The Poet and the Computer

By Norman Cousins

A POET, said Aristotle, has the advantage of expressing the universal; the technician or specialist expresses only the particular.  The poet, moreover, can remind us that man’s greatest energy comes not from his dynamos but from his dreams.  The notion of where a man ought to be instead of where he is; the liberation from cramped prospects; the intimations of immortality through art — all these proceed naturally out of dreams.  But the quality of man’s dreams can only be a reflection of his subconscious.  What he puts into his subconscious, therefore, is quite literally the most important nourishment in the world.

Nothing really happens to a man except as it is registered in the subconscious.  This is where event and feeling become memory and where the proof of life is stored.  The poet — and I use the term to include all those who have respect for and speak to the human spirit — can help to supply the subconscious with material to enhance its sensitivity, thus safeguarding it.  The poet, too, can help to keep man from making himself over in the image of his electronic marvels.  The danger is not so much that man will be controlled by the computer as that he may imitate it.

There once was a time, in the history of this society, when the ability of people to convey meaning was enriched by their knowledge of and access to the work of creative minds from across the centuries.  No more. Conversation and letters today, like education, have become enfeebled by emphasis on the functional and the purely contemporary.  The result is a mechanization not just of the way we live but of the way we think, and of the human spirit itself.

The delegates to the United States Constitutional Convention were able to under-gird their arguments with allusions to historical situations and to the ideas of philosophers, essayists, and dramatists.  Names such as Thucydides, Aristotle, Herodotus, Plutarch, or Seneca were commonly cited to support their positions.  They alluded to fictional characters from Aristophanes, Marlowe, or Shakespeare to lend color to the exploration of ideas.  If they referred to Bacon’s opinion of Aristotle, they didn’t have to cite particulars; they assumed such details were common knowledge.  Their allusions were not the product of intellectual ostentation or ornamentation but the natural condiments of discourse, bringing out the full flavor of the cultivated intelligence.

The essential problem of man in a computerized age remains the same as it has always been.  That problem is not solely how to be more productive, more comfortable, more content, but how to be more sensitive, more sensible, more proportionate, more alive.  The computer makes possible a phenomenal leap in human proficiency; it demolishes the fences around the practical and even theoretical intelligence.  But the question persists and indeed grows whether the computer makes it easier or harder for human beings to know who they really are, to identify their real problems, to respond more fully to beauty, to place adequate value on life, and to make their world safer than it now is.

Electronic brains can reduce the profusion of dead ends involved in vital research.  But they can’t eliminate the foolishness and decay that come from the unexamined life.  Nor do they connect a man to the things he has to be connected to — the reality of pain in others; the possibilities of creative growth in himself; the memory of the race; and the rights of the next generation.

The reason these matters are important in a computerized age is that there may be a tendency to mistake data for wisdom, just as there has been a tendency to confuse logic with values, and intelligence with insight.  Unobstructed access to facts can produce unlimited good only if it is matched by the desire and ability to find out what they mean and where they would lead.  The computer can provide a correct number, but it may be an irrelevant number until judgment is pronounced.

To the extent, then, that man fails to make the distinction between the intermediate operations of electronic intelligence and the ultimate responsibilities of human decision and conscience, the computer could obscure man’s awareness of the need to come to terms with himself.  It may foster the illusion that he is asking fundamental questions when actually he is asking only functional ones.  It may be regarded as a substitute for intelligence instead of an extension of it. It may promote undue confidence in concrete answers.  “If we begin with certainties,” Bacon said, “we shall end in doubts; but if we begin with doubts, and we are patient with them, we shall end in certainties.”

Without taking anything away from the technicians, it might be fruitful to effect some sort of junction between the computer technologist and the poet.  A genuine purpose may be served by turning loose the wonders of the creative imagination on the kinds of problems being put to electronic tubes and transistors.  The company of poets may enable the men who tend the machines to see a larger panorama of possibilities than technology alone may inspire.

Poets remind men of their uniqueness.  It is not necessary to possess the ultimate definition of this uniqueness.  Even to speculate on it is a gain.

Norman Cousins is an adjunct professor of medicine (medical humanities) in the UCLA School of Medicine.

Appeared in the UCLA MAGAZINE ‘FORUM’ in the SPRING of 1989 (posted with their permission).