Home About Subscribe Search Member Area

Humanist Discussion Group

< Back to Volume 32

Humanist Archives: Feb. 18, 2019, 6:40 a.m. Humanist 32.470 - commercialisation of computing

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 32, No. 470.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                   Hosted by King's Digital Lab
                Submit to: humanist@dhhumanist.org

        Date: 2019-02-17 08:16:14+00:00
        From: Willard McCarty 
        Subject: commercialisation of computing

Reliable histories of computing, such as the few I list below, make the
point that in order for the very expensive technical research and
development of digital computing to proceed, the machine had to be
commercialised. (This meant, among other things, that a persuasive need
for computers, which represented a major investment for any business,
had to be dreamt up and made so attractive that resistance would become
futile. Much hype ensued. We wouldn't have what we have without it.
Whether we should is another one of those moral mazes.

Some here will know the entertaining story of IBM's promulgation of 
the phrase "fast moron" (and synonyms) to describe the computers during 
this early period. The widely publicised success of Arthur Samuel's 
checkers-playing software and other such developments had, it seemed, 
so spooked the public with fears of computers replacing humans that 
IBM in turn feared loss of sales. So the order went out to salesmen. 
For the story see Pamela McCorduck, Machines Who Think (1979), 
p. 159f. (Alas, I have never found confirmation of this story anywhere 
else, though the phrase in question is well attested. For the 
sophistication of Samuel's checkersplayer, see John Holland, 
Emergence: From Chaos to Order, Chapter 4.)

Even more serious is the matter of our indebtedness to the
military imperatives of warfare that came before commercialisation.
Without our beloved machine the hydrogen bomb wouldn't have been possible.
Without it and its precedessor would Humanist and the machine I am using
to write this ever have happened? We could argue this at great length,
but my point is the inextricable relation of digital computing with 
Dwight Eisenhower's "military-industrial complex". Perhaps someone here 
will be able to comment knowledgeably on the very long history of 
inventions made for warfare that were then domesticated and helped 
us humans live better, or at least longer and more comfortable, lives?

"Swords into plowshares" is the only answer I can think of. But
meanwhile it is a healthy move, I think, to read enough history to
realise how involved we are. Here are some suggestions; others most welcome.

Agar, Jon. The Government Machine: A Revolutionary History of the
Computer. MIT Press, 2003.

Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray. Compter: A History of the Information
Machine. Basic Books, 1996.

Ceruzzi, Paul E. A History of Modern Computing. MIT Press, 1999.

Cortada, James W. IBM: The Rise and Fall and Reinvention of a Global
Icon. MIT Press, 2019.

Mahoney, Michael S. Histories of Computing. Ed. Thomas Haigh. Harvard
University Press, 2011.

Pratt, Vernon. Thinking Machines: The Evolution of Artificial
Intelligence. Basil Blackwell, 1987.


Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/),
Professor emeritus, Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London;
Adjunct Professor, Western Sydney University; Editor, Interdisciplinary
Science Reviews (www.tandfonline.com/loi/yisr20) and Humanist

Unsubscribe at: http://dhhumanist.org/Restricted
List posts to: humanist@dhhumanist.org
List info and archives at at: http://dhhumanist.org
Listmember interface at: http://dhhumanist.org/Restricted/
Subscribe at: http://dhhumanist.org/membership_form.php

Editor: Willard McCarty (King's College London, U.K.; Western Sydney University, Australia)
Software designer: Malgosia Askanas (Mind-Crafts)

This site is maintained under a service level agreement by King's Digital Lab.