Computing and its consequences

HPSS*S689 -- Blumberg

Notes: January 8 & 10


Motivation #1: Last time I mentioned Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone and Jo expressed some incredulous as about the possibility of such alienation and isolation in an age of such numerous and easy connections. Thinking about it later, I was struck by how common this puzzling aspect of information is: When we consider the most important aspects of our lives (health, environment, education, etc.) we find the same sort of paradox: deterioration apparently unaffected by the ubiquity, or lease the easy availability, of information that “should” solve such problems. What do you make of this?


Motivation #2: Watching excerpts from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times and The Matrix, we’ll consider the similarities and differences between the so-called Machine Age is so-called Digital Age.  Might we consider Alan Turing’s 1950 paper a transitional artifact connecting the two?

 1. Themes/questions/comparisons for watching Modern Times and The Matrix.

a)      Consider the proposed/represented/most & least desirable relationships between humans and machines.

b)      Consider the claims about human freedom, first-person autonomy, and personality.

c)      Consider the significance of physicality in general and the human body in particular.

d)      Consider the representation of “the human condition”.

e)      Consider the claims about the reality of a world of common experience(s).

2.   Thoughts on Mahoney’s “histories of computing”.

       a) What did you highlight, underline, or otherwise mark when you read the paper?

       b) Does it matter to you how history is done?

                   c) What questions should a good history of modern computing answer?

3. A. M. Turning’s “Computing machinery and intelligence” (1950)

a) We’ll go through Turing’s paper section by section, paying close attention to both the assumptions he makes in the arguments that are grounded in its assumptions.  We’ll briefly discussed the idea of a computer in this paper, and what is meant by a finite state machine, but believe the technical details of the so-called Turing machine for the last half of the class today.

4. For Thursday: 

--- Have a chat with a ‘bot’ on the Turing Test Page.

--- Write a 2-page reaction to the juxtaposition of the Modern Times and The Matrix clips (and be prepared to hand/send this to me by the end of the day on Thursday)

Keep reading!! (i.e. Chorost, Ullman, Sunstein, Webster, et al).

Thursday, January 10

We may thus expect a thorough exteriorisation of knowledge with respect to the “knower,” at whatever point he or she may occupy in the knowledge process. The old principle that the acquisition of knowledge is indissociable from the training (Bildung) of minds, or even of individuals, is becoming obsolete and will become ever more so. The relationships of the suppliers and users of knowledge to the knowledge they supply and use is now tending, and will increasingly tend, to assume the form already taken by the relationship of commodity producers and consumers to the commodities they produce and consume – that is, the form of value. Knowledge is and will be produced in order to be sold, it is and will be consumed in order to be valorised in a new production: in both cases, the goal is exchange.

Knowledge ceases to be an end in itself, it loses its “use-value.”

 (from The Postmodern Condition, by Jean-Francois Lyotard [1979])

5. Turing (1950) continued

a) We’ll take up the “objections” considered by Turning and discuss which (if any) seem most compelling today. We’ll discuss your experiences chatting with “bots” and also John Searle’s famous critique of the claim that the mind can be considered a computer.

b) Regardless of the validity of Turing’s argument, the impact of his approach to the question of machine intelligence has been enormous. We’ll examine the quotation from Lyotard’s famous monograph (above) and figure out the right questions to ask in order to understand what happened after 1950 to make Lyotard’s claims plausible.

6. Numbers and Their Representations

a) We’ll talk about different methods for representing numbers and focus on what’s significant about positional notation in the history of computing.

b) In 1936 Turing wrote a famous paper on “computable numbers”. We’ll talk about what he meant by this phrase and why the intellectual construct of a “Turing Machine” proved so powerful.

c) In 1948, Shannon proposed a theory of information that gave us the modern meaning of “bit”. We’ll discuss his approach and how an abstract theory of information relates to some of the observations you made about the differences between the “machine age” and the “digital age.”

7. For Next Week:      

--- Read the essays by Bush (1945), Englebart (1962), Mahoney (1989) and Hayles (1999). Please take notes on each these, and be prepared to speak about the claims/lines/passages you found most significant and/or puzzling.

            --- Remember that the Chorost/Ullman essay will be due on the 25th.