[Humanist] 26.104 what is/was the attractor?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Jun 20 22:58:06 CEST 2012

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 26, No. 104.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Thu, 21 Jun 2012 06:56:01 +1000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: what's the attractor?

Historically the question of what made computing successful is far more 
interesting than one might think. When the computer emerged from the 
scientific laboratories where it was developed for the purposes of 
calculation, there were no needs for it to satisfy. Those needs had to 
be created; people had to be sold on the idea -- and, of course, sold 
big time, since the machines were very expensive. But in the United 
States at least money wasn't a problem so much for high-priority items, 
so the need for salesmanship cannot simply be attributed to high cost.

Stories from researchers in non-technical areas, such as psychology, 
supply better clues, as does the reception of the microcomputer. In an 
interview, for example, George Miller, the cognitive psychologist 
responsible for WordNet (and many other things), talks about his 
discovery computing as a language in which he could at last articulate 
ideas he had which prior to that were mute. The book he wrote with 
Pribram and Galanter, Plans and the Structure of Behavior (1960) brims 
with the excitement of the discovery of this language. Another example 
is supplied by Theodor Holm Nelson (of "hypertext" fame), who in The 
Machine that Changed the World, part 3, comments that the release of the 
first computer kit, the Altair 8800, triggered such a rush for the 
machine (some people, he says, drove all night to get their kits) as to 
suggest a latent understanding of what computing could do. The narrator 
goes on to say that the hobbyists, e.g. in the Homebrew Computer Club, 
had no clear idea of anything they wanted to do other than to explore 
what could be done.

So, the question, what was the attractor, seems not to be satisfactorily 
answerable on practical grounds. One could say, people wanted to tinker 
or play, as with Legos and the like. But responses like Miller's suggest 
there's more to it than that.

So, let me ask: what attracted you? What still attracts? And, please, be 
honest about it. Perhaps even better, given my scholarly end in mind, 
would be pointers to reports from the likes of Miller -- people who were 
trying to say or do something at the time computing came along but who 
couldn't until they discovered the machine. As well as using the 
metaphor of a language, Miller also talks about computing as a catalyst 
to thought, suggesting that there was something cognitively in process 
being impeded by the lack. Similarly Nelson's word "latent" to describe 
a cognitive presence that once computing came within reach manifested 

Any ideas?

Willard McCarty, FRAI / Professor of Humanities Computing & Director of
the Doctoral Programme, Department of Digital Humanities, King's College
London; Professor, School of Computing, Engineering and Mathematics,
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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