Another notable predecessor in the conception of a digital universe was MIT-based mathematician Norbert Wiener, among the few comparable in stature to Princeton’s John von Neumann. Both are key characters in Turing’s Cathedral. Wiener was deeply concerned about the effects of new technologies on humans. In 1964, when asked in a U.S. News & World Report interview whether there was any danger that machines would someday get the upper hand over humans, he replied, “There is, definitely, that danger if we don’t take a realistic attitude. The danger is essentially intellectual laziness. Some people have been so bamboozled by the word machine that they don’t realize what can be done and what cannot be done with machines — and what can be left, and what cannot be left, to the human beings.”
The same danger exists for executives today. You have to know how to manage the code that ultimately defines your company’s output and, in many ways, its success. What might have appeared to be a simple question of automation in the 1950s is now an exponentially more complex task of figuring out how these apparently living systems will interact with one another. Dyson doesn’t offer prescriptive advice, but his message — that much more effort is needed to study the biology and physics and even anthropology of code — is critically important because we can’t manage what we don’t understand. Without this understanding, we don’t have a chance of remaining competitive in the digital economy.
- Mark Stahlman is a technology strategist and founder of TMT Strategies LLC, a research company focused on the impact of digital technology on the economy and society.