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The computer is an 'it'

A computer, says Webster's dictionary, is "an automatic electronic machine for performing simple and complex calculations." Could anything be more straightforward? Could anything be more innocent?

But just beneath this firm definition, as everybody knows, lies the quicksand of a metaphor.

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The solid ground slides away something like this. First, the computer metaphor-makers speak of a "memory." Then they nudge themselves further, talking of a "smart" computer. And before you can figure the square root of 5.16, they're completing the personalizing process by giving the computer a nickname, like the famous Hal.

Need one mention that the people who call the computer "he" or "she" are often the same people who like to reduce the human being, metaphorically, to "it"? For when they are not comparing the computer to the brain, they are frequently comparing the brain to a computer, and the body in general to a machine with circuits. Age of the Computer without passing through the Industrial Age. Why, Servan-Schreiber asks, should an emerging nation have to give the world one more brand of automobile? It can serve itself and the rest of us more usefully by making a quantum leap to the microchip.

If he is correct, this may be our last chance to undo a confusion that muddles not only our concept of our machines but our concept of ourselves. It is nonw too soon to prescribe the words proper to apply to the computer in third-world languages:

"Fast" but not "smart." "Complex" but not "sophisticated." And above all, the computer must be referred to only as "it."

Civilization has wasted an awful lot of time wrestling with the confusions that ensue when man is simplistically defined as a "thinking animal." The imprecise metaphor o the "thinking machine" fails equally to do justice.

Until a computer falls in love or laughs at a bad pun or weeps at what its "memory bank" tells it in the middle of the night, we humans should avoid all but the most limited of comparisons in both directions.

Even biologists can be heard referring to the human memory as a "memory bank."

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The confusion of metaphor and meaning has reached the point where a high-tech scientist, with no sense that he was speaking in metaphor, could predict that the first "highly intelligent being" we earthlings are likely to meet will be, not a species from outer space, but a computer.

What can we do to block the metaphor?

Do we stand a chance of shaming the computer metaphor-makers by reminding them that they're guilty of the same naivete everybody snickered once at when farmers called their first automobile "Old Dobbin"?

Can we argue that they're being as primitive, in fact, as the ancients who felt compelled to personalize the sun and the moon and the ocean and give them names?

Anthropomorphism is the word for it, and down with anthropomorphic computers, we say! Anthropomorphic gods were confusion enough.

The French intellectual Jean-Jacques Servan- Schreiber has written a new book titled "The World Challenge." A main thesi s is that the third world will enter the>TO>