How okay is it to anthropomorphize logic systems?

When I logged in to dustpuppy just now, I was greeted with a quote from Edsger Dijkstra, father of C++:

The use of antropomorphic terminology when dealing with computing systems is a symptom of professional immaturity.

This runs contrary to not only my own experience but also to years of established technical culture, as recorded for us in The Jargon File.  Now that may be Eric S. Raymond’s personal beliefs, as he as been accused of showing too much bias as caretaker of the Jargon File, but from what I read, he’s dead on.

I’ve noticed a bathtub curve along these lines:  A total novice will speak of a computer as a “robot box” with emotions and desires out of ignorance and also so that they might better conceptualize and understand the system.  An experienced user begins to increasingly refer to components mechanistically, as a scientist would.  But a wizard or master of the craft of computer wrangling will freely anthropomorphize.

When I was at the 440th, we tried to implement a VPN solution for a particular secure application to tunnel over the NIPRNET.  This happened to be an Oracle Forms interface.  The Oracle protocol didn’t like being routed over the VPN.  We called in a Cisco team to help us out.  I quote Cisco’s guru on their Series 3000 VPN Concentrator:  “The concentrator likes the protocol just fine.  The protocol’s just being too damn snobbish to play ball with the concentrator.”  Later, when the concentrator had been reconfigured about a million times in an hour trying to shotgun debug the situation, it got flaky and experienced random lossage.  One of the other techs (a Lockheed Martin contractor for the DoD’s NIPRNET NOC team), suggested that it was just too damn confused from all the config changes.  These weren’t stupid or naïve people;  they were well-experienced and very well educated technical masters with long and fruitful careers in hard-core tech fields.

Another split I’ve noticed parallels mechanics vs. enthusiasts.  Mechanics (of cars, computers, airplanes, assembly lines, etc.) often take a purely mechanistic view of their trade, creating a large mental division between themselves and their work.  Enthusiasts (aviators, vintage car collectors, musicians, etc.) will do the opposite – speak of the systems (airplanes, cars, instruments, etc.) as persons.  They are no less knowledgeable about the systems (in fact, they may be more knowledgeable than the mechanics that work on them) but interact with them along a different axis than a mechanic would.

In the end, I rarely, if ever, see a computer system as a problem to be solved or a tool to be used.  Rather I see them as partners who will work with me to accomplish a task if I give them the right tools and information to do the job.  Much like a pack mule, draft horse, sheep dog, etc.

EDIT:  LOL – when I signed on to generate the keywords for this article, I got an anonymous quote:

Computers are not intelligent.  They only think they are.


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  1. #1 by Phillip on August 28, 2010 - 11:19 PM

    I’ve noticed something similar.

    Now, I love care. I could explain any number of things about a car. I KNOW that with a certain car if I do this, I can give it gas here and shoot out a bit quicker than everyone else. I know the physics behind it, I know the mechanics, I know the whys.

    But I also expect the car to behave like it should. In a sense, they DO behave. The Stratus has an adaptive transmission, so if I’m driving kind of aggressively it’ll stay in a certain gear longer. When I suddenly decide to stop driving that way it’ll still be doing it for about 15 minutes. There are cars out there that have electronically controlled suspensions, seats, throttles, brakes, and a couple other things. The MB C350 I was trying to hoon was being very uncooperative to my hoonage. It decided that it wasn’t going to be driven that way so just shot me down every time.

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