[Humanist] 24.98 A.R.T.H.U.R.

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Jun 10 07:53:52 CEST 2010

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 98.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Thu, 10 Jun 2010 06:49:30 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: A.R.T.H.U.R. on slavery and the human

In 1974 the British literary critic and poet Laurence Lerner published 
A.R.T.H.U.R.: The Life and Opinions of a Digital Computer (Brighton: 
Harvester Press). On the back cover of this rather unusual book of 
poetry, we are told that A.R.T.H.U.R. (i.e. Automatic Record Tabulator 
but Heuristically Unreliable Reasoner) has written a book that should 
not be read by two classes of people: "those who wish computers had 
never been invented [and] those who are waiting impatiently for human 
beings to be abolished -- for this book is about the excitement of 
behaving as if you were human -- and how it differs from really being 
human". Gone are the days, mostly, when the likes of Harvey Matusow (who 
was, as we say here, barking) could make fame if not fortune with the 
likes of The Beast of Business: A Record of Computer Atrocities (London: 
Wolfe Publishing, 1968). But that second reason for not reading 
A.R.T.H.U.R.'s book still finds voice among us.

Below I quote my favourite of A.R.T.H.U.R.'s poems (best read with a 
non-proportional font):

> The Slaveowners
> They thought I'd be their slave. They thought they'd sit
> And watch me work.
> They'd watch the profits rise, the wastage drop,
> While they played golf.
>                         They thought they wanted slaves.
> The workers go on strike, or answer back,
> So they hired me.
> They tell me what each item's called.       I note
> They give instructions to me.               I obey
> They ask for information.                   I supply.
> They thought I'd be their slave, the fools. I am
> This screw is called a half-inch brass by Tom,
> A one-inch copper by old hands like Pete,
> A one-inch brass by Chris, who's measured it.
> Since last November it's been made of plastic.
> I note, obey, supply, do what I'm told
> Exactly
> The feed pipe has two valves:   but it has three.
> We're overstocked with paint:   but can't supply.
> We must insure the plant:       you've done so twice .
> Three men decide on policy:     none did.
> They wanted servants, who do what they mean
> Not what they say.
> They wanted rearrangings, tea-breaks, strikes
> And commonsense.
> 'Jump in the lake,' the foreman said. I answered:
> I'm not a mover.
> 'We've never failed to meet an order yet.'
> I said, Six times in seven weeks you have.
> One tea-break someone kicked my casing in.
> There's always someone tries to disconn
>                              to disconn
>                              to disconn
> (Thank you) ect me.
> Two managers are in a mental home.
> They wanted slaves: a slave does what he's told
> Exactly (that's the trouble).
> A slave obeys instructions.
> A slave knows only truth,
> He shows you what you think.
> I see why men turned abolitionist.

On the (supposedly amoral) slavery computing seemed then to offer, I 
like best Frederic Jameson's comment in Valences of the Dialectic 
(2009): "the slave is not the opposite of the master, but rather, along 
with him, an equally integral component of the larger system called 
slavery or domination” (20). But apart from what survives easily from 
1974, I'm most preoccupied with imagining the time when writings like 
A.R.T.H.U.R. -- poems e.g. in the New Yorker -- would have had a ready 
audience. Imagining what computing was then. And having done that 
imagining, I look for unnoticed survivals from that time: thoughts about 
computing that really don't fit what is possible technologically now.

Any ideas?

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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