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Humanist Archives: July 20, 2020, 7:16 a.m. Humanist 34.176 - the role of the IBM System 360 &c.

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 34, No. 176.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                   Hosted by King's Digital Lab
                Submit to: humanist@dhhumanist.org

        Date: 2020-07-18 19:49:57+00:00
        From: Reg Harbeck  
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 34.174: the role of the IBM System 360 &c.

Reading Willard's thoughts below (thank you Dr. McCarty) has invoked some
thoughts of my own that I haven't had the opportunity to record previously. So,
with thanks to Willard for stirring up these thoughts, and appreciation for any
who will read, consider, and possibly offer feedback to correct or fine-tune my
thinking, here are some things that might seem glibly obvious to pure-play
technologists, and yet from a humanities perspective seem important and
underappreciated to me:

First, it seems that every time we "level up" with automation we think we've
achieved some kind of escape velocity from the human condition, but when we have
fully established ourselves on that "next level," including computerization and
automation, we find ourselves once again face to face with ourselves. That
suggests to me that the latest "superhuman" thinking such as the singularity and
transhumanism (both of which I've researched and written about as part of my
degree - glad to share any of that with anyone who requests them, keeping in
mind that they're just assignments, and not publication-ready) will likely have
the same results once we've gained those "pinnacles" and are reflecting on our
newfound circumstances.

Second, that automation doesn't replace craftsmanship, it just offers a "good
enough" commodity functionality that allows people of genius and motivation to
bring their talents and insights to bear on the next layer of challenges.
However, the quality of that foundational layer does set the stage for future
capacities. So, with the early mainframes, built with a level of craftsmanship
that was standard among professionals of that time, there is a reliable solidity
of functionality that subsequent layers can take for granted. On the other hand,
platforms that were built as inexpensively as possible to be "good enough" as
commodity consumer electronics computing grew up with inherent weaknesses that
continue to be fertile soil for every kind of security and functionality problem
as each additional layer of features is piled on these feet of clay.

Third, that those who inherit future "layers" on top of the early foundations
will never understand the underlying layers as anything but ambient context, and
will understand the functionality of the platforms as they inherit them from the
perspective of the then-current level of technology. While you can dig into
history and the numerous layers of standards, interfaces, software, operating
systems, drivers, and hardware, unless you've worked directly with them in their
"raw" functionality without higher layers building on their behaviours, their
essential natures will seem esoteric and disconnected from practical
understanding beyond providing support for the then-current layer.

I suppose that, in addition to "let me help you put that more clearly," and
"well, maybe you should it put it this way, instead," some who read the above
may be tempted to say, "huh?" I invite all three responses. It is my hope to
stop preaching only to the choir someday and start writing this stuff for the
general public, so any guidance about how to put such thoughts so they are valid
and comprehensible to non-technologists will be gratefully received.

And, thank you again Dr. McCarty!

- Reg Harbeck

On Sat, 18 Jul 2020 06:27:01 -0000, Humanist  wrote:

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 34, No. 174.
Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
Hosted by King's Digital Lab
Submit to: humanist@dhhumanist.org

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)
Software designer: Malgosia Askanas (Mind-Crafts)

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