[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
                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
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        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.

Comments?

Yours,
WM

-- 
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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