“The feature of humans that makes us most human – that most clearly differentiates us from every other life form on Earth – is not our opposable thumb, and not even our use of tools. It is our ability to create and use symbols. The ability to look at the world, turn what we see into abstractions, and to then operate on those abstractions, rather than on the physical world itself, is an utterly astounding, beautiful thing, just taken all by itself. We manifest this ability to work with symbols in wonderful, beautiful ways, through music, through art, through our buildings and through our language – but the fundamental act of symbol making and symbol using is beautiful in itself.
Consider, as a simple, but very powerful example, our invention of the negative – our ability to deal with what something is not, just as easily as we deal with what it is. There is no “not,” no negative, in nature, outside of the human mind. But we invented it, we use it daily, and divide up the world with it. It is an amazing creation, and one that is quintessentially human.
The thing that amazed me – even humbled me – about the digital computer when I first encountered it over fifty years ago – was that, in the computer, I saw that we have a tool that does not just move earth or bend steel, but we have a tool that actually can manipulate symbols and, even more importantly, portray symbols in new ways, so that we can interact with them and learn. We have a tool that radically extends our capabilities in the very area that makes us most human, and most powerful.
There is a native American myth about the coyote, a native dog of the American prairies – how the coyote incurred the wrath of the gods by bringing fire down from heaven for the use of mankind, making man more powerful than the gods ever intended. My sense is that computer science has brought us a gift of even greater power, the ability to amplify and extend our ability to manipulate symbols.
It seems to me that the established sources of power and wealth understand, in some dim way, that the new power that the computer has brought from the heavens is dangerous to the existing structure of ownership and wealth in that, like fire, it has the power to transform and to make things new.
I must say that, despite the cynicism that comes with fifty years of professional life as a computer scientist, inventor, and observer of the ways of power, I am absolutely stunned at the ferocious strength of the efforts of the American music industry, entertainment industry, and other established interests to resist the new ability that the coyote in the computer has brought from the heavens. I am even more surprised by the ability of these established interests to pass laws that promise punishment to those who would experiment and learn to use the new fire.
As the recipient of my country’s National Medal of Technology, I am committed to raising these issues and questions within my own country, but I am also canny enough to understand that, in the short term, it is the nations with emerging economies that are most likely to understand the critical importance and enormous value in learning to use this new kind of fire.
We need to become better at being humans. Learning to use symbols and knowledge in new ways, across groups, across cultures, is a powerful, valuable, and very human goal. And it is also one that is obtainable, if we only begin to open our minds to full, complete use of computers to augment our most human of capabilities.”