[Humanist] 23.167 at one with the machine

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat Jul 18 08:57:20 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 167.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Fri, 17 Jul 2009 15:03:50 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: trying to repeat it

We all know the philosopher George Santayana's famous statement, from
The Life of Reason, vol 1, that "Those who cannot remember the past are
condemned to repeat it." Clearly he had disasters in mind. But there are
cases in which an historical exemplar begs to help us repeat in one area
of human endeavour what happened earlier in another. Surely we in
literary computing need all the help we can get. And that's my
motivation for labouring to be historical. Here's an instance.

In Between Human and Machine: Feedback, Control, and Computing before
Cybernetics (Johns Hopkins, 2002), David Mindell makes a very strong
case for the historical complexities of human-machine interaction as
this developed under conditions of warfare. In particular he shows how
(as in the case of Sperry Gyroscope),

> control systems reined in machinery, adding precision to bring
> technological power into the range of human perception and reaction.
> Aboard ships, the company's controls closed a feedback loop between
> the gyrocompass and the ship's wheel, leaving the helmsman to adjust
> its parameters, monitor its performance, or exchange control,
> depending on the circumstances. In aircraft, Sperry established a
> similar feedback loop between gyroscopic instruments and the
> airplane's control surfaces. Here the human operator was a newer
> breed, and automatic controls extended pilots' range by reducing
> their fatigue. In both cases the military services valued the
> regularity the feedback loops provided, and Sperry built automated
> aiming systems around the stabilized vehicles. In antiaircraft fire
> control, the human operators became part ofthe feedback loops,
> amplifying and interpreting data at each stage in a complex
> computation. (103)

Thus in a report in 1942, Sperry declared,

> There has come into being a whole new field of scientific accessories
> to extend the functions and the skill of the operator far beyond his
>  own strength, endurance, and abilities....

The cyborgian argument must be a familiar one. It was certainly in public
(as well as highly classified) circulation about that time, for example in
the pages of Life Magazine in an article in 1944, "Mechanical Brains:
Working in Metal Boxes, Computing Devices Aim Guns and Bombs with Inhuman
Accuracy", which featured the startling drawings of Alfred Crimi, showing a
human turret-gunner at one with his machine. (See the drawings held in the
digital archive of the Hagley Museum and Library,
http://tinyurl.com/nfm8ne.) Crimi also, as far as I can determine, did the
famous drawing of Vannevar Bush's Memex as this appeared in Life the
following year -- but don't hold me to this quite yet. (Anyone with further
information on Crimi please comment!)

In other words, we know that devices called at the time "computer" (devices
were called that by 1930 at the latest) were doing for warfare what we often
claim they are doing for scholarship. But the historical precedent isn't
just a passive connection. It has bite. These devices were cybernetic
systems long before Wiener called them that. As Mindell notes, in the 1930s
"the 'computer' was neither the machine nor its human operators but rather
the assemblage of the two" (98).

Time we went back to the 1930s for our future?



--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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