File /Humanist.vol22.txt, message 322


From: Humanist Discussion Group <willard.mccarty-AT-mccarty.org.uk>
To: humanist-AT-lists.digitalhumanities.org
Date: Fri, 14 Nov 2008 10:06:22 +0000 (GMT)
Subject: [Humanist]  22.324 hardware and interpretation


                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 324.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
                Submit to: humanist-AT-lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    James Cummings <James.Cummings-AT-oucs.ox.ac.uk>             (58)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist]  22.323 hardware and interpretation

  [2]   From:    John Laudun <jlaudun-AT-mac.com>                             (66)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist]  22.323 hardware and interpretation


--[1]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Thu, 13 Nov 2008 11:46:10 +0000
        From: James Cummings <James.Cummings-AT-oucs.ox.ac.uk>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist]  22.323 hardware and interpretation
        In-Reply-To: <20081113062445.0A81B26C4A-AT-woodward.joyent.us>

Humanist Discussion Group wrote:
> I take James' point, that the computer systems with which I interact are 
>  remote from me. But what I was getting at is the experience of the 
> more or less ordinary person who interacts with computing these days. In 
> the mid 1960s, when I got started, no one interacted with the machines 
> except by going to a computing centre and negotiating across an input 
> desk (if you were a user) or in a noisy machine room, with great, 
> hulking cabinets etc. I did both. Then, as the years went on, I passed 
> through each major stage in the development of computing, through 
> terminal access in a computing centre, to a terminal in my study hooked 
> up via an acoustic coupler modem etc etc.

My argument is simply that you were not a 'more or less ordinary person' 
at that point.  The ordinary people weren't using computers in the mid 
60s, so if you were then you were then in the same category as those who 
are now pushing the boundaries of computing.  In those 
boundary-stretching types of research, I think the computing model is 
still client/server but just in an increasingly distributed way.  It 
isn't that I imagine one computer out there processing my request, but 
an amorphous cloud of them.  At a very basic level ordinary people of 
the 60s had the same experience as I do in front of my desktop computer 
today; like me they pressed a key and saw a letter appear before them, 
the difference was they were using a typewriter.

> Now I sit here, in front of this lovely, quiet machine, in my study 
> miles from the first remote machine, which is to me no more than a 
> ghostly abstraction. My relationship to my machine is so close that if 
> it goes wonky, I feel wonky. Different utterly.

That is certainly true, and I don't disagree with that aspect of your 
analogy.  And certainly the 1960s ordinary person wouldn't really care 
that their typewriter ribbon had run out, they'd just be annoyed that it 
happened in the middle of a letter.  But I don't think they'd feel as 
'wonky' as we might when we've not checked our email for a few days (or 
hours in my case).

> I still assert, contra James' message, that so much of our rhetoric 
> about computing has not caught up with the reality. Cultural 
> assimilation of technology takes a long time. What I suggest is that we 
> examine how we talk, e.g. as if Mr Turing's test, which posits a machine on 
> the other side of a barrier, is the right way to think about artificial 
> intelligence.

I don't disagree that our rhetoric hasn't caught up... you are right 
that it is stuck back in the 60s with then a few additional terms and 
concepts added here and there. I simply don't think a modern metaphor of 
computing can only be in opposition to the 1960s client/remoteServer 
viewpoint.  I think that (sometimes accurate) perception of computing 
needs to exist alongside the views of a personal gadget, an amorphous 
cloud, clusters networked interactions, etc.  For a modern Turing test, 
we might a imagine whether not only a single individual could be 
mimicked, but an entire online community of individuals with varying 
levels and methods of interaction. But I can't think of how you would 
set up a modern Turing test without there being the perception of the 
other 'person' or persons being remote in some way, otherwise how does 
the test work?  That's my creative limitations I'm sure.  I don't 
disagree that our interaction with computers has fundamentally changed, 
I just don't think it has changed to another single form of perceiving 
it, but multiple, complex and shifting forms.

-James
-- 
Dr James Cummings, Research Technologies Service, University of Oxford
James dot Cummings at oucs dot ox dot ac dot uk



--[2]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Thu, 13 Nov 2008 07:50:31 -0600
        From: John Laudun <jlaudun-AT-mac.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist]  22.323 hardware and interpretation
        In-Reply-To: <20081113062445.0A81B26C4A-AT-woodward.joyent.us>

> I still assert, contra James' message, that so much of our rhetoric
> about computing has not caught up with the reality. Cultural
> assimilation of technology takes a long time. What I suggest is that  
> we
> examine how we talk, e.g. as if Mr Turing's test, which posits a  
> machine on
> the other side of a barrier, is the right way to think about  
> artificial
> intelligence.

I confess that your first message caught my eye, but as a relative  
newcomer to this list, I did not feel comfortable jumping into the  
conversation right away. I think, however, that no one yet has offered  
up any examples of "what people say (or do) when they talk (and think)  
about computing," to borrow a phrase from Raymond Carver. I throw in  
the additional notion of doing because, as a folklorist, I think  
people's thinking is revealed across a wide spectrum of behavior.

At a casual level, I think there must be something like "two cultures  
of computing." The first culture captures a lot of how most people  
think about and work with computers -- and I am distinguishing between  
computers here and other kinds of devices, like cell phones, which are  
in fact specially purposed, but still very capable, computers, e.g.,  
the iPhone. At this end of the spectrum -- because it may be better to  
think in terms of a continuum instead of two bounded domains of  
behavior -- computers are instrumental and locative. People will often  
say they are "at" the computer or "on" the computer. Also in this  
domain people will talk about how the computer "won't do what I want  
it to do," as if it were a faulty and/or complicated tool. It's not  
that the computer has its own logic, but that it does not have any  
logic at all or its logic is incorrect.

At this moment of conflict of two logics, people will often say, as  
they will of other complex machines, that the computer "has a mind of  
its own." Computers can especially be fearsome in this way because  
they "talk to each other," which is not common to other machines. This  
is re-doubled by what a friend of mine once noted about his own  
experience of computers: that they were magic and not machines. For  
him, a senior folklorist who had traveled all over the world, magic  
was something where you did not know how the input was transformed  
into output. E.g., one time a series of clicks would result in one  
thing and another time, a seemingly different outcome. Machines, for  
him, produced predictable results.

That is, machines operate within the sphere of our comprehension,  
whereas computers are too complex, "too complicated," for most of us,  
and, doubling this effect, they seem capable of comprehending us --  
which is often how people understand the kind of social engineering or  
other uses of computers. They do not see human agents on the other  
side but only the computer itself.

This kind of thinking is different from the person who not only do  
things with a computer but in some ways have come to think with them.  
I don't know where one moves from one domain to another, and I'm not  
sure that the disorientation many of us feel when we do not have  
access to our computers and "their" networks is the best example. The  
poster who mentioned being without power and having to rely on his  
cell phone struck a "resonant" chord with me: after Gustave we were  
without power for a while and the way we kept family abreast of what  
was happening to us was by me posting to my Twitter account. It's also  
how we tracked the storm's progress.

I'm sorry this post got so long and probably adds so little to the  
conversation. I'll return to lurking now...

--
John Laudun
Department of English
University of Louisiana
Lafayette, LA 70506
laudun-AT-louisiana.edu
http://johnlaudun.org/
Twitter: johnlaudun



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