Are computer scientists a form of evil intellectuals?

January 15, 2010 at 1:33 pm 3 comments

Thomas Sowell’s column appears in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday’s, and his column this week appeared under the headline World worse off because of role intellectuals play. Sowell’s argument is that intellectuals overall did more harm than good in the 20th century.  Examples of intellectuals who caused great harm in Sowell’s opinion include Hitler and Marx.  He distinguishes the Wright brothers in his article, because they created something.

All these people produced a tangible product or service and they were judged by whether those products and services worked. But intellectuals are people whose end products are intangible ideas, and they are usually judged by whether those ideas sound good to other intellectuals or resonate with the public.

via Intellectuals and Society by Thomas Sowell on – A Syndicate Of Talent.

So are computer scientists “intellectuals” by Sowell’s definition?  We create products and services, but our products and services are merely intangible ideas.  You can’t touch a bit, nor a Web page, nor a window and scroll bar.  How do you judge the quality of our products and services?  Is there a way of judging software by more than “sound good to other intellectuals or resonate with the public”?

I’m not sure that Sowell’s argument stands up to much criticism, e.g., the difference between intellectuals and those whose ideas are worth something is just that the latter have tangible products and services?  If I’m better at marketing, so my ideas turn into a product, then I’m not longer “just” an intellectual?  Still, the philosophical question of what we are, we who build things out of just thought and some serious typing, is interesting.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ian Bogost  |  January 15, 2010 at 2:12 pm

    Mark, I can’t seem to get the link to Sowell’s article to work. Is there another place to find it?

    I was going to read the piece before responding, but my gut reaction is that people like Hilter and Marx aren’t exactly “intellectuals” of the sort that I suspect Sowell wants to critique. After all, there are a lot of things you can say about those two figures, but you cannot deny that their ideas circulated far wider and with greater impact (for good and ill) than almost any others in the 20th century.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  January 15, 2010 at 3:53 pm

      I also found it here: He wrote a book recently on the topic, so his interviews and posts exploring this idea are all over the Internet.

      • 3. Ian Bogost  |  January 15, 2010 at 4:21 pm

        Thanks for that pointer. I think I’m about to decide that Sowell is a crackpot. How’s that sound?

        Or, more amusingly, we might point out the fact that Sowell’s argument argues against itself, since it makes him an intellectual.


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