[Humanist] 23.312 why ideas don't catch on

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Sep 22 08:00:43 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 312.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Mon, 21 Sep 2009 16:26:06 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: why ideas don't catch on

Reviewing the crucial transition in the history of AI between comparing 
two sets of hardware (brain vs computer) to comparing to sets of 
functions (thinking vs information processing), Pamela McCorduck 
considers why the information processing model didn't catch on in the 
U.K. until the mid 1960s:

> That's a curiosity, for it might seem now that the information
> processing model for formalizing intelligent behavior had been
> anticipated by workers in the 1940s, and was just waiting to be
> seized by anyone with open eyes. Indeed, how was this approach to be
> avoided? Those concerned were open-eyed people -- the Ratio Club in
> London, the Teleological Society, and the Macy meetings in the United
> States -- all devoted to the mathematical analysis of the nervous
> system (and as Wiener notes, you cannot study the nervous system
> without studying the mind), and the digital computer was at hand, a
> medium for realizing all those formalisms shimmering with promise.
> Surely psychologists and physiologists sang hosannas to celebrate the
> possibility of a scientific solution to the mind-body problem and,
> metaphorically speaking, hoisted to their shoulders these heroic
> pioneers.

She concludes,

> No. Science is a human institution, and things don't work that way.
> While some did leap at the new ideas and wanted to apply them to
> everything under the sun, the evidence of the scientific journals is
> that the new thinking was a long time being adopted, and that in fact
> cybernetics had all but disappeared as a field by the time its
> contributions were coming to be widely applied. (Machines Who Think, p. 68)

I certainly hope that we don't all disappear by the time our ideas and 
institutional structures are widely adopted. But there is here a useful 
caution, that just because the ideas don't catch on does not mean that 
the fault lies with them! We pride ourselves with work which 
fundamentally changes things (or so we believe, and say). It's not 
surprising, I suppose, that there should be considerable resistance, esp 
from those who have the most to lose.



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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