Saturday, September 19, 2009

On the Evils of Co-authorship

Tyler Cowen and Michelle Dawson are both excellent writers. Although I am only recently familiar with Mr. Cowen's work, the popularity of both his blog and his books speaks for itself, and in reading through samples of Cowen's accessible, yet information-packed prose, I can understand how his appeal has become both broad and respected. Furthermore, Cowen recently penned a truly remarkable essay entitled Autism as Academic Paradigm, which infuses a surprising breath of fresh air into the musty, platitude-filled discussions surrounding autism as disorder and disease. My heartiest congratulations to Mr. Cowen for that invigorating effort.

And Michelle Dawson, in her own unique fashion, has also revealed an exceptional talent for the written word. As evidence I need search no further than her early paper The Misbehaviour of Behaviourists, which for whatever flaws of inexperience it might happen to reveal, still stands in my opinion as perhaps the finest example of autism-related literature yet to be crafted.

So individually, Cowen and Dawson need never fear for their abilities as writers. But as co-authors? Well, here I am not so sure.

Mr. Cowen and Ms. Dawson have recently co-written a paper entitled What Does the Turing Test Really Mean? And How Many Human Beings (Including Turing) Could Pass? Now let me be clear: I do not want to dissuade anyone from reading that paper, for it certainly contains some valuable and innovative suggestions about yet another paper, Alan Turing's lovely essay entitled Computing Machinery and Intelligence, written for the journal Mind back in 1950. Cowen and Dawson open a new perspective on Turing's work, highlighting how Turing's casual argument has as much to tell us about anthropomorphism, education, ostracism and the like, as it has to say about artificial intelligence. Perhaps I as much as anyone else can appreciate that particular aspect of the Cowen and Dawson paper, for I too have been puzzled as to why it has been primarily (if not solely) the Turing test that history has chosen to hand down from Computing Machinery and Intelligence, when in fact the essay itself seems to be pointing in such a large variety of directions. Cowen and Dawson have my gratitude for helping me feel not so alone in that particular puzzlement.

Yet for all its merits in pointing out these wide-ranging aspects of Computing Machinery and Intelligence, the Cowen and Dawson paper still comes off as something of a disappointment. It is not any specific content that spurs my concern; in truth, it is more a question of structure and tone. For a paper that purports to offer a significantly different perspective on Turing's widely read and assumed-to-be widely understood essay, Cowen and Dawson remain remarkably circumspect in their overall approach. The paper's introduction barely tiptoes to its main point, and where the argument might then spring forth as suddenly decisive and bold, it instead continues to pull all its punches, content to offer little more than hints and suggestions about Turing's possible intentions, as though the real wallop were to be found in the secondary sources (it is not). Then in further deference to convention, as though they have already offended too much, Cowen and Dawson choose to adopt many of the accouterments of academic scholarship for their paper, when scholarship appears to be the last thing required. (I would note that when Turing himself resorts to some academic garb—the Thomas Aquinas reference, for instance—as though he had been assured at least a dab of this were necessary, he comes off as somewhat awkward and naïve, and thus decidedly adorable; whereas when Cowen and Dawson accurately employ the structures and paradigms of modern scholarship, they come off as professional and authoritative, and thus decidedly not adorable.)

In the end, the Cowen and Dawson paper sounds fractured and hesitant to me, a bit like subversive treatise meets philosophical fireside chat meets undergraduate term paper. Or to put it more concisely, if I were to use just a single word to describe what seems to be missing from the Cowen and Dawson paper, that word would have to be voice.

And in this sense, it would be useful to compare the Cowen and Dawson paper to its target subject. For the Turing essay too is in many ways not a thing of beauty: it meanders, it is far too self-conscious, its phrasing at times can reach the point of painful awkwardness. Yet for all that, Turing's essay reads with considerable charm, and the source of that charm never strays far from view. What drives Computing Machinery and Intelligence, what holds it together in both substance and form, is the intensely focused, abundantly original intellect standing nakedly exposed behind all its scattered conjecture. Turing takes what might have been construed as (and too often is) simply a technical subject, and turns it into a daring, heartfelt cry against the confines of human convention. Turing's essay has personality at its core, a personality that pervades the essay's entire length—its style, its arguments, even its flaws. Hell, that personality pervades all the proposed machines!

The Cowen and Dawson paper is useful because it highlights these characteristics of Computing Machinery and Intelligence, suggesting to readers that they set aside their usual interest in machine intelligence for at least a moment, and concentrate instead on that unusual, misunderstood, yet utterly brilliant intellect haunting the pages of Turing's essay. And yet ironically enough, it is precisely that characteristic, the one they themselves are pointing out, that is conspicuously absent from the Cowen and Dawson paper itself. Whereas in Turing's essay we encounter bold challenges, offbeat drama and cheeky jokes, in Cowen and Dawson we are subjected to academic innuendo, deference to authority, and a reference list. Whereas the Turing essay is held together by the intense, subversive and naïve charm of a uniquely driven mind, the Cowen and Dawson paper is held together mostly by the conventions of community—in this case, a community of two.

In Tyler Cowen's recent book, Create Your Own Economy: the Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World (a one-author book that is a pretty decent read, by the way), Cowen trumpets the virtues of humanity's new era of massively promulgated information and ubiquitous intercommunication—our brave new world of digital catalogs, search engines, social networks and even Twitter. And far be it from me to disparage anything about these recent innovations, for after all, I am one of those who make a comfortable living navigating the paths of this now electronically intertwined world. But as we continue celebrating these newfound abilities to sort through reams of cascading data, to search for exciting new patterns within a seeming chaos of information, and to enjoy fulfilling opportunities to, yes, more easily collaborate, let us not forget that there remains also—as there always has—an alternative, seemingly less efficient means whereby to achieve significant human advancement.

What is needed sometimes is not more, but less. When floods of information turn into common, all-too-familiar property of all, when searched-for patterns atrophy into nothing but a well-worn groove, when massive collaboration coagulates into a massive conventionality, what is needed then is not further speeding up of the process, not a more abundant reaping of more copious detail, not a greater efficiency at talking things through. What is needed then is something quite different—radically different, I would say, and yet remarkably close at hand. What is needed then is the kind of insight that might be found only in circumstances of near loneliness—say in empty corridors tread well beyond midnight, or perhaps on the gravelly paths of unaccompanied runs about Bletchley Park.

Collaboration, teamwork, co-authorship—I admit they have their place, they can have their value. But when the purpose is revolutionary, even in the smallest degree, how radical can any idea be when it is already shared by more than one. As this world becomes informationally richer and as we gather more detail into an ever more populated space, let us not forget that what brought us into these circumstances, what dragged us out of our animal past and into the glory of a near infinite future, was not the conventionality of community, but instead the daringly unconventional voice of the solitary individual.

1 comment:

CS McClellan/Catana said...

Thanks for a stimulating and motivating post. For some reason, I decided to skip What Does the Turing Test Really Mean, and I didn't even realize it was co-authored. A mistake to be corrected. Like you, I was introduced to Cowen fairly recently through the Chronicle article, which I'm delighted to see is available again, having been hidden behind a pay wall for a while.

Not to blow my own horn, but I've increasingly realized that what people respond to in my various writings around the web are my rather off-beat insights, much more so than the hard facts. It's possible that in the onslaught of so much information, people may actually be looking for more substance and therefore appreciate the insights of the person who just sits around and thinks.