Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Imagination Amplifier

This is a reproduction of an article that appears in Compute's Gazzette, Issue 59.  I'm reproducing it here because I think it's particularly good and on archive.org appears in formats where it's unlikely to be found again. Alternative link to his November's COMPUTE! article.

Worlds Of Wonder - WOW!

In this month's mailbag I received a letter from Art Oswald of Goshen, Indiana. Art was responding to my article in the November COMPUTE! magazine about computers of the future. He wrote: "In the future, the phrase 'I wonder' will become obsolete. I won't have to wonder what would happen if, or wonder what something was like, or wonder how something might be. I would just ask my computer, and it would simulate by means of holographic projection anything my imagination could come up with."

Now, I ask you, Art, is this something to look forward to or something to dread?

I have a new science-fiction book coming out which deals with this subject — the effect of computers (and electronic media, in general) on the human imagination. The book is Robot Odyssey I: Escape from Robotropolis (Tor Books, April 1988). Listen to two teenage boys carrying on a conversation in the year 2014:
We think plenty using computers, but we don't imagine. We don't have to imagine what the fourth dimension is, or what will happen if we combine two chemicals, or what the dark side of the moon looks like. The computer is there a step ahead of our imagination with its fantastic graphics, cartoons, and music. We no longer imagine because the computer can do our imagining for us. 
"So why imagine?" Les said. "My pop says most people's imaginations are vague and fuzzy anyway. If the computer imagines stuff for them, it'll probably be a big improvement.
Les is right. If the computer "imagines" something, it is usually based on a database of facts, the vision of an artist, or a scientific model created by experts. How could our puny imaginations compete with images that are this inspired, detailed, and exact?

Frontiers Of Knowledge 

Science-fiction writers think a lot about new worlds of wonder. It is the human desire to "go boldly where no man has gone before" that is among our more noble impulses. It may even be the "engine" that drives us to innovate, invent, and take risks. Without this engine, we might sink into a kind of emotional and intellectual swamp. Life could become extremely boring. Every time we contemplated a decision, we would first ask our computer, "What if?" and see what the consequences might be. Knowing too much might even paralyze us and cool our risk-taking ardor.

Imagination Amplifiers

Art writes that the phrase I wonder may be rendered obsolete by computers, but I'm not certain that he's right. Instead, I think that we could use computers to stimulate our imagination and make us wonder about things even more.

Where does our imagination come from? I picture the imagination as a LegoTM set of memory blocks stuffed into the toy chest of our mind. When we imagine something, we are quickly and intuitively building a tiny picture inside our heads out of those blocks. The blocks are made up of images, tastes, smells, touches, emotions, and so on — all sorts of things that we've experienced and then tucked away in a corner of our minds. The quality of what we imagine depends on three things: how often we imagine, the quantity and diversity of blocks that we have to choose from, and our ability to combine the blocks in original — and piercingly true — ways.

Most of us have "pop" imaginations created from images supplied to us by pop culture. We read popular books, see popular movies, watch the same sitcoms and commercials, and read the same news stories in our newspapers. It's no wonder that much of what we imagine is made up of prefab structures derived, second hand, from society's small group of master "imagineers." Electronic media has made it possible for these imagineers to distribute their imaginations in irresistible packages. If you have any doubt, ask an elementary school teacher. Her students come to school singing jingles from commercials and write "original" compositions which really are thinly disguised copies of toy ads, movies, and Saturday morning cartoons.

Where does the computer fit into this picture? It could be our biggest defense against the imagination monopoly which the dispensers of pop culture now have. If we can tell the computer "I wonder" or ask it "What if?" it will work with us to build compelling images of what we imagine. If the process is interactive, and we can imagine in rough drafts, then we can polish, ornament, and rework our images as easily as a child working with sand on a beach. Then maybe the images inside our heads will be from imagination experiments that we do with our computers and not stale, leftover images pulled from the refrigerator of pop culture.

Fred D'Ignazio, Contributing Editor