[Humanist] 22.579 logical thought and the historical record

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sun Mar 1 08:17:30 CET 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 579.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sat, 28 Feb 2009 09:54:41 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: logical thought & the historical record

Two things for you to consider. First, from a revered article, is a 
quotation to which insufficient attention has been paid; second is an 
observation on how the text of that article has been contextualized.

> Whenever logical processes of thought are employed—-that is, whenever
> thought for a time runs along an accepted groove—-there is an
> opportunity for the machine. Formal logic used to be a keen
> instrument in the hands of the teacher in his trying of students'
> souls. It is readily possible to construct a machine which will
> manipulate premises in accordance with formal logic, simply by the
> clever use of relay circuits. Put a set of premises into such a
> device and turn the crank, and it will readily pass out conclusion
> after conclusion, all in accordance with logical law, and with no
> more slips than would be expected of a keyboard adding machine.

Here Vannevar Bush, in "As We May Think", amidst much that now seems 
quaint (e.g. his reference to "relay circuits"), brilliantly gets to the 
heart of Mr Turing's design. A fine statement to put alongside others 
that envision computers like us.

When I attempted to record where this statement occurs, I discovered 
something I had not noticed before. Bush's article is easy to get one's 
digital hands on; even the original publisher now features it, at 
www.theatlantic.com/doc/194507/bush. But, with all the book-learning to 
which I have been subjected, I reached for a solid codex, namely James 
M. Nyce and Paul Kahn, eds., From Memex to Hypertext: Vannevar Bush and 
the Mind's Machine (Boston: Academic Press, 1991). I found the quotation 
on page 98. Nyce and Kahn did an interesting thing, however. They 
reprinted not simply the Atlantic Monthly original but a composite form 
of the text indicating, by means of italics and bold, words that, 
respectively, were deleted from and added to the original text when it 
was republished in Life Magazine later the same year (1945). Nyce and 
Kahn also give the editors' notes from both, Life's prefatory list of 
"What Dr. Bush Foresees", and include the subheadings added by Life's 
editor (though they do not indicate the original numbered sections from 
the Atlantic Monthly version, which occur at different places. What 
Life's editor has done is what caught my attention.

This editor in effect translated Bush's article for the benefit of a 
public evidently more interested in predictions of the future than possibilities 
rooted in the historical moment. (Bush was, of course, looking to how 
clever people might use then present devices to build a better future, 
but the distinction is, I think, important.) Comparison of the two 
versions gives something like a snapshot in the development of a 
triumphalist chronicle.

This is the Life's editor's list of what Dr Bush foresees:

-- A "Cyclops Camera", worn on the forehead, so that you can record whatever you see for future reference, with photographs developed at once by dry photography. 

-- Microfilm so that the Encyclopaedia Britannica can be reduced to the size of a matchbox costing 5 cents. "Thus a whole library could be kept in a desk."

-- A machine that would type out whatever you spoke into it. "But you might have to talk a special phonetic language to this mechanical supersecretary."

-- A "thinking machine" or mathmatical calculator. "Give it premises and it would pass out conclusions, all in accordance with logic."

-- The Memex, an aid to memory. "Like the brain, Memex would file material by association. Press a key and it would run through a 'trail' of facts."

It would be an interesting exercise, I think, to make a list, compare it to the above, and account for the differences -- what we discard, what we keep, what we change.



Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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