Monday, August 20, 2007

What is it about computer geeks?

I ran across two other computer geeks with very interesting ideas today on my daily wandering around the Internet.

Robin Hanson is a former computer geek who's now an economics geek. He's a polymath with lots of interesting ideas about lots of things-- his ideas on health and medicine will keep me thinking for quite a while.

Then there's John McCarthy, a retired computer science professor at Stanford who has lots of information about why human progress is sustainable. I've written before that I'm optimistic about the future; I think I'm being rational about that, but maybe it's just the computer geek in me that makes me think the way I do.

What is it about computer geeks that makes us think we're more rational about social problems than people who were History and Sociology and Politics majors? Good computer geeks have lots of problem-solving skills; we're good at taking a big, hairy problem, then applying logic and reason to figure out:
a) what's causing the problem
b) what's not causing the problem
c) how we can fix the problem without causing further problems.
We even have a name for this: "debugging"

Good computer geeks also have the ability to create generic solutions to a set of specific problems, and to figure out how to "scale up" a solution that works for 10 people so it will work for 10,000,000 people. Is it rational to believe that those skills might apply to real-world problems, too?

There is at least one ginormous difference between computers and the real world-- computer geeks are, quite literally, gods over their computers, making them do just about whatever we want them to do. Maybe this god-like power we have over computers has gone to our heads, and we're fooling ourselves that we might be able to invent better political, economic, and social institutions than currently exist.

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