[Humanist] 24.577 hardware of the imagination?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat Dec 11 10:28:20 CET 2010

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 577.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sat, 11 Dec 2010 09:18:36 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: imaginative hardware?

In the 1990s programmable devices known as "Field Programmable Gate 
Arrays" (FPGAs) -- allowing the functionality and structure of 
electronic devices to be altered in real time, in the field -- made 
possible the development of circuits with some of the versatility of 
biological entities "and sparked a renaissance in the field of 
bio-inspired electronics with the birth of what is generally known as 
evolvable hardware". There followed, in 1996, the conference known as 
the International Conference of Evolvable Systems (ICES), which has met 
continuously since then, and a series under the Springer rubric of 
Lecture Notes in Computer Science (from the 2010 volume of which I have 
been paraphrasing and quoting). Since then there's also been a fair 
amount of work integrating craft materials and computational objects, at 
least some of which tends to be reported at the Creativity and Cognition 
symposium, meeting since 1993 (dilab.gatech.edu/ccc/index.html).

Whether the person who used the word "renaissance" actually intended to 
allege a REbirth I cannot say, but the emergence of interest in the 
early to mid 1990s certainly was that. Ernest Edmonds, in his 
introduction to the concerns of Creativity and Cognition, points to some 
of the earlier developments and stirrings, which go back, as he says, 
more than 20 years before C&C began.

One such that concerns me is the work done by Gordon Pask (1928-1996), the "mechanic 
philosopher" (as he called himself) who built "maverick machines". He 
collaborated, for example, with the systems scientist and operations 
researcher Stafford Beer, cyberneticist Heinz von Foerster and the 
computational linguist Robin McKinnon-Wood, colleague of Margaret 
Masterman (Cambridge Language Unit). Quite apart from Pask's zany charm 
what interests me in particular is his thinking about the design of 
organic machines built from materials that develop their functions over 
time rather than being specified by design. He had in mind systems "with 
incomplete knowledge about the characteristics of individual [human] 
operators and how they learn" that would take the cybernetic approach of 
treating these operators as black boxes. Through interaction with the 
operator, the system and the operator would eventually establish a 
stable relation -- a companionship, as it were.

The central scientific question Pask et al. were asking was, what if 
construction of a computational object proceeds not by a full 
specification of it but by the design of some broad constraints on 
processes that lead to increased organization, the result of which -- 
with some good probability -- is the desired artefact? Traditional 
engineering, they argued, allows us only to learn how well we understand 
how to build something, i.e. how to *model* it. That, as we all know, is 
very useful and goes after the epistemological question, of how we know 
what we know. But what about drawing forth, even creating new scientific 
problems? Or, to put the matter closer to our usual concerns, what about 
going after the work of art (verbal, visual, plastic, musical) that we 
collaborate to bring into existence when we read or look at or feel or 
listen to that which an artist has made?

(For more on Pask see, for example, Jon Bird and Ezequiel Di Paolo, 
"Gordon Pask and his Maverick Machines", in The Mechanical Mind in 
History, ed. Philip Husbands, Owen Holland and Michael Wheeler (MIT 
Press 2008): 185-211, from which I have been quoting and paraphrasing.)

I have, as you can see, an exploding research topic on my hands. Any 
help increasing the reach or thoroughness of the explosion by pointers 
to good work on the topic(s) would be most appreciated. Sometimes an 
explosion is just what is needed to get out of a rut.

Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Professor, Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney,
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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