The point of pointlessness (fwd)

Jukka Laari jlaari at kanto.cc.jyu.fi
Thu Aug 3 08:52:59 MDT 1995


My friend posted me this funny example of buddhist scholarship. I think
the questions posed here are worth thinking.

On the theme 'computers, internet, lists & other modern gimmicks' - does
this post have any value concerning the discussion on the List?

Yours, Jukka Laari

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Mon, 31 Jul 1995 09:18:42 EDT
From: Richard Hayes <CXEV at MUSICA.MCGILL.CA>
To: Multiple recipients of list BUDDHA-L <BUDDHA-L at ULKYVM.BITNET>
Subject: The point of pointlessness

"Aloha,

Being a state employee, I suggest we appoint a commission to do a
variety of statistical tests on the data collected.  For example, we
could sort the postings by country, have the computer parse for word
counts, then do a t-test to see if the denizens of any particular
country are consistently more long-winded than their counterparts
elsewhere.  And if we factor in the type of institutions where the
posters have their e-mail accounts we could do multi-variant analyses.

Why, we could  probably produce a two-hundred page report complete with
pie charts, 3-D frequency histograms--the whole works.  And some people
think state workers aren't productive..."

                                   Have a joyful day,

                                   donna Bair-Mundy
                                   <donnab at uhunix.uhcc.hawaii.edu>

dear donna,

You have understood perfectly the point of my pointless statistics.
You may take the rest of the day off and go to the beach (or whatever
else would give you a joyful day).

As you recognized in your wityy reply, the principle that I was
trying to illustrate was that people tend to get computers to do the
sorts of things that computers can easily do, whether or not the task
is one that is worth doing. It is relatively easy to get a computer to
sort a list of Internet addresses by country code, so somebody did it.
You can now get a list of all subscribers to buddha-l sorted by country
by sending the command REV BUDDHA-L COUNTRIES to listserv. The resultant
file even gives you a list of statistics at the end, showing how many
subscribers have accounts located in each country. See how easy it is to
get a computer to generate information that is of absolutely no value to
anyone? Welcome to the Information Super Junkyard.

As you know, donna, I am a professional curmudgeon. My job is to make
ill-tempered remarks of the kind that give people irksome days. This
keeps bodhisattvas in work, busily scurrying around trying to remove
all the irksomeness that I evoke. (I get a small kickback from the
bodhisattvas' union, but I don't report it to Revenue Canada.) Given
that one of the duties of a curmudgeon-for-hire is to bite the hand that
feeds it, I am bound to make a few gratuitously churlish remarks about
the Internet and the entire phenomenon of computers from time to time.
So let me earn my keep today by making a couple more uninvited remarks
about how computers are rapidly destroying the fabric of our scholarly
community.

In the old days, texts used to be copied by scribes. Their job was to
introduce interesting errors in the copy so that scholars in the
twentieth century could spend nearly all their time wondering which
variant reading was the original one, rather than thinking about ways
of putting their intelligence to the service of humanity. Nowadays,
scribes have pretty well disappeared. They have been replaced by
data entry personnel. Their job is to type errors into texts and leave
them sitting around in ftp sites around the world. This way, within a
few weeks, several thousand people around the world can have their very
own copy of a faulty text. Several hundred of those thousands of people
will spot a few errors and will correct them; many of the would-be
corrections will be inaccurate and unjustified. The result is that from
one imperfectly coded electronic version of a text, several hundred
imperfectly coded electronic versions of the same text can be produced
within a few weeks. Many of these will be given to students and
colleagues, and soon there will be thousands of imperfectly coded
electronic versions of a text around. All these myriads of variant
readings should keep scholars in the twenty-first century so busy trying
to discover the original readings that they will never actually get
around to reading any texts, let alone thinking about them. Graduate
students will go mad trying to make sure that they have every single
electronic version of a given text in the world before they dare say
anything about the text in question. They will wake up in the middle
of the night in cold sweats, wondering if there is a computer somewhere
in Ulan Bator housing an electronic keyscript that has a variant reading
(a colon, or an interesting dingbat) that has escaped their attention,
and fearing that some professor on the examination committee will
say "WHAT? YOU DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT THE ULAN BATOR VERSION OF THIS TEXT?
AND YOU CALL YOURSELF A SCHOLAR?" (PhD failed.) Eventually there will
be such a plethora of available versions of a single text that the
weight of all this data will implode into an informational black hole
that will swallow up all manuscripts down to the last visarga. And
then what will shcolars do? I suppose they will while away their days
arguing about whether the entire cosmos emanated out of the element
earth or the element fire, or whether the tathaagata-garbha arose out
of emptiness or vice versa. Some old timers will sit staring at their
dark computer monitors, reminiscing about the days when one could scan
a hundred different version of the Kaala-cakra-tantra in a single
afternoon on WWW. (The younger scholars will believe none of it; they
will dismiss these stories as fantasies brought on by Alzheimer's
Disease, induced by a superabundance of radiation emissions from cathode
ray tubes.) One thousand years later, a team of archaeologists will
discover a room full of perfectly preserved computer monitors. Not
knowing what these oddly shaped things were used for, they will examine
them from all sides. On seeing their faces reflected dimly out of the
black glass, they will marvel at how crude and awkward mirrors were at
the beginning of the twenty-first century. They will wonder why people
spent so much time looking at themselves in a glass darkly.

Have a lugubrious day,
CXEV at Musica.McGill. Ca


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