“One programs, just as one writes, not because one understands, but in order to come to understand. Programming is an act of design” – Joseph Weizenbaum 
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Grey Space

June 11th, 2019

The last in my series of book pairings is Computer Power and Human Reason and Maigret’s Memoirs. Two very different books, they are linked in that they each look at how human life can be over-simplified in their representation and what happens when some of the most important aspects of that life suddenly go missing.


In Computer Power and Human Reason, author Joseph Weizenbaum writes about the founding of artificial intelligence and how his computer program LISA allowed people to form the most unlikely and intimate relationships with a machine. People thought this machine was understanding their complexity as people but was, in fact, nothing more than a system which had incorporated their own words into a feedback loop. Reflecting on the danger of this deception, Weizenbaum wrote:


“What emerges as the most elementary insight is that, since we do not now have any ways of making computers wise, we ought not now to give computers tasks that demand wisdom.”


While Weizenbaum explains how over-simplification resulted in a false intimacy engendered by a computer program, Maigret’s Memoirs is an entirely different kind of fiction (within a fiction) that makes clear the dangers of another kind of over-simplification. Maigret’s Memoirs is a brilliantly meta-story in which Georges Simenon (the author of the Maigret series of mysteries) turns himself into a character in his own novel, and shifts his character, Detective Chief Inspector Jules Maigret of the Paris Surete, into the position of the writer and narrator.  The book purports to “set the record straight,” as Maigret recounts how he watched Simenon turning himself (Maigret) and his own behavior into a character. A key part of the fictional Maigret’s critique of the real Simenon (which is, of course, written by Simenon) is that authors oversimplify the messiness of real life. The “real Maigret” is irritated and wants to let the reader know how Simenon shortens time and leaves out all the boring aspects of police work to keep the reader engaged in, rather than repulsed by, the complex and deadly world of crime.


Both books address the dangers of over-simplification. In the first case, by accident or misunderstanding, something which is actually very simple (the LISA computer program) appears, wrongly, to be very complex and very human. In the case of Maigret’s Memoirs Simenon shows how the telling of stories often leaves out the day-to-day, step-by-step (sometimes boring) processes which are, in fact, crucial to getting to the heart of the matter, even when that matter is solving a fictional crime.


Too often, people look for black and white answers to complex problems. This can lead to oversimplified solutions: walk 10,000 steps a day to be healthy, work 10,000 hours to master any skill, etc. Yet, the reality is always more complex and nuanced and requires us to engage more deeply with problems and people, to develop our own best solutions and tools, to be patient and live in the grey space.

Computer Power and Human Reason by Joseph Weizenbaum
Maigret’s Memoirs by Georges Simenon



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Kaushik Panchal

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