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CPSR: Joseph Weizenbaum

Joseph Weizenbaum

1988 Winner of CPSR's Norbert Wiener Award for
Professional and Social Responsibility

Terry Winograd wrote this tribute:

This award is named in honor of Norbert Wiener, whose pioneering work in cybernetics was one of the pillars on which computer technology was created, and whose many writings on computers and society were among the first inklings of the problems and potentials that this new technology would create. In many ways, Joseph Weizenbaum has followed the same path:

Both spent the bulk of their working lives at MIT, beginning their careers with technical contributions and then progressing in later years to focus on the social consequences of the technology they had helped to create.

Both fought with a passion against the destructive madness of high technology at the service of war. Both wrote highly influential books about the problems of humanity and technology, moving beyond discussion of the machinery to a broad consideration of human actions, values, and ethical responsibilities. Weizenbaum's Computer Power and Human Reason stands alongside Wiener's books on science and society as a powerful reminder that wisdom and technical mastery are not the same, and that we confuse them at our peril.

From his earliest writings, Joe was concerned about the relationship between the computer and the human. In a research document written in his early days at MIT, working close to the nascent artificial intelligence laboratory, he wrote:

    "The goal is to give to the computer those tasks which it can best do and leave to man that which requires (or seems to require) his judgment."

He has devoted many years and much effort to helping us understand that distinction.

From the point of view of CPSR, Wiener may be the patron saint, but Weizenbaum had a much more direct influence on the fact that we are here tonight. During his many years of working with students at MIT, he was a teacher to many of us, and his work stimulated the thinking of many others who were not fortunate enough to be in the same institution. I know that my own concerns with social issues and the ethics of computing were strongly influenced by my contacts with Joe, beginning over 20 years ago. All of us can trace some part of our concern back to Joe's vital influence.

Looking back, it is fair to say that Joe was out there ahead of us in all of our major issues. In the panel discussion today on the National Crime Information Center, Jim Depmsey quoted testimony Joe gave before a congressional committee over a decade ago on computers and civil liberties. Paul Armer (who has also done much valuable work himself) reminded me that Joe was one of the founders of Computer Professionals Against the ABM, which was a direct forerunner of our program on the SDI. His concern with the military domination of computer science has pervaded his writings for many years, and is expressed in an article published in our newsletter in Fall 1986.

This isn't to say it has all been easy and comfortable. In fact I don't think Joe would see "comfortable" as a good word. He has spent much of his career making people UNcomfortable, and making it clear to them why they should be. He sees how dangerous it can be for people to live with their comfortable presuppositions, making endless "progress" toward some unexamined goal.

Joe Weizenbaum challenges those of us with comfortable positions in the computer profession to look seriously at how our work is being used. In the newsletter article I mentioned above, he said:

    "We now have the power to alter the state of the world fundamentally and in a way conducive to life.

    It is a prosaic truth that none of the weapon systems which today threaten murder on a genocidal scale, and whose design, manufacture and sale condemns countless people, especially children, to poverty and starvation, that none of these devices could be developed without the earnest, even enthusiastic cooperation of computer professionals. It cannot go on without us! Without us the arms race, especially the qualitative arms race, could not advance another step.

    Does this plain, simple and obvious fact say anything to us as computer professionals? I think so.

    ...Those among us who, perhaps without being aware of it, exercise our talents in the service of death rather than that of life have little right to curse politicians, statesmen and women for not bringing us peace. Without our devoted help they could no longer endanger the peoples of our earth. All of us must therefore consider whether our daily work contributes to the insanity of further armament or to genuine possibilities for peace."

Going beyond the question of computers, Joe has questioned some of the most sacred dogmas of our culture, including the pre-eminence of the rationality of science. He challenges the assumption that science can yield a complete understanding of the objects of its studies, in particular that it can ultimately account for 'the whole human'". He rejects the common view of progress as an accumulation of abstract knowledge and material power. He reminds us that in losing sight of human values this quest can turn from progress to madness.

At times, Joe has been characterized by his critics as a Luddite - as having an irrational fear of all science and technology. It is not surprising that such allegations would come when someone dares to question the sanctity of the modern scientific enterprise and to argue that there is a more fundamental kind of wisdom. I think a deeper reading gives a different perspective. His criticism is not of technology, but of our uses of technology. I will conclude with one more quote from a paper Joe wrote a few years back:

    "Perhaps the computer, as well as many other of our machines and techniques, can yet be transformed, following our own authentically revolutionary transformation, into instruments to enable us to live harmoniously with nature and with one another. But one prerequisite will first have to be met: there must be another transformation of man. And it must be one that restores a balance between human knowledge, human aspirations, and an appreciation of human dignity such that man may become worthy of living in nature."

It is an honor to present the Norbert Weiner Award for Social and Professional Responsibility to Professor Joseph Weizenbaum.

Updated Nov. 22, 1997, by Marsha Woodbury.

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I support critical thinking--including ethical issues--when it comes to decisions about the use of technology. I want more people to have access to learn about technology. I would like to see resources go into finding and implementing technologies that provide the most public good.