[Humanist] 22.323 hardware and interpretation

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Nov 13 07:24:45 CET 2008

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 323.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Thu, 13 Nov 2008 06:22:46 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist]  22.312 hardware and interpretation
        In-Reply-To: <20081111063509.2DBE024C07 at woodward.joyent.us>

I take James' point, that the computer systems with which I interact are 
 remote from me. But what I was getting at is the experience of the 
more or less ordinary person who interacts with computing these days. In 
the mid 1960s, when I got started, no one interacted with the machines 
except by going to a computing centre and negotiating across an input 
desk (if you were a user) or in a noisy machine room, with great, 
hulking cabinets etc. I did both. Then, as the years went on, I passed 
through each major stage in the development of computing, through 
terminal access in a computing centre, to a terminal in my study hooked 
up via an acoustic coupler modem etc etc.

Now I sit here, in front of this lovely, quiet machine, in my study 
miles from the first remote machine, which is to me no more than a 
ghostly abstraction. My relationship to my machine is so close that if 
it goes wonky, I feel wonky. Different utterly.

I still assert, contra James' message, that so much of our rhetoric 
about computing has not caught up with the reality. Cultural 
assimilation of technology takes a long time. What I suggest is that we 
examine how we talk, e.g. as if Mr Turing's test, which posits a machine on 
the other side of a barrier, is the right way to think about artificial 



Humanist Discussion Group wrote:
>                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 312.
>          Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
>                        www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                 Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>   [1]   From:    James Cummings <James.Cummings at oucs.ox.ac.uk>             (73)
>         > 
>   [2]   From:    "maurizio lana" <m.lana at katamail.com>                     (25)
>         Subject: Re: [Humanist]  22.310 hardware and interpretation?
> --[1]------------------------------------------------------------------------
>         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,
> -James

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