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  •                                 NETFUTURE
    
                Technology and Human Responsibility for the Future
    
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    Issue #22      Copyright 1996 O'Reilly & Associates          June 20, 1996
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                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
    
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    
    CONTENTS:
    *** Editor's note
    *** An antidote to computer-thinking (Valdemar W. Setzer)
          Cultivate the arts
    *** The future of freedom (Stephen L. Talbott)
          Technological determinism is an ambiguous affair
    *** About this newsletter
    

    *** Editor's note

    I'll be traveling (and offline) for the next 11 days, so it will be at least a couple of weeks before the next issue comes out. SLT

    Goto table of contents


    *** An antidote to computer-thinking

    From Valdemar W. Setzer (vwsetzer@ime.usp.br)

    [Valdemar Setzer, with 32 years of teaching and research experience, is a professor of computer science, University of Sao Paulo, in Brazil. He is author of the book, Computers in Education, published in Great Britain by Floris Books. What follows below is an edited-down version of the considerably longer piece he submitted to NETFUTURE. You will find a pointer to the original version on his home page. SLT]

    Computers are abstract machines that transform data. Data and information are not part of the concrete world; they cannot be weighed, measured, ingested as food, or used for clothing; we can't even build a computer with them. They are, in fact, thoughts.

    The same applies to programs, which are also pieces of data. What the computer does when it interprets a program is to simulate exactly the thoughts we had when we inserted them into the program. Given a program and input data, we can simulate the computer's interpretation mentally or with pencil and paper. This is not so with other machines: simulating a bicycle with pencil and paper does not take me from here to there. Computers cannot be used as transportation devices, their result cannot be used as food or clothing, they do not produce anything real. They produce restricted kinds of thoughts -- data. Computers are thus completely alienated from "reality" (taken in a naive sense). They are abstract, mathematical, logical-symbolic machines.

    So what does a programmer do? To produce a program, he or she has to think in a special way, using a special language. This language is absolutely formal, expressed through logical-symbolic elements. It may be fully described in mathematical terms, using what is called "formal grammar" and "formal semantics." So the programmer is forced to think in a very narrow way.

    I would like to mention here an example which is already quite old, from Computational Linguistics. Once upon a time, during the 60's, some linguists decided to use the computer to discover literary styles or characteristics of each author. They r