4.0010 Computers: Superstition, Reification, & Stress (79)

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Tue, 8 May 90 16:59:24 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 4, No. 0010. Tuesday, 8 May 1990.

(1) Date: Tue, 8 May 90 10:55 EDT (38 lines)
From: John Lavagnino <LAV@brandeis.bitnet>
Subject: Explaining computers

(2) Date: Tue, 08 May 90 14:21:21 CDT (20 lines)
From: "Bill Ball" <C476721@UMCVMB>
Subject: anthropomorphizing machines

(3) Date: 8 May 1990, 16:05:09 EDT (21 lines)
Subject: the cruel joke of the paperless office ... [eds]

(1) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: Tue, 8 May 90 10:55 EDT
From: John Lavagnino <LAV@brandeis.bitnet>
Subject: Explaining computers

As a novice, as a systems programmer, as a graduate student in English,
I have never called a computer anything but "it." To think of computers
as people, or as supernatural entities rather than dull mechanisms,
isn't a way of thinking that seems helpful or natural to me---though I
admit I did use to ask people who complained that "it isn't working
right" whether they'd remembered to light the three black candles.

The superstition I evolved to explain computers is the notion of the
Humor Department. I was often struck when working with VAXes how their
software, generally pretty good, would tend to have unaccountable flaws.
An early C compiler from Digital, for example, included a very complete
library of the usual functions found on Unix systems---except for one or
two, and these were ones that amounted to a few lines of code, not
anything fancy. The people who wrote this compiler obviously knew what
they were doing. They couldn't have just forgotten. It would have been
easy to put these functions in. It must be the case, therefore, that
any product Digital develops has to go through the Humor Department
before it is released; and the Humor Department studies the product at
length and decides on one tiny change that can be made that will render
it almost useless.

To my mind, hardware and software do have personality traits, but only
in the same way that writing does: these traits derive from those of the
creator, and the creation doesn't have the ability to go off and develop
on its own. The Humor Department is a comic version of this view---the
"real" reason for these software failings is probably lack of
imagination and the usual resistance to the portability of software; but
no matter what, it's got to be human agency that's behind these things.

(By the way, my theory cannot be applied to other manufacturers without
modification. IBM, for example, does not have a Humor Department,
because the entire corporation is one vast Humor Department.)

John Lavagnino, Brandeis
(2) --------------------------------------------------------------28----
Date: Tue, 08 May 90 14:21:21 CDT
From: "Bill Ball" <C476721@UMCVMB>
Subject: anthropomorphizing machines

God I hope my computer is an IT. As often as I am elbow deep into its
internals, I'd need a MD or permission from some animal rights group if
it isn't.

Actually I have always resisted anthropomorphizing things, especially
consumer goods. Seems to me that endowing things with human qualities
is a two-way street. We might warm up to the things but we also tend to
make people more mechanical/manufactured/instrumental in our minds. The
good Dr Kant and I are disinclined to do that.

Well the thread on computer gender has been interesting, but in a way
it's too easy of a project. After all computers are tangible. Now what
kind of beast is 'the network'? How are we gonna reify that sucker?

((( Bill Ball c476721@UMCVMB ) Dept. Pol. Sci. ) U. Mo.-Columbia )

(3) --------------------------------------------------------------26----
Date: 8 May 1990, 16:05:09 EDT
Subject: the cruel joke of the paperless office and the sacrifice of
paper, skin and eyes

As a person who would like to bring back Zeus-worship because it would
help preserve oak trees, I like the idea of saving paper, and my office
is full of newspaper, cardboard and laser printer mistakes. I try to
save paper, but I do value it, in its place, over what I can see on a
VDT. A VDT, even in its best affordable present incarnation, causes us
to strain at focusing on a point about fifteen inches from our eyes, for
hours on end, with our necks and backs locked rigidly. The repetitive
motion of our fingers on the keyboard, while less cramping than writing
with the two fingers wrapped around a pen or pencil, creates an
occupational hazard of arthritic stress on wrist and finger bones.
Neither the seeing nor the sitting is exactly comfortable or natural.
Perhaps someone under fifty can resist getting headaches or cramped
fingers: hence young hackers. But computing is an unnatural act, done
mostly by shy people, privately, with some physical discomfort. Could
we get that straight, and then go on to talk about saving paper? Roy