[Humanist] 22.588 continuities and discontinuities

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Mar 3 12:27:34 CET 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 588.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 03 Mar 2009 11:13:20 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: continuities and discontinuities of computing

In his awakening book, The Counterfeiters, An Historical Comedy (Indiana 
University Press, 1968; rpt Dalkey Archive Press, 2005) -- thanks to 
John Lavagnino for pointing me to this -- Hugh Kenner leaps over the 
who-done-it-first quagmire in which attempts at technological history 
often get mired to an historical thesis I find compelling.

"The computer simulates thought when thought has been defined in a 
computer's way", he observes, "the automaton simulates man when man has 
been defined in an automaton's way." Kenner continues, with reference to 
Jacques de Vaucanson (1709-1782), maker of the mechanical duck, whose 
work inspired another maker of automata, whose 12-inch Silver Lady, with 
"eyes... full of imagination, and irresistible", Charles Babbage saw 
demonstrated as a boy. Babbage later purchased the ruined simulacrum, 
repaired and exhibited her in his drawing room. Kenner goes on to comment:

> There were automata long before Vaucanson -- histories of the subject
> commence with Hero of Alexandria (first century A.D.). There were
> mechanical aids to computation before Babbage -- Pascal designed a
> digital adding machine. But Hero and Pascal would not have called
> their artifacts simulators, but rather toys or tools, utilized by men
> who were metaphysically something other. The eighteenth and
> nineteenth centuries were less sure that man was other. To trace, in
> their automata, an advanced technology derived from looms and
> watches, enlightens us less than does consideration of their novel
> uncertainties about where, if indeed it existed, the boundary between
> man and simulacrum lay. If a man does nothing with his life but spin
> threads, then just how is a thread-spinning machine not a purified
> man? And indeed it can replace him....
> Not the automaton, but the concept of counterfeitable man, was the
 > age's characterizing achievement. (pp. 40-1)

The continuities of invention are surely important, down to our own day, 
but the more I peer into our rich and complex inheritance, the more they 
multiply, and intermix, and the more the discontinuities become urgent 
to consider.



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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