[Humanist] 22.312 hardware and interpretation

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Nov 11 07:35:09 CET 2008

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 312.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    James Cummings <James.Cummings at oucs.ox.ac.uk>             (73)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist]  22.310 hardware and interpretation?

  [2]   From:    "maurizio lana" <m.lana at katamail.com>                     (25)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist]  22.310 hardware and interpretation?

        Date: Mon, 10 Nov 2008 08:54:09 +0000
        From: James Cummings <James.Cummings at oucs.ox.ac.uk>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist]  22.310 hardware and interpretation?
        In-Reply-To: <20081110062718.55EA2249DE at woodward.joyent.us>

Humanist Discussion Group wrote:
> Let me try out on everyone here an historical hypothesis and invite all 
> comers to pick at it for weaknesses.

I think that there is an assumption being made which isn't necessarily 
incorrect, but that reduces the complexity of our relationship with 
computers. The conception of remoteness and inaccessibility still 
persist with certain types of computing, even though we all now use 
computers daily.

> 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). 

You seem to imply that computers are now not physically inaccessible, 
formidable, and housed in separate places which large cooling demands. 
But, in fact, this is still the case.  True, you have on your desktop a 
computer that allows you to do some things, but more often than not you 
are using that computer to access websites, databases, servers, which 
are running (one hopes) on properly maintained servers in a climate and 
access controlled room elsewhere.  The joint academic network through 
which this message is sent relies on an infrastructure that is still 
kept remote.  A large portion of it runs through our own machine room 
here in Oxford, and I know I'm nearly deafened by the air conditioning 
noise when I go in there to tend to one of the servers I occasionally 
have to kick.  I know too that King's has such a room because I'm told 
that when a water pipe(!!) burst in it last year (or so) the KCL email 
was down for a week. Your computer in some cases is just the 
job-submission media; it is if you like the punch card (or the card 
punch, punch card, and the giving it to the sysadmin to queue up).

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

I think we still have this remoteness, and those in our fields who are 
in the position of the early pioneers of computing are still interacting 
with computers in a similarly remote way. It is just that the basic 
level of interaction with computers as a tool has risen because we all 
have them. However, if you are doing cutting edge GRID/e-research 
computing or similar, you are still submitting your work to some distant 
computer to process (which then sends it all around the world to various 
other computers before giving you an answer back). There are many whose 
computer tasks still take hours if not days, and I think that just 
because our daily functions with a computer have lost that remoteness, 
the nature of cutting edge research tasks you are thinking about still 
fall under the same conception of remote interaction.  That remoteness, 
however, is easier to interact with. However, your point certainly holds 
with the way we browse the web. It is only with the recent trend for 
web-based fully functional applications that we are just starting to 
break down the perspective of our interaction consisting of going to a 
number of discrete remote sites. Computing applications on smartphones 
and the like where we all carry a computer with us continually 
problematise this further; in most cases though we are still accessing 
services that we view as remote and much software is still on a 
client/server model.

I don't think the idea that we conceive of computing because of a legacy 
of the way early hardware systems developed, and I think had to develop 
in that way, is wrong.  But I worry that it is an over-simplification 
and that the vast variety of types of computer usage these days create a 
plethora of different forms of perceived interaction.

My two pence, for whatever that is worth these days,

Dr James Cummings, Research Technologies Service, University of Oxford
James dot Cummings at oucs dot ox dot ac dot uk

        Date: Mon, 10 Nov 2008 10:20:42 +0100
        From: "maurizio lana" <m.lana at katamail.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist]  22.310 hardware and interpretation?
        In-Reply-To: <20081110062718.55EA2249DE at woodward.joyent.us>

At 07.27 10/11/2008, Humanist Discussion Group wrote:
>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.
I agree to your view. this imprinting is perhaps responsible of the 
common manner of presenting the computer as a device allowing to do 
thing more quickly, more and more quickly. where does this speed 
bring us is not said or is not interesting. all this "love for speed" 
(or excitement for speed) could be in opposition to the times when 
one had to wait hours and days only to read in the printout "sintax 
error at line 12", and then other hours and days of waiting...

>So, what if we revised our idea to match what in fact we now have? How
>would that revised view shape the future?
i think that having the computer doing things for us more quickly and 
more precisely than we could, interacting with us, should mean that 
we have more time to think and more effectively.
too trivial, too simple "having time to think more"? it's possible, 
but i like it.

Maurizio Lana - ricercatore
Facoltà di Lettere e Filosofia
Università del Piemonte Orientale
via Manzoni 8, 13100 Vercelli
+39 347 7370925 

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