4.0395 Why "computers"; Jim Sledd (2/74)

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Mon, 20 Aug 90 18:20:49 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 4, No. 0395. Monday, 20 Aug 1990.

(1) Date: 19 Aug 90 11:27:26 EST (33 lines)
From: James O'Donnell <JODONNEL@PENNSAS>
Subject: Why do we call them computers?

(2) Date: Fri, 17 Aug 90 10:29:21 EDT (41 lines)
From: Clarence Brown <CB@PUCC>
Subject: Jim Sledd and the Texas Comp Wars

(1) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: 19 Aug 90 11:27:26 EST
From: James O'Donnell <JODONNEL@PENNSAS>
Subject: Why do we call them computers?

From: Jim O'Donnell (Penn, Classics)

Why do we (still) call them computers? They were invented to do
high-speed numerical calculations, and the concepts on which the most
fundamental levels of programming (machine language, if they still call
it that) rely are mathematical in origin, but in the last decade at
least the range of uses has penetrated a wide range of very
un-mathematical manipulations of information.

My purpose in asking is twofold: (1) The math/sci./engineering origins
of the machines seem to me to exercise still a baneful influence on the
way we manage our systems. Administrators of computer systems are more
often than not from the math/sci./engr. world and the way systems run
reflect their interests and concerns. E-mail, for example, is still a
ways away from becoming the ideal means for the interchange of
information because the character set is limited (at least on systems I
know) to the original ASCII 128 character set and because the software
for editing on our mainframes is worlds behind what we expect as a
minimum on our little PC's. If we envisioned `computers' not as
math/sci. tools but as instruments of communication, on the other hand,
it would seem natural to put humanists at the helm. (2) On a more
philosophical level, there is nothing about the physical structure of
the universe that requires `computers' to have at their heart a set of
structures designed on mathematical models. As I understand it, this is
part of what the AI people are struggling against. That everything in
the machine is done with 0's and 1's is not something intrinsic to the
nature of silicon and the movement of electricity, it is rather a
mathematician's conceptualization imposed on silicon and electrons.

So: any good substitutes for `computer/computing'? Any good substitutes
already in use in non-English (or preferably: non-European) languages?
(2) --------------------------------------------------------------50----
Date: Fri, 17 Aug 90 10:29:21 EDT
From: Clarence Brown <CB@PUCC>
Subject: Jim Sledd and the Texas Comp Wars

John Slatin asks me in his note of 11th August to explain my
"beautifully told anecdote [thanks] about Jim Sledd." My contribu-
tion was woefully beside the point of the Texas Comp Wars, I
realize, and was simply a sentimental tribute to a teacher who
meant a great deal to me (and to many others). What did Sledd mean
by telling me that in writing a projected paper on "Negro Poetry"
I would be writing about Negroes, not about poetry? I cannot tell
you what he meant. I can tell you, at most, what my 61-year-old
brain now thinks went through my 17-year-old brain after some time
spent pondering his observation. I thought he meant that I should
write about poetry as poetry, without any adjective attached to it;
that I should write about poems not because they had been written
by Episcopalian women but because they were poems. My education
would be advanced, I think he thought, by considering the proposi-
tion that poetry was a special form of discourse, the merit of
which, if any, was not to be descried in the identity of its
author, its philosophical drift, and so on. Since I was the product
of a late Victorian education in a small Southern high school (no
blacks, no women, and almost no education) whose idea of poetry was
bounded on one side by the Baptist Hymnal and on the other by "The
Best Loved Poems of the American People," I had never encountered
anything remotely like this idea, which was sufficiently preposter-
ous to catch even my attention. Sledd sent me to read an article by
Hoyt Trowbridge in, I think, the "Sewannee Review." Can't remember
the title. From there I went on to read Crane, McKeon, McLean, and
the other Chicago critics and, most mind-blowing of all, the
"Poetics" itself. I later became the only Greek major in my class.
I believe that my term paper for Sledd in Freshman Composition 1
consisted of trying to read Wordsworth's "It is a beauteous
evening, calm and free" in the light of neo-Aristotelian doctrines
that I could not possibly, at that age, have understood. But the
issues that I then confronted altered my life, and I am grateful
that I was stopped from writing a paper in which I would have
dutifully admired Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen for producing
quite nice poems in spite of their obvious handicaps, magnanimously
overlooked by me. From this dual insult to black writers and to
poetry I was saved by Jim Sledd, to whom all honor.