[Humanist] 29.150 machines, machines everywhere?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Jul 9 00:20:37 CEST 2015

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 29, No. 150.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Thu, 09 Jul 2015 08:06:14 +1000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: machines, machines everywhere?

In the New York Review of Books for 9 July Tim Flannery reports on Paul 
G. Falkowski, Life's Engines: How Microbes Made Earth Habitable 
(Princeton 2015), in "How you consist of trillions of tiny machines". He 

> At a personal level, Falkowski's work is also challenging. We are
> used to thinking of ourselves as composed of billions of cells, but
> Falkowski points out that we also consist of trillions of
> electrochemical machines that somehow coordinate their intricate
> activities in ways that allow our bodies and minds to function with
> the required reliability and precision. As we contemplate the
> evolution and maintenance of this complexity, wonder grows to near
> incredulity.

What interests me about Falkowski's argument here is its instantiation 
of human-as-machine on the nano-organismic level. This is not at all to 
say that he is somehow wrong to do this or wrong about it -- who are we 
to say? -- nor to remark on the quite amazing success of the 
human-machine metaphor, only to observe that we continue to talk in a 
particular way about ourselves, about the world. But before we get too far 
with this it's good to recall Minsky's point about what is meant here by 
"machine". Having grown up when and where I did, the word immediately 
and always conjures levers and gears, which try as I might I cannot 
dismiss. Which leads me to my question: what now do we mean by 
"machine"? And, apart from the tendency to find them, whatever they 
are, wherever we look, how is this meaning structuring our thoughts? 
(Or is "structuring" itself all wrong?)

And why do such thoughts belong here? I think because we're 
self-identified as bringing machines into the study of the arts and 
letters. Are we bringing these machines home?

Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Digital Humanities Research
Group, University of Western Sydney

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