Margaret Atwood: Too big to fail?

Authors: Deborah Tatar
Posted: Mon, May 12, 2014 - 10:27:33

Margaret Atwood gave the opening plenary for the CHI conference in Toronto in late April. When Atwood’s name was announced at the Associate Chair meeting the prior December, the audience was divided into two groups, the “Who?” group and the group that gasped “The Margaret Atwood?” Even though the second group was significantly smaller than the first, Atwood’s presence was a coup for the conference. In retrospect, we were the beneficiaries of her slide into entrepreneurial endeavor. We benefited in two ways: first because her entrepreneurial interests are probably why she accepted the gig and then because she brought her narrative powers to describing design development. More than one person in the audience muttered that she was the deciding factor in conference attendance, some because she is a great writer, and some because she is a kind of futurist. The rest came to her keynote because CHI told them to. Luckily, because she is a great writer and a futurist, she could not fail to please, even with a presentation primarily based on voice and content alone. She used Power Point, but only to illustrate, not to structure. She did please. 

To my mind, the most interesting part was the description of her childhood in the far north of Quebec, without running water, school, contact with the outside, or friends. She and her brother engaged in the kind of intense creative endeavor that the Bronte children (as in Charlotte, Emily, and Anne; authors of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall respectively) did in the early 19th century in the Yorkshire Moors, but happily neither Atwood nor her brother died early of tuberculosis. Also, happily, Atwood was influenced by Flash Gordon rather than Pilgrim’s Progress. And her take experience with the can-do (actually, the must-do) spirit required for existence in the wild contributed to her intrepid voice. 

Her talk was charming and interesting. And she correctly pointed out the importance of self-driven, unstructured exploration in creativity. In fact, her discussion was very similar to a speech Helen Caldecott, the founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility, gave in the mid-1990s, reminiscing on the dangerous chances that were an everyday part of her childhood in Australia and the judgment that skirting such dangers taught. My own paper on playground games and the dissemination of control in computing (DIS 2008) was based on that talk as well as two other factors: my own memory of routine freedom in my own childhood in Ohio (“Just be home in time for dinner!”) and Buck’s Rock Creative and Performing Arts Camp in New Milford, Connecticut. Buck’s Rock was founded in 1942 by German refugees and permitted students to choose their own activities all day long, every day. The brief, blissful and extremely expensive month I spent at what was then called “Buck’s Rock Work Camp” in the summer of 1973 set my internal compass up for life. 

Despite the considerable interest of her story, Ms. Atwood was deeply wrong in one respect, and in some way it is her error rather than her perception that is the important take-away. She repeated at least twice, and perhaps more often, that we cannot build what we cannot imagine. 

Oh, if only she were right! But she is wrong. She ignores the existence of banks too big to fail. We might, more formally refer to this and related phenomena as emergent effects. Mitch Resnick, Uri Wilensky, and Walter Stroup have been writing for years about teaching children to model the emergent effects of complex systems, using a distributed parallel version of the Logo computer language called Star Logo. Mitch has a lovely small 1997 book called Turtles, Termites and Traffic Jams from MIT Press. And of course the notion of complexity theory as pursued at the Sante Fe Institute brings formality and rigor to the structure of information. 

These are some of the intellectual roots of Big Data. More significant is the practical consequence as Big Data increasingly controls freedom of action. The fear is that, armed with information, the incessant insistence of the computer that I recently wrote about in an Interactions feature will fragment and disperse the unofficial mechanisms that the powerless have always used to get influence. When we let big corporations, dribble-by-dribble, have our information, we do not intend to make a world designed only by monetization. Indeed, I’m sure that at one point the Google founders actually thought that they would “do no evil.” Unintended consequences. Orwell could imagine 1984 but he could not imagine the little steps, quirks, and limitations by which 1984 would be bootstrapped. 

Ironically, I acquired this sensitivity to the power of the computer to obliterate the mechanisms of the already disenfranchised in part by reading The Handmaid’s Tale, a book by Margaret Atwood. 

Posted in: on Mon, May 12, 2014 - 10:27:33

Deborah Tatar

Deborah Tatar is a professor of computer science and, by courtesy, psychology, at Virginia Tech.
View All Deborah Tatar's Posts

Post Comment

No Comments Found