[Humanist] 25.579 Winograd's Reactive Engine Paper

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Fri Dec 30 13:05:39 CET 2011

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 579.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Fri, 30 Dec 2011 12:02:43 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: The Reactive Engine Paper

Allow me to draw your attention to a speculative paper written by 
Stanford computer scientist Terry Winograd in October 1974, "The 
Reactive Engine Paper", which begins with the statement that,

> Time-sharing is obsolete because it is based on the assumption that a person
> interacting with a computer large enough to do serious work cannot make good use
> of its computing power except during a fraction of the time.

(If you don't know what "time-sharing" is, or rather was, then you have 
some preparatory reading to do.) Winograd then goes on to imagine what a 
machine dedicated to a single user would be like if designed best to 
serve that user. The paper was republished in The Best of Creative 
Computing, Volume 2 (1977), under "Languages and Programming Theory", 
which you can find at www.atariarchives.org. While you're there you 
might also want to check out Volumes 1 and 3 of that publication.

We can of course ooh! and aah! over Winograd's prescience, but I bring 
his paper to your attention because of the question he asks. He doesn't 
ask, as mostly people did at that time (and, alas, continue to do 
without awareness of the choice they're making and of its quite 
secondary nature), how can I use this machine that is in front of me to 
accomplish the tasks I have? He asks instead, what do I in fact do all 
the time and how might computing, properly conceived, be designed to 
serve that?


Professor Willard McCarty, Department of Digital Humanities, King's 
College London; Professor (fractional), University of Western Sydney; 
Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews (www.isr-journal.org); Editor, 
Humanist (www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist/); www.mccarty.org.uk/

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