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Humanist Archives: July 23, 2020, 7:08 a.m. Humanist 34.182 - strata of abstraction & the genesis of surprise

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 34, No. 182.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                   Hosted by King's Digital Lab
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        Date: 2020-07-23 05:48:29+00:00
        From: Willard McCarty 
        Subject: strata of abstraction & the genesis of surprise

I refer back to earlier this month, when I was floundering around for
ideas about what might escape those layers of abstraction, i.e. the
mechanisms in our digital machines constructed to make programming 
complex systems feasible and to hide information that we really 
don't need to see, such as all that the machine does to identify 
errors, correct them, ensure the machine's reliability.

I'd be foolish to speak against reliability, since I do want to get
things done -- things that to get done require nothing more or less than
the ability to 'attend from' whatever devices are involved with very
little or no need to 'attend to' them. (You will recognise Michael
Polanyi's terms, from his Tacit Knowledge.) The engineer of bridges
wants his or her structures to stay put, as do we all when travelling on
them. But there are other things, like computers and musical
instruments, for which reliability, though required as a base condition,
isn't enough.

Ok, I put analogies aside. What I want to know more about is where
surprises come from, the kind of genuine surprises that survive into our
research and (as Turing remarked in his 1950 paper) are not due to our
surprising ourselves. One way of going at this question is to ask it of
other, less apparently complex devices and situations. Having done that,
we can then ask what's special about digital machines in this regard.

Any ideas?

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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