[Humanist] 26.105 the attractor

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Jun 21 22:29:20 CEST 2012

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 26, No. 105.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Wed, 20 Jun 2012 14:34:23 -0700
        From: Jascha Kessler <urim1 at verizon.net>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 26.104 what is/was the attractor?
        In-Reply-To: <20120620205819.68A8A2830D7 at woodward.joyent.us>

Apart from the *like * of a Miller, let us go back a century.  At a party
once at the apartment of the Israeli consul, there was an old geezer I was
talking to [not meant disrepectfully, but fondly, especially since I may
well be older at this hour than he was then].  The type was familiar to me,
Russian Jewish emigré, was were my people, accent and restlessness and all.
He related: at first he entered Canada, and lived in Windsor, working as a
carriage-maker partnered with another young fellow named Henry Ford.  After
some years Ford proposed they move the business across the border to
Detroit, and turn to manufacturing horseless carriages.

He didnt take to that fairly risky notion; instead, he chose to go West,
homesteading beyond Calgary: free acreage, tools, and a party-telephone
line to reduce loneliness on the vast and empty prairie.  One thing led to
another, and he married a single, or widowed? homesteader woman out there,
met on the wire. And then into America and other manufactures.

Ford imagined a vehicle for the many, and then the roads had to be built,
which are still a-building, across the Continent.

Similarly, I went from a portable Smith-Corona, on which I wrote a
Dissertation in the summer of 1954 — wrote?  hammered out! — and then over
a decade progressed to electric portables, then office machines like the
Olympia, and then in the later 60s to IBM electric, and then to IBM ball
font, the last of which was a sales failure, with about 3 pages of typed
memory, and writers need to retype errors all the time, and the whole
paper, because the spacings change. IBM came to pick it up and give me back
600$ of the original 2300$.  I found Apple I, II too hard to work, though
my computer teenage son taught my wife to earliest word app.  I waited and
got the first Mac Plus via Stanford U., since the PCs were, my son said,
good for little, and still are in his view. On that little computer I had
10 days to produce a  paper for an international seminar in Budapest in the
early '70s.

None of that is digital Humanities or even computing, as Willard's
communicants are; but neither was it hard to sell the world, since electric
calculating machines for bookkeeping were everywhere after the War.
The analogy for success is the small motor for the horseless carriage.  How
many of our DH group are happy to lift the hood of Jaguar, a BMW, or even a
Ford these days?  Who needs to know the innards? Suffice it, they work,
when they do.  [Although getting into the front seat of a friend's new
Lexus was a scary thing last month: it might as well have been a jet
airplane, so very many lights, controls, dicey-nicey or nicey-dicey
functions flashed at one, including GPS screen tracing and tracking us all
the way [big blocks] to the restaurant.

Similarly, the thing is a bit egregious today, as a review in the WSJ of a
new competitor for iPhone reveals...apps and steps galore, a swampy jungle
of them.

Which will bring some, I think, to remark, What can remain æsthetic
tomorrow about computing if it is not hidden completely, under the hood, so
to say?  As in solid state drives, cameras, and the rest?

In short, change and novelty have a deep history, usually, from sling to
arbalest to grenade launcher...but I do think the *æsthetic* resides in the
maths and physics of technology, much as the calculus came out of Roger
Bacon's efforts to "compute" trajectory for cannon balls...?

Jascha Kessler

On Wed, Jun 20, 2012 at 1:58 PM, Humanist Discussion Group <
willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:

>                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 26, No. 104.
>            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                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
> itself.
> Any ideas?
> Yours,
> WM
> --
> 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/

Jascha Kessler
Professor of English & Modern Literature, UCLA
Telephone/Facsimile: 310.393.4648

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