[Humanist] 27.606 more nutty (or sensible?) behaviour

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Dec 10 07:44:44 CET 2013

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 27, No. 606.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Mon, 09 Dec 2013 08:44:45 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: more nutty (or sensible?) behaviour

While on the subject of reactions to computers in the early days, let me 
advance from the likes of Silicon Shock to a different kind of response 
-- what I think of as the genre of reassurance, of which John Shore's 
The Sachertorte Algorithm and Benn Ross Schneider, Jr.'s Travels in 
Computerland seem to me to belong. Of these two the latter draws my 
attention in particular for its curious style of presentation. The 
typography, quotations on the title page, table of contents and language 
evoke the sense of 18C travel literature, such as Robinson Crusoe and 
Gulliver's Travels. (Here is a good example of what text encoding would 
miss or handle poorly, the stuff to which a book historian would pay 
close attention, I'd think.)

The sense of genteel humour brought to what was then (in 1974) a 
delicate subject for many -- the computer in scholarship! -- is obvious. 
Looking at this book now, however, I wonder: is this not rather curious 
evidence of a deep unease? When someone tells you things are fine, you 
may wonder what there is to be worried about. When someone tells a joke 
you sometimes have to wonder, why this particular joke, told in this 
particular manner? Shore's book (1985) deals with the anxieties aroused 
by computing in quite a straightforward way, though the reassurances do 
raise questions. Chapter 1, for example, is entitled, "Intimidation and 
Anxiety". Chapter 11, "Electronic Cretins", alludes more interestingly 
to what by then had become a standard response to the fear of 
artificially intelligent "giant brains" -- according to Pamela 
McCorduck, this was initiated by IBM executives worried about loss of 
sales. Don't worry, they were saying, our machines are just "fast morons" 
(which was the usual term).

But Schneider's sense of humour? In the fairytales recorded/modified by 
the Brothers Grimm, scary situations, spilling of blood etc are hardly 
ameliorated. I am not at all sure I'd read some of them to small 
children. But I am also not at all sure it's a good idea to make 
monsters furry and friendly, such as the Cookie Monster -- to hide away 
completely the nature of the world we live in.

The historiographical problem is this: as Richard M. Fried says at the 
beginning of The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! Pagentry 
and Patriotism in Cold-War America (Oxford, 1998),

> School children did not "Duck and Cover" from atomic attack every
> school day. Adults may have worried more about car payments than
> Bolshevism -- though doubtless many would have liked this priority
> reversed. How did anti-communism settle into people's lives at times
> HUAC or McCarthy or lesser imitators were not in the news? We
> remember volcanic eruptions, but what of the fine dust?  (p. ix)

Recovering what computing meant to our predecessors, and so 
understanding what course they set us on, means sifting that fine dust, 
such as Schneider's stylistic quirks.


Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Research Group in Digital
Humanities, University of Western Sydney

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