4.0215 Meditations on Knowledge and Computing (Retransmission)

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Thu, 28 Jun 90 17:32:13 EDT

[This is a reposting of a digest that got mangled earlier in the week. eds.]

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 4, No. 0215. Monday, 25 Jun 1990.

Date: Fri, 22 Jun 90 15:46:12 -0500
From: Alan D Corre <corre@csd4.csd.uwm.edu>
Subject: One and Many

"I've learned a lot--and most of it doesn't apply anymore."--Charles E.
Exley, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of NCR Corporation, quoted in
the Wall Street Journal, June 20, 1990.

Mr. Exley's statement set me thinking, and I found that it applies to me
too. I became involved with computers around 1975 after a visit to
Professor Guido Alinei's computer project on Italian texts at the
University of Utrecht. Few Humanists were involved in computers at that
time, and it was very difficult to obtain any information, let alone get
involved. I started to learn about the Univac 1100 to which I had
access, and became quite proficient at its operating system. That
system was like a graveyard.

As new methods came in, the operating system accomodated to them, but
nothing was ever disposed of. Even today you can in theory edit a file
by punching individual corrections on individual cards--but there is no
longer a punch machine on which to punch the card or a reader to read it
once punched! As of next January no new accounts will be opened on that
reverend machine, and the following July it will be phased out entirely.
With that, my knowledge of the 1100 operating system will become totally

Unfortunately I have no conscious erase program in my head, and I guess
those neurons will stay active until they are food for worms. After
years of working with that cumbersome machine, the Apple II was like a
revelation. I loved Ken Bowles' neat operating system that was adapted
for Apple Pascal, and never understood why it did not become more widely
accepted. Although programs I wrote with that p-system are still in
use, I do not use it any more. At this point I feel that my useless
computer knowledge is greater in bulk that the knowledge that I can
actually use, and wonder for how long this has to continue. Is this
what is meant by "keeping up?" What a drag.

There has been some compensation, though. It has really been thrilling
and exciting to watch the way in which the computer world has bounded
ahead, even with my limited technical know-how. The kind of progress
that took centuries for some disciplines has taken just a few decades
for computers, and I am grateful to have been able to watch some of the
action. I heard a lecture by Grace Hopper, the computer veteran, who
related that in the forties she got into difficulties keeping her check
book in balance, and her accountant brother pointed out that she had
unwittingly started using octal arithmetic. I was unaware of computers
at that time when mental octal arithmetic was a prerequisite, but I am
happy to have witnessed, and in my way understood the enormous changes
that have taken place.

I have to contrast this, however, with my "real" area. I learned the
basics of Classical Hebrew forty-five years ago, and nothing has
changed. By definition it cannot; if you change it, it isn't Classical
Hebrew. True, we understand certain features better today than we did
before with the help of modern Linguistics. But the essentials are the
same, now and forever. The same applies to the texts to which the
language studies are the key. The insights and turns of phrase of a
Jeremiah, a Lucretius or a Shakespeare can be "run" again and again in
an individual life, and in the collective life of humankind, and never
become obsolete. And it's the same for great art and music. "The One
remains, the many change and pass." In some sense the classics are part
of the "One" and the snazzy new desk-top is part of the many, but there
does seem to be need for both. How we balance the two seems to me one
of the major current challenges for the humanist.