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Humanist Archives: July 18, 2020, 7:27 a.m. Humanist 34.174 - the role of the IBM System 360 &c.

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 34, No. 174.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
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    [1]    From: Reg Harbeck  
           Subject: Re: [Humanist] 34.170: the role of the IBM System 360 & successors (31)

    [2]    From: Willard McCarty 
           Subject: perceptions of mainframes (42)

        Date: 2020-07-17 18:56:03+00:00
        From: Reg Harbeck  
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 34.170: the role of the IBM System 360 & successors

Thank you, Henry!

I'm optimistic that I'm writing my thesis at an inflection point in the history
of computing when we're ready to move from raw functionality to proto-wisdom.

One reason for this is the end of Moore's Law, which means that all the
platforms that have been relying on ever-expanding hardware capacity to make up
for inefficient bloatware are going to be seriously reconsidered, while the
wisdom-based principles, such as conservation of resources, that were brought to
bear in creating the earliest generations of computing, and which are still
inherent in platforms such as the System/360-descended mainframe, will start to
be taken much more seriously.

As we reconsider our future approaches to computing, we are also at a time when
we are more seriously considering the humanity in other aspects of society and
culture, while also retrenching on basic practical behaviours due to the

Bringing this together with the fact that the essential systems of record in the
world economy, such as those that run banks, credit cards, insurance, finance,
government tax/revenue/income supplements/military/etc., and other established,
large-scale operations, are still substantially based on IBM
System/360-descended mainframes, I think there is an important opportunity to
reconsider computing from a perspective of humanity and wisdom, not just

I look forward to further sharing on this topic with this list!

- Reg Harbeck

        Date: 2020-07-17 07:39:51+00:00
        From: Willard McCarty 
        Subject: perceptions of mainframes

For whatever it is worth, here is a brief recollection of my perceptions
of mainframe machines when I was a computer operator in the 1960s. It
does not concern the System 360 but may be relevant to Reg Harbeck's

Although I had a brief run-in with the IBM 704, my first sustained
encounter with a proper mainframe was with an IBM 7094. This was
followed by long exposure to a CDC 6600, whose input was managed by a
CDC 6400. To cut to the chase: I realised almost immediately when we
moved to the CDC (13 peripheral processors, at first 8 'simultaneous' 
jobs, then 64) that, as I thought of it at the time, the machine no 
longer needed me. As it finished with whatever jobs were current, it 
simply went on to other things. Formerly I had run the 7094 machine; 
now the 6600 was running itself.

Actually the change that I noticed was a widespread phenomenon of
automation, in which the role of the worker shifted to the role of a
supervisor remote from much of what was happening. The literature on
this aspect of the change is abundant. (See e.g. Lisanne Bainbridge,
"Ironies of automation" [1983], and Barry Strauch, "Ironies of
automation: Still unresolved after all these years" [2018].) 

On the ground, the change was remarkable enough that the memory of it 
has survived ca 55 years. One might say this was a personal experience 
of an 'ascent' up the computational layers of abstraction -- 
experienced as a curiosity and a loss. There was, I recall, a loss 
of the sense of craftsmanship, or something remotely akin to that. 
I regained a form of it when I became an assembly-language 
programmer, and of course again when many years later I had my own 
microcomputer. Impressionistically I would draw a connection between 
my sense of creative use or control and a relation to the machine 
of a more humane kind. But here we go into the fog, I fear.

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

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Editor: Willard McCarty (King's College London, U.K.; Western Sydney University, Australia)
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