Computers don’t ask questions

I sometimes feel trapped in technology

I starten av et nytt år ledes gjerne tankene over på tiden som går, og fremtid blir fort synonymt med utvikling og teknologi. Slike tanker er ikke noe nytt. Katarsis har gravd frem et intervju med UiB-professor Mark Price om teknologiens konsekvenser for mennesker og psykologisk forskning. 

Skrevet av: Jon Vøllestad for Katarsis nr. 1, år 2000.

Computers are everywhere. What are the consequences for psychology?

They fill up your office, and you don’t get things done because you’re stuck with equipment work instead of making progress with your experiments. To a certain extent, this is true. We spend a lot of time getting the equipment running, sending stuff to Germany to get it repaired. I sometimes feel trapped in technology. And I sometimes also wonder to what extent research might be constrained by the hardware and the software we’re using. How would I be thinking about a certain problem if I didn’t use this particular system, for instance? And to that extent is the way you look for information determined by the system you use? I think this last question goes for things like search engines on the Internet, as well as the more specialized packages we use here.

But where would psychology be without the computer?

It’s nearly impossible to imagine cognitive psychology without it. Analogy is a very important intellectual tool, and cognitive psychology is very heavily based on the computational metaphor.

Computer technology carries certain constraints with it. Could the same be said for the computational metaphor?

Possibly. The problem is that it’s just really hard to get your head outside that framework when working with human cognition. How should we replace the analogy, without getting caught up in the problem with the ghost in the machine? There have been attempts to talk about some kind of emergent consciousness above the physical and computational substrates, but they’re far apart. And even people who argue there is something called non-reducible consciousness, still usually have theories based on information processing. It’s just difficult to get outside without ending up in esoteric, mystical sounding stuff. At the end of the day even physics itself is about information – about patterns of information and relationships of information.

What about future development?

Now people are talking about quantum computers, having infinitely greater power than the present day systems. And some are arguing that in order to fully understand the human mind we need to base out analogies on advanced computers like these. There will still be an information processing analogy behind it all but they are arguing that this should be understood in substructures – below and beyond the neuron level.

Cognitive neuroscience is currently very busy anchoring cognitive concepts in the material substrate of the nervous system through the use of sophisticated recording technology. Will this mean the end of cognitive psychology, as we know it?

Well, the traditional argument in cognitive psychology – that you could understand the architecture of cognition without understanding the neural substrate – doesn’t hold anymore. On the other hand there´s no point in knowing why a particular piece of brain lights up, unless you can link your brain recording data to what the brain is actually doing. And cognitive psychology is much more in-depth on matters like these, asking the question of what neuronal events signify in information processing terms.

Is cognitive neuroscience flawed by being all fancy gadgets and no theory, then?

These days you have a lot of people wanting to do an fMRI study. It’s a sexy thing. But any kind of in-vogue technology runs the risk of giving rise to fairly meaningless research, unless connected to theory in some way. And a lot of the brain recording research is taking as its starting point questions asked by the traditional cognitive approach. The origin of the questions is not in the technology itself. Having said that, I think technology can contribute with a lot. I am interested in consciousness – and a technique like fMRI is very promising here, because it could help us to find the brain correlates of being conscious. So I’m not all that worried about aspects from neuroscience taking over cognitive psychology. I just think that the two fields will be increasingly interrelated.

To what extent does technology and scientific knowledge change our view of ourselves?

Scientific knowledge in itself takes an awful long time to filter into the common mentality. The effects of technology are much faster. I think it changes the limitations of our bodies and minds, and in this sense we have a lot coming. You’ve already got scientists in the USA playing around with head-up displays strapped to their heads – kind of “artificial vision” extensions. Technology is going deeper, and I sometimes wonder what it will be possible to do to the brain once we get a clearer grasp of its dynamics. Will you be able to go to the store and pick up extra megabytes before your exam? The interesting thing is what this would feel like. Imagine for instance that you could have your mobile phone built into the side of your head and that you could control it by “thought alone”, without pushing buttons. This is not beyond the bounds of plausibility – in fact, it may be technologically feasible in the not too distant future. Would that device feel like part of you? What if someone was to amputate it? Would that be like losing an arm or a leg? Questions like these are really interesting, and clearly relevant to the domain of psychology.

“Hard” science often borders on techno-fetishism, while the “softer” humanities could be said to suffer from technophobia. Psychology has a foot in each camp. Is it possible to bridge this gap?

It’s got to be possible. For me, any position that doesn’t bridge the entire range of what it means to be a human being would be intellectually and emotionally disappointing. Of course, technology is not without dangers when it comes to these questions. If we get too hung up on a certain way of trying to understand the mind, that can divert us from important things. I think you can try to understand what it means to be a human being, an be one at the same time. And the one doesn´t necessarily help the other. But if you take a look at people – and at what really changes them in the deep sense – you will find that it’s not looking down the electron microscope or building neuronal nets. What really changes people is not technology-based at all. It’s much older. Personal growth traditions based for example around meditation practices go back well over a thousand years. Sure, technology contributes to our ability to study and understand the brain/mind scientifically, and that can help develop useful psychotherapeutic interventions (in cognitive therapy, for example). But for most people, the most profound changes seem to take place using the equipment they were born with. And I suspect technology will never alter that.