Weizenbaum: Rebel at Work

The INFOS09 conference in Berlin showed a film from 2006 about Joseph Weizenbaum, Rebel at Work, last night. They invited the filmmakers to discuss the film with the audience afterwards.

The film tells the biography of Joseph Weizenbaum, a critical voice in the tidal wave of technical enthusiasm that computer technology has brought us. His book "Computer Power and Human Reason" (Die Macht der Computer und die Ohnmacht der Vernunft) was first published in 1976 and is still important today for understanding computing ethics.

His stories of his early life as a Jewish boy in pre-WWII Berlin, intercut with some historic footage is quite interesting, but once the film follows him to the US things get chaotic. We have some interviews with his ex-wife (with no explaination offered for why she is an ex-), some nice pictures of him with other founding fathers of computing, and some bizarre clips from 50s films on what an engineer is and how to act during an atomic bomb attack: Duck and cover.

The sirens make me feel ill, as they remind me of my own childhood and the panic I felt when this siren would squeal, signaling yet another (we hoped) drill as we filed into the shelters or practiced ducking under our desks. I inquired after the film as to why they chose these sequences. Oh, they said, we wanted to give the audience a feel for the 50s in the US. Well, why didn't they focus on WonderBread? Play Elvis? Show a church service? Ah, well, it fit their pre-conceived notions, I suppose. The clips have nothing to do with Weizenbaum, and I found them jarring, as they often did not fit in the timeline that was jaging back and forth in time.

In the last third one of Weizenbaum's four daughters joins the story, speaking about reading in her father's library and such. Suddenly, the film is over. And in a voice-over during the credits, Weizenbaum asks for forgiveness for lies he may or may not have told.

It was nice to see him, and to hear his funny little stories. But I was not impressed with the film, as it does not tell the story promised in the title: Rebel at work. Perhaps "Pioneer now retired" would have been more fitting. There was nothing explaining his criticism of the belief in computer technology that so pervaded his time - it was assumed that the viewer understood this.

A few scenes were shown of him at a discussion at the University of Jena, but there was no clear explanation here either.

I had the supreme privilege of hearing him speak at the University of Kiel end of the 70s. I attended the talk, not knowing who he was, just because it was in English. But my, what a storyteller he was, and how he fascinated me with these foreign notions of ethics and responsibility for the technology we create.

I enjoyed reading his work over the years, and was happy when he came back to Germany after retiring from MIT. He was often a guest speaker at the Humboldt University, I attended a number of his talks. The plans for our soon to be published book [shameless plug!] on computing and ethics was born over a glass of wine after one of his talks, many years ago.

Joseph Weizenbaum died in 2008 - and a hardworking rebel he was. What a shame this does not come through in the film.

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