In the large, computers are personal, humans are impersonal

Here is a very typical fallacious conclusion (so typical that hardly a day goes by without me reading an example of the conclusion):

1. When I interact with a computer, the interaction is blockier than with a person. There is little shared knowledge as computers know nothing of the real world and I must be very precise and give my information to the computer in a way it understands, which is very limited.

2. Therefore, systems that rely on computers are blockier than systems that use humans. As we rely more and more on computers, our day to day lives will be blockier as the systems know less of the real world than people do. We will be forced to communicate in very limited ways.

Number 1 is true. Number 2 is fallacious (fallacy of composition) and it is false for large systems. In a large system, computers make the interaction more and not less personal and computer systems know more about the world than people-based systems.

By a large system, I mean something like a large corporation or public institution. I also mean things like a city or “the airline industry”. If I want to buy a flight to New York, I need to interact with this system which is the airline/airport/… industry.

Large systems of humans are typically called bureaucracies and are neither personal, nor flexible, nor generally aware of anything but their internal behaviours. They existed before computers and were already seen as dead and soulless (Kafka wrote before computers after all and Chaplin’s Modern Times also predates computers). Blaming computers for the soullessness of bureaucratic thinking is like blaming cars for the fact that Miami is far from Orlando.

To pick a really basic example: consider managing a pre-computer online dating provider (the mail order bride has a long tradition, but we can appreciate that it would be difficult to have the equivalent of OK Cupid in the olden days). There is no way it will scale to hundreds of thousands of users with good personalized recommendations. It will either remain a boutique business or matches will be based on not more than a few basic markers (filter your matches by age, language spoken, income).

In a small group, we can learn each others situations and quirks, relationships can deepen based on shared experience and interaction. In a large group, people do not have the mental capacity to maintain these relationships, so we (humans) reduce each other to simple forms, simple numbers and checkboxes. Then we can manage. Computers are not so limited. The computer has a higher Dunbar Number than humans do.

Consider that you need zip codes for the postal system (which was designed before computers), but google maps rarely asks you for it: the name of the street is more than enough. The numeric zip code was something designed to help humans deal with large number of streets, computers don’t need them [1].

In the film Her (spoiler ahead), the computerized personality with whom the main character falls in love confesses that she maintains hundreds of these personal deep conversations simultaneously. This is science fiction, but can maintain personalized recommendations for millions of users simultaneously, an airline system can remember the dietary requirements of every passenger in its system, &c

Now, naturally this personalization is not the same as a personal relationship [2], but it is not possible to have a personal relationship with large institutions (private or public) in the same way we have with friends or within our small work group. It just isn’t. With a large organization you will always be a client or a user out of thousands or millions [3]. The Wikipedia page for the Dunbar number lists a few competing estimates for the maximum number of people for whom it is possible to maintain a close relationship. All are well below the million range (in fact, 300 is a bit of an upper bound). With computers, relationship with institutions becomes more personal and certainly less blockier.


A final note. While computers do enable more personalized interactions, they can also turbocharge the bureaucratic impulse towards putting people into boxes. I’m sorry, our computer system does not allow that is the typical expression of this [4]. This is because it’s easier to build such a system (and it is closer to how humans think of large systems) and without pressure to do better, this is often what you get.

[1] Naturallly, if there are two streets in the same city with the same zip code, you need to disambiguate. But a computer certainly does not need to have a zip code to help it route a letter.
[2] I can already see the rejoinder “Silicon Valley-wannabe-scientist confuses personalized with personal.” Still, saying home is where the internet is is not devoid of a certain truth. I certainly feel a coming home feeling when I open my email and my favorite blogs. Do read Ventak on this subject
[3] This is part of the reason why some people like small organizations, but I don’t really see a future made up of small institutions. Who is going to break up the United States into 5000 different polities? And I, for one, am not ready to give up the comforts of large scale capitalism.
[4] Saying that “the computer system does not allow me to do that” is probably a lie at least as often as it is true. It comes from the same place as “I’d love to give you a discount, but my boss said no”.

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