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Certain Angelic Characteristics of Computers

Howard Kainz thinks the Ghost in the Machine might in fact be an angel.

If the title seems strange, some background information may help to clarify things: To fulfill the requirements for my Master’s degree during the sixties, I wrote a Master’s Thesis on Thomas Aquinas’ metaphysics of ‘separate substances’ (the mediaeval philosophical terminology for, and counterpart of, ‘angels’). In the early seventies, with a still-recent Ph.D. in hand, I revised that thesis (‘Active and Passive Potency’ in Thomistic Angelology) and submitted it for publication. It was accepted in (for me) record time by an editor, who mentioned that he was impressed by the fact that this was uncharted area, and that he had nothing on his ‘lists’ on the subject. Since that time, I have published a few articles on the subject; but my interests, as sometimes happens with professors in the beginning of their careers, took a different direction. Some recent on-line electronic bulletin board exchanges, however, have revived some speculative memories connected with that earlier work….

Browsing through some BBS messages last year, and looking for some informative data on the newly released Microsoft DOS 5.0, I happened to notice some headings on ‘COMPUTER ADDICTION.’ This topic was a bit peripheral to my search objectives, but I couldn’t resist exploring this novel addiction to find out what it was all about. I discovered that, no, it had nothing to do with addiction to video games and the like. The ‘addicts’ in this case turned out to be a group of apparently mature adults who were ‘turned on’ by computers, found very little sympathy for discussing computers at their place of work or among their family or usual friends, and just got together via bulletin boards to discuss hard drives, upgrades, utilities, LIM, LANS, operating systems, caches, memory and memory managers, etc. – enough to turn off anybody’s ‘normal’ spouse, one would think. I remember one person commenting that she went to her computer as soon as she woke up in the morning, even before she had her morning coffee.

Subsequently my thoughts went back to the time a couple years ago when the Dean of our College of Arts & Sciences was bemoaning the fact that he was losing some promising faculty to a disease he called ‘computerosis’ a disease which allegedly hits certain scholars, who begin with the best of intentions using a computer to complete some scholarly project, but then get so fascinated with what computers can do that they get involved in endless tinkering and upgrading and experimentation and beta-testing, and lose sight of their original goals. I tried to ignore the little shudder of guilt I felt at hearing this. Could it be possible that the Dean has had his efficiency experts checking on me? Is he perhaps aware of those hours I spent learning to make special fonts that I would never be able to use in teaching or writing? or does he know about the days I spent fiddling with different parameters of PCKWIK and QEMM, trying to get them maximize memory and speed and avoid ‘exception 13s’? or the time I went through all those benchmark programs I downloaded from bulletin boards?…. No, there is no way he could know about this. And, even if he did, why should I feel guilty? These are just sidelines. I hardly ever turn on the computer before my morning coffee. I still did my work, and lived up to my ‘job description.’ He must be thinking of someone else…. I started to think of Professor X, and Professor Y, who had apparently ‘gone off the deep end’ in this way. I, at least, have avoided the siren songs of temptation….

I suspect that my colleagues the psychologists on the other side of the campus have never researched this purported ‘addiction’ with proper reduplicable methodology and control groups. If there are people afflicted with such a lamentable disease as computerosis, what might be the sources of attraction that could bring it about?

As I thought about this, I began to realize that many of the ‘sources of attraction’ I turned up were precisely the sort of qualities that fascinated mediaeval metaphysicians like Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagite, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, and Suarez, and led them to produce their classical angelologies.

The parallels began to leap out at me as I considered five paramount sources of attraction:

Speed, first and foremost. It never ceases to amaze a bookish person like myself with a 486/33 clone that I can index a thousand words with page numbers and update cross-references for a 350-page manuscript in a matter of minutes using Word Perfect’s ‘generate’ command, or transfer about 20,000 pages of text precisely from a subdirectory of my hard disk to a subdirectory on another drive in minutes with Norton Backup. But isn’t this celerity the same sort of thing that fascinated the mediaeval metaphysicians about angels? The angelic mind was differentiated by them from the human mind insofar as it did not have to go through any laborious temporal transitions in thought processes. Everything was speeded up to such an extent in angelic cognition that, for all practical purposes, thought processes were instantaneous. The speed of angelic thought was sometimes compared to the swiftness of light – a particularly meaningful comparison for us who live in the era of electronics.

Multitasking. Recent advances in computer multitasking technology certainly provide another source of fascination for potential addicts. The CPU that you are using may be engaged in transferring data through a modem, while at the same time you are doing a search with Magellan or updating the records in your database. Of course there is a somewhat mechanical element in DOS multitasking with QEMM386 or 386MAX or WINDOWS 3.1, because of the ‘tics’ e.g., 3 tics allocated to the background window, 3 tics for the foreground. But now with the advent of IBM’s OS2 and 32-bit computing with ‘multithreading’, the tics are a thing of the past, and one can operate a hundred or so ‘virtual DOS machines’ in separate windows at once, provided there is sufficient RAM and disk space. The mediaevals were not able to multitask in this way, but they did contemplate multitasking possibilities in their metaphysical angelologies. They were no doubt influenced to some extent by the biblical description of angels with eyes going in every direction (Revelations 4:6). Every angel, they theorized, is continuously engaged in the ‘beatific vision’ (contemplating the perfections of God) – what in computereze is called the ‘foreground’ task; but is also at the same time engaged in numerous ‘background’ applications guarding individuals and cities, transmitting good inspirations to consciences, helping the dying to make their transition to the afterlife, etc.

Instant communication. All one needs for relatively instant communication is a modem, or a network connection. No stamps, no posting, no airmail delivery necessary. Just type in the e-mail or FAX address and send your file. Even IBMs and Macs, which were not on speaking terms for a long while, can now communicate via networking or automatic conversion programs. At great distances, time seems to collapse. In a few hours, someone in England or Germany has received your message relayed by CUNY, and you have a response. If you use the wrong e-mail address, your missive is forwarded back to you from CUNY or Manchester University or some other centre in seconds. Angelic communication, in the estimation of mediaevals, was even faster than what we might designate as an instantaneous readout. No messy vocalizations or laborious translations were necessary. It was simply a matter of redirection of the will. An angel would just will that a certain thought be transmitted to another angel, and it was done. I read in a computer magazine some time ago that some of the more radical programmers are trying to work out ways to activate programs by mental/emotional signals, without keyboards. This would presumably be one step in the direction of equalizing man with the angels, at least in the communication sphere.

Massive storage capacities of hard disks, tapes and CD rom. This is possibly another contributing cause of computerosis. My two 170-megabyte hard disks allow me to store multiple volumes of electronic text editions of philosophical works; and ample conventional memory (pace those continual complaints about the ‘640K barrier’) lets me access desired references almost instantaneously with Word Cruncher. I think back on my laborious life as a graduate student in the 60s, when, having forgotten to take down the page number for an essential quote I wanted to use, I would spend the best part of a day trying to track it down, sometimes unsuccessfully. (The present generation of grad students has no excuse for not attaining greatness – at least no excuse based on material impediments.) Similarly, the mediaevals visualized the intellects of angels as massive reflectors, imaging the universe as a whole and in all its detail, from the specific vantage point of each angel’s particular nature; like unimaginably fast hard drives, they had all data and applications available to them in the endless mental repositories with which they were endowed.

Downward Compatibility. Finally, I would mention the downward compatibility that enables more advanced operating systems or utilities or spreadsheet programs or video cards to do everything that earlier and more primitive versions could do. DOS 5.0 is downwardly compatible with all previous versions, and even has a ‘setver’ command to lie to programs that want, for example DOS 3.3, and tell them that they’re really in the right operating system. OS2 is downwardly compatible with all versions of MS DOS and MS Windows; and if a certain program won’t run under OS2, it can make up a ‘virtual DOS disk’ with e.g. version 5.0 to run that particular program. Up to the present the downward compatibility of new versions of software gives the impression of never-ending progress toward greater speed and more powerful programs continually improved by upgrading. Downward compatibility is also one of the esoteric qualities (little known now, but widely accepted among mediaeval metaphysicians) of the angelic hierarchies. The basic idea was that there was a gradual increase in knowledge, power and love as you ascend up the angelic hierarchies from angels and archangels on the lowest echelons up to cherubim, seraphim, etc. on the higher levels. But the higher orders were not limited in the way, say, that higher administrative echelons are limited among humans (for example, a competent President of the U.S. does not necessarily have good senatorial qualities, a school administrator is not necessarily a good teacher, an editor is not necessarily a good writer). In fact, every angel of the higher order can do …yes, everything that his subordinates can do, and do it better although for practical reasons he may not choose to exercise all these powers. The highest angels integrate all the perfections of the lower orders. (On the level of computers, it might be something like an OS2 x.O or Windows NT x.O which not only included powerful integrated software and utilities, utilized endless random-access memory – no 640 barrier – but also made intelligent guesses as to what you wanted to do and when.)

Mediaeval scholastic metaphysicians sometimes get ‘bad press’ for wasting so much time calculating how many angels might be able to dance on the head of a pin, arguing about how good and evil angels manipulate human imaginations, etc. Vacuous pursuits, perhaps. But they had time to spare. They didn’t have to beta-test new software or coordinate peripherals with system requirements or download the latest patches or updates from their online services. It was a more leisurely era, and they suffered (or enjoyed) a more abstract sort of addiction.

© Professor H. Kainz 1993

Howard Kainz is a professor of philosophy at Marquette University, Milwaukee.


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