Friday, December 07, 2001

Just a thought about the 'Revenge of the Geeks', or however you wish to refer to it. I'm talking about the popular idea that the computer revolution and all computer companies came to being just because some geeks were playing around. Is not that myth nurtured for too long? I for one is quite tired of stories about geeks who 'never played football and never went out on any dates but preferred to change the world and ended up loaded with money - and just by having fun, too!!!'

I am also fed up with listening to how 'five guys [they always seem to be guys] from Säffle, equipped merely with a PC, an idea and a garage, formed the biggest company in Sweden. And all they did was to have fun!!! No stupid boss, no hard labour, just sheer joy and happiness and before they knew it, they were loaded with money'.

I do not question that it was a lot of fun to develop the computer and the world wide web. Neither do I doubt that these people were rather lousy footballers, and as for the likelyhood of dates - I'll just leave that for somebody else to judge. I do realise also that if a lot of the ideas that formed the internet stem from a hippie culture,a built in suspicion towards authoroties is logical.

What I do not believe, though, is that you can form long term successful companies without taking fundamental organisational thery into account. I am quite convinced that a company will not last for long if there is not a common vision within the organisation. That vision has to be a moral one - i e a vision about providing goods or services to people, as opposed to a vision about making a fortune - and it has to have a long term validity. The most important task for a leader - the boss - is to implant that vision in all parts of the organisation, and make sure that everybody involved are working in the same direction.

I am convinced that all the successful companies in the computer industry consist of skilled, committed, serious people who have worked - as opposed to played around - hard to make real their visions, and I wish they could say so.

There, I said it. And I feel great!

For anyone interested in the theory of organisations, I warmly recommend the hugeky interesting book 'Complex organizations' by Charles Perrow.
One thing just struck me when I was thinking about what I wrote in my last blog update. I came to think about the French author Georges Perec. (I am not really sure that he was French, I rather believe that he grew up somewhere in the Caribbean, hence a Creole writer who wrote his books in French.) He was a member of some kind of writers collective that tried to increase their creativity by limiting their freedom. The idea was, if I indeed remember everything correctly, that if you are tightly restricted in your imaginative space, then you have to be extra creative to still come up with something interesting. Perec, for instance, decided to write a novel without using the letter 'e', and every francophone knows how common that letter is in French. It in fact excludes about seven eighths of the words in the French dictionary. The novel is called 'La Disparition' or 'A Void' in the English translation.

So, what has this to do with yesterday's thoughts on the potential creativity of computers? Well, my argument was that we have to consider the computer creative when it reaches a high level of complexity, though just how high a level is arbitrary. Perec and his friends in a way challenge that line of thought. I guess, according to their idea of improving the creativity by reducing the freedom, complexity is not the issue. With extremely strict limitations a high level of complexity will not be possible, but but the degree of creativity will rise - at least according to my interpretation of the ideas of the before mentioned writers collective (And, by the way, does anyone remember their name?).

The question is of course, does Perec's argument make sense in the first place? I'll leave that for you to consider.
Let me tell you about the Swedish artist Professor Dan Wolgers. When the new Museum of Modern Art was opened in Stockholm a few years ago he was hired to create a new piece of art that was to be placed in front of the entrance. This is of course a museum of modern art, Professor Wolgers is a modern artist and, not surprisingly, the work turned out to be a modern one, however in a slightly different way, one is tempted to suspect, than a lot of people initially had expected.

He simply removed – stole, say some – the benches from the entrance, and called his mission complete. All he asked for as payment was to keep the benches. Thus the much foreseen Great Work of Art was downgraded – and the somewhat pejorative choice of word is entirely mine – to a lack of facilities for those who wanted to sit down and have a rest after their visit to the museum.

Very soon the debate took off. Was this really art? Wasn’t it just a simple theft? And what the hell is art, anyway?

Dr Fleming touched this issue in yesterday’s lecture. The topic was interactivity with computers and Dr Fleming illustrated the questions raised by demonstrating a graphics soft ware. This would, depending on what parameters were put in by the user, perform a complex and colourful graphic animation. Hence, when the parameters are set, the computer creates the animation itself. Now, is this art? Is this creativity? Is it possible for a computer to be creative?

I suppose it can be art. All you need to do is print, frame and sign and you have made yourself a piece of art. Or indeed, you do not have to print and frame, just place the computer set in a gallery. Or at the Cairo Airport, or wherever – yes, it is art. If it is a good or interesting work of art or whether it is for instance morally dubious or not, those are completely different questions.

You may ask how new this phenomenon is. When I was nine I visited the Liseberg Amusement Park in Gothenburg and made my own painting that was to cover my wall for a long time to come. Mind you, I did not know initially what the painting would look like. The paper was spinning quickly, and all I could do was to choose the colours with which to spray the rotating paper. I think it is fair to say that I put in the parameters (the colours) and that the program (rotating paper) made the painting, just like the program presented by Dr Fleming. What is the difference apart from the digitisation and complexity?

Some years later, in the Swedish equivalent to the Grammar School, I was studying mathematics in a computer lab. Giving a few parameters (e g y=x+3) to the program, it would then draw a nice graph to illustrate the beauty of calculus. What is the difference to Dr Fleming’s program, apart from complexity? (I guess then, that according to my line of thought my mathematical coordinate systems could be considered art, and I cannot stress enough how satisfactory such a conclusion appears to me. During my two years as a maths teacher I struggled, and very often in vain, to convince my pupils that mathematics is in fact beautiful.)

The issues concerning creativity are more tricky, hence more interesting than those about defining art, and I think that complexity is an important factor to take into account. I believe that it is a widespread opinion that only humans can be creative (and God if you are religious). A beaver’s dam, a bird’s nest or the honey production of bees are not regarded as creativity, these animals are merely genetically programmed in a way similar to how the computer is programmed to perform the before mentioned animation. It is also argued that we humans are so much more than individuals genetically programmed for reproduction.

The question I wish to ask here is whether that is true or not. Are we not animals, only with a considerably higher complexity to our genetic programs? Despite our bright intellects and our free will, we are still limited in our choices due to various factors – economy, weather, age et cetera – and that affects our creativity too. There are limits for what we are able to create. The same is true for computers, there are limits to what they can create and those limits are given by the technology. Hence, at some point, is it not fair to argue that the computer programs are bound to reach such a level of complexity that we must recognise them as creative?

Now, does this make any sense? Is what I just wrote nothing but one big load of rubbish, or am I really on to something here? I don’t know, but I would of course be interested in any opinions on the matter. Feel free to email them to

Well, I guess that’s it for now. Take care, my friends!

Thursday, December 06, 2001

Interesting. I feel like Billy Pilgrim.

Billy Pilgrim, as I'm sure you are all aware of, is the of course the anti-hero of 'Slaughterhouse-Five', and he repeatedly found himself transferred to the distant planet Trafalmadore. Then, next thing he knew, he was back on Earth again, although not in his fancy office in USA, but rather in dresden in 1945.

I just learned yesterday that I've spent vast parts of this semester on the planet Zorg, at least that's the theory offered by Dr Fleming for my not even remotely satisfactory work on this blog. Quite plausible, if you ask me, and I'm of course tremendously grateful to Dr Fleming for this. His remarkable explanation spares me the burden of naïvely blaming the pubs, the Guinness and the Irish. It was the Zorgians all along! I would also like to stress that I was kidnapped to the Zorgian pubs against my will. What can you do against their mighty powers? After all, I'm just a regular guy trying my best...

Anyway, I'm back! Back on Earth, back in Coleraine in 2001 and... well... I guess it's about time to get down to business.