tourist show is truly marvelous American enterprise with a vengeance. Perhaps we may yet hear of an appropriation to whitewash the storm-stained face of El Capitan or to correct the curves of the domes.

*I have been informed by someone with local knowledge that a ‘primitive’ Liberty Cap dam still stands today.

Read ‘Technoscepticism and the machine-proof Muir’, by Joe Gray, on the #EarthTongues blog

[Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay]

References

Diamond J (1997) The curse of QWERTY. Discover, 1 April. Available at: https://www.discovermagazine.com/technology/the-curse-of-qwerty (accessed August 2021).