Revised on Problems with “Compumorphizing”

(We revised and re-posted this on April 21st.)

In response to my posting on Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED Talk, my son Nicolas posted a comment. “Papa,” he said,

“I know that this take on the human being as processor (Pentium 17) really gets your Heideggerian goat. If I recall correctly, this is the approach that has taken over university philosophy departments, leaving guys like Rorty to sneak Nietzsche into literature classes. I wonder if you would say why you so dislike the compumorphizing interpretation? What kinds of problems do you see this interpretation producing in the world? (My italics.)

I am going to attempt to answer the biggest questions I think Nicolas is asking.

In my interpretation, he is touching on one of the central questions of the great spiritual and intellectual traditions. His question, ‘What kinds of problems are produced by poor interpretations about what human beings are?’ sits alongside what I consider the most important questions for us as human beings: Who are we? What are we doing here? and How best to use the short time that we have here?

The interpretations we live in dramatically affect our worlds and the quality of our lives.

Human beings live in language. This means that we live in interpretations. The particular interpretations and associated distinctions in which you and I see, listen to, and understand the world both open and close possibilities for us. If we look and listen from impoverished, obsolete, or misleading interpretations about ourselves and our worlds, we will not even recognize, much less take advantage of many possibilities in life. And, we will often make terrible mistakes in our interactions with each other.

In my experience, an enormous number of people suffer throughout whole careers, marriages, and lives in the midst of impoverished interpretations about who they are in the world. It has been clear to me for nearly 30 years that “good” interpretations, like good diagnoses, lead to effective action, and that “bad” interpretations, like bad diagnoses, have the opposite effect: failures, all manner of waste, loss of vitality, and even loss of life.

What initially drew me to the inquiry in which I have been working for about 40 years was my curiosity about what we call “work.” I was curious about both what people do when they work and what goes on that they complain about it so much. Based on my observations, I concluded that a whole lot of the suffering, complaining, and nonsense has to do with impoverished interpretations about who we are, what we are doing, and why we are doing that. Far too many people put up with the circumstances of work until they can say TGIF. We live in the story that work is selling our souls to the company store.

We inherit our interpretations.

Most of today’s impoverished interpretations were here before we were; we grew up in them and absorbed them from those around us, and learned to embody them in the thoughts that we think and the language that we speak. We have been taught that elevator speeches are evidence of thinking, and we admire people who utter politically correct or popular sound bites. Advertisers shape our self images and tell us what is good, admirable, and healthy, and then offer us quick fixes and pharmaceutical panaceas. The media is busy attempting to convince us that all we need to do to live satisfying and effective lives is to follow their advice. We are bombarded by people offering “better” interpretations about what we ought to be doing.

Most of us are blind to the way that these background interpretations shape our thinking. When (and only when) we begin to observe these interpretations as the interpretations in which we live, in that moment we have the opportunity to choose which we want to keep, and what new interpretations we want to build.

The “compumorphic” interpretation of human beings is particularly pernicious.

Once I saw that poor interpretations of what human beings are lead to interactions that don’t work, I began to make myself into “an enemy” of some particular interpretations. Clear in the background of Jill Taylor’s talk, is the interpretation that human beings function like computers. While common today especially in the world of work, I find this interpretation impoverished and particularly harmful.

Why? When people interpret themselves as objects and paraphernalia, caught up in and victimized by structures over which they think they have no power, they suffer, even if they see themselves as “useful.” By objects and paraphernalia we mean people interpreting themselves as things, tools, instruments, devices, and computational systems. To understand ourselves through the metaphor of computers is to understand ourselves as sophisticated tools. You and I are not computers that receive messages and process information, even though that is a common way to speak about what human beings do with each other.

Basing our actions in the world on a compumorphic interpretation of human beings is a fundamental mistake that, in my assessment, is at the heart of much of our suffering today. The human cost of the miscommunications and miscoordinations that come from this kind of interpretation are unfathomable. Communication errors born in the tube theory” of communication cost American businesses hundreds of billions of dollars a year.

What is most pernicious about the compumorphic interpretation, however, is that it hides and diminishes what is most important about being human—our ability to invent our ambitions and concerns, and to take care of what matters to us.

A much more powerful interpretation is that human beings invent themselves in language.

I consider nothing more important in life than the capacity of human beings to invent interpretations about futures for ourselves, and then to move ourselves towards those futures. From this perspective, I have committed myself to understanding and inventing structures that give human beings more capacity to be the authors of their own lives.

That is a main theme that runs throughout this blog.
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One thought on “Revised on Problems with “Compumorphizing”

  1. Chauncey,

    I lost your email but don’t want to lose you. Alice has a new name now? I loved reading the email from your son. I remember when he was two and already reading everything. You have certainly not lost any of your clarity and capacity for making powerful distinctions over the years. I will (still) never forget doing the course with you that you led, in about 1983 called The Office of the Future. We sat in front of those computers and our first directive, before we wrote our email to someone, was to address the question, “Who are you? and Who are you Speaking to?” Those two questions continue to have a profound influence in me…. enough to bring me to silence now and then. You are wonderful and I hope to see you again before I die. Love, Patty

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