[Humanist] 22.310 hardware and interpretation?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Nov 10 07:27:18 CET 2008

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 310.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sun, 09 Nov 2008 10:41:38 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: hardware and interpretation?

Let me try out on everyone here an historical hypothesis and invite all 
comers to pick at it for weaknesses.

Once upon a time some here can remember, before time-sharing operating 
systems and networks, dealing with computers was a slow process. One 
thought in terms of the "turn-around time" between submission of a "job" 
and getting back the printout. If you were very important the 
turn-around time could be, say, a couple of hours, otherwise many more, 
even days. Computers were physically inaccessible and formidable, often 
housed in a building otherwise dedicated to engineering or physics, kept 
in rooms inaccessible to ordinary users, huge in size and noisy (because 
of the forced-air cooling which ran in conduits under the floor). 
Because of all this, in as close to a causal relationship as we get in 
the social world, computing came to mean something remote and in 
opposition to us but very powerful. But even for those who were 
intimates of the machine, such as Alan Turing, remoteness, opposition 
and power were characteristic, as Turing's famous test suggests.

Much has changed since then, of course. Indeed, I would suggest that our 
relationship to computing is more a kind of resonance than opposition. 
Now when one computes one "attends from" the machine to something else, 
as Polanyi said, in a rapid back-and-forth. Be that as it may, however, 
much of the talk about computing is as if it were still defined by remoteness,
opposition and power, as if computers were still as they were in the 1960s.

So my historical hypothesis is that in large measure how we think about 
computing bears the imprint of early hardware. We are still thinking of 
it as a matter of telling the machine to do something, the machine doing 
it and then evaluating the results.

So, what if we revised our idea to match what in fact we now have? How 
would that revised view shape the future?

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

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