Computing and its consequences

HPSS*S689 -- Blumberg

Notes: Thursday, January 3

1. The syllabus

Why study the history and philosophy of technology?

"The hand mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam mill society with the industrial capitalist." Karl Marx, from The Poverty of Philosophy (1846-1847)

"The machine accommodates itself to the weakness of the human being in order to make the weak human being into a machine." Karl Marx, from Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.

"’Globalization’ is understood as a competition between foreign companies and American companies for jobs. But it was nothing of the sort. The revolution that began around the start of the 1970s was technological, and its practical effect was to break down America's former oligopolistic production system into worldwide supply chains in which components or services were added depending on wherever they could be done best and most cheaply."  Robert Reich, from Supercapitalism (2007)

 Why privilege computers or computing?

a. Compare computers with refrigeration technology.

b. Compare the rise of computing with the advent of television.

Like the industrial revolution, the computer revolution has changed the meaning of work for large numbers of people; but unlike industrial machinery the success of the computer is having an unprecedented impact on: our sense of self; our beliefs about the nature of communication and community; our ideas about institutions; and the way we conceive of and/or value the human condition.

 Why this course?

By combining history, philosophy, and social science in our examination of computers and computing, we'll try to evaluate the claim that not a single significant aspect of human life has been unaffected by the advent and triumph of computing. We’ll also try to develop a concrete meaning/interpretation of larger claims about technology as they apply to computing. For example:

“Technological change is in large part responsible for the evolution of such basic parameters of the human condition as the size of the world population, life expectancy, education levels, material standards of living, the nature of work, community health care, war, and the effects of human activities on the natural environment. One does not have to embrace any strong form of technological determinism or be a historical materialist to acknowledge that technological capability... is a key determinant of the ground rules within which the game of human civilization is played out at any given [time]."  Nick Bostrom, "Technological revolution and the problem of prediction." (2007)

2. Who is here?

We'll spend some time on introductions, asking everyone to say why they signed up for this course, and what they've been paying attention to most these days.

3. Michael Mahoney and the "Histories of computing”

If the turn of the 20th century was a glorious age for the Encyclopedia, we might say the turn of the 21st century heralds something new: the age of the “Wikipedia” (or something like this that privileges multiple perspectives in different ways of telling stories). Needless to say, presenting the history of a particular science or discipline was easier in the age of the Encyclopedia, at least if you believe in a modern notion of truth. So:

What makes for a good history of science or any discipline?

What would be the qualities of good history of an institution like RISD?

What are the qualities of a good history of a nation?

What are the qualities of a good history of a person?

In Mahoney's article, he makes clear that there are different ways to tell the history of computing. Two perspectives which providence very different accounts are: a) the machine centered version (figure 1); and b) the communities of computing version (figure 5). As all explanation is relative to a description, it will matter how we describe the history and philosophy of computing if/when we wish to explain its consequences.

4. Modern Times vs. The Matrix

As we look at the opening scenes of these two films, you're some questions to consider:

How do these movies highlight differences between industrial and computing technology?

How do these movies highlight similarities between the two as technologies-in-society?

How does each film represent a contemporary morality or set of moral or ethical norms?

How does each film represent "the human condition"?

5. For Next time:

Read Mahoney’s “Histories of computing”

Read Turing's 1950 paper, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”

Read the first page of Shannon's 1948 paper, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication”

Buy the books for the course and begin reading at least one of them.