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  •                                 NETFUTURE
                Technology and Human Responsibility for the Future
    Issue #26      Copyright 1996 O'Reilly & Associates        August 17, 1996
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    *** Editor's note
    *** SPIDER OR FLY? results
    *** Of computers, both electronic and social (Stephen L. Talbott)
          What do `computing girls' have to do with high technology?
    *** The Placeless, Neighborless Realm (Tom Jay)
          Does English have a future?
    *** About this newsletter

    *** Editor's note Do not deprive yourself of Tom Jay's essay in this issue. But in case you insist on self-deprivation, I will at least tease you with a fragment or two from the piece.

    On the idea (so often celebrated in online culture) of continual revolution:

    But permanent revolution, economic or political, is terror--a terror as real as Robespierre's, Stalin's, Khomeini's or Mao's. And we are conspiring with that terror in the way we've let ourselves be named.
    And (which is the topic of the entire essay) on the fate of the English language:
    English is forfeiting its descriptive power because it has assumed a generic monocultural perspective. English is spoken everywhere but it doesn't live anywhere. Everywhere but England, English is becoming a language without a landscape. English is an imported language and, though it reigns, it doesn't dwell, a husband without a home.
    I also include in this issue some notes of my own relating to a new book about the history of the computer. You will, I think, find them entertaining--and perhaps disturbing as well.


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    *** SPIDER OR FLY? results

    The judging for the SPIDER OR FLY? writing competition has finally been completed. You will find a brief summary of the results here. Or you can wait for additional coverage in the next issue of NETFUTURE, which will carry one of the winning essays.


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    *** Of computers, both electronic and social

    From Stephen L. Talbott

    Notes concerning the book, Computer: A History of the Information Machine, by Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray (New York: BasicBooks, 1996).

    It is well known how thoroughly the computer's development was driven by the military. But it is not so commonly realized how much the computer owes to economic and organizational theory. In his Wealth of Nations (1776) Adam Smith described an imaginary pin factory based on the novel principle of the division of labor. Some fourteen years later the Frenchman De Prony "conceived all of a sudden the idea of applying the same method to the immense work with which I had been burdened, and to manufacture logarithms as one manufactures pins."

    Campbell-Kelly and Aspray go on to describe De Prony's system for producing mathematical tables:

    De Prony organized his table-making "factory" into three sections. The first section consisted of half a dozen eminent mathematicians--including Adrien Legendre and Lazare Carnot--who decided on the mathematical formulas to be used in the calculations. Beneath them was another small section--a kind of middle management--that, given the mathematical formulas to be used, organized the computations and compiled the results ready for printing. Finally, the third and largest section, which consisted of sixty to eighty human computers, did the actual computation. The computers used the "method of differences," which required only the two basic operations of addition and subtraction, and not the more demanding operations of multiplication and division. Hence the computers were not, and did not need to be, educated beyond basic numeracy and literacy. In fact, most of them were hairdressers who had lost their jobs because [quoting Ivor Grattan-Guinness] "one of the most hated symbols of the ancient regime was the hairstyles of the aristocracy."
    In the 1820s Charles Babbage began working on his now celebrated mechanical calculator, the Difference Engine, which he would later abandon to pursue his dream of a fully computational Analytical Engine. But Babbage was not only a mathematician and inventor; he was also, the authors point out, "the most knowledgeable economist of manufacturing of his day." His classic text, Economy of Manufactures, ran to four editions and was translated into five languages. Not surprisingly, therefore, the terms Babbage used for the arithmetic and storage functions of his Analytical Engine were "mill" and "store":
    This terminology was a metaphor drawn from the textile industry. Yarns were brought from the store to the mill, where they were woven into fabric, which was then sent back to the store. In the Analytical Engine, numbers would be brought from the store to the arithmetic mill for processing, and the results of the computation would be returned to the store. Thus, even as he wrestled with the complexities of the Analytical Engine, Babbage the economist was never far below the surface.
    While Babbage's Analytical Engine was never realized as a piece of machinery, many of its principles were progressively woven into business establishments. "Babbage is a seminal figure who connects Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations to the Scientific Management movement founded in America by Frederick Winslow Taylor in the 1880s."

    During World War II, "calculating girls" with no specialized arithmetic skills were organized into sophisticated "social computers" (my term, not the authors') to produce gunnery tables. Of Leslie John Comrie, who did much to streamline the system, it was advertised that "his girls do the hardest sums."

    The Moore School in Philadelpha trained female "computers"--and also produced the first fully functional electronic computer, the ENIAC, in 1945. One of the graduates of the training program described the set-up this way:

    The girls sat at their desks for hours, pounding away at the calculators until the clickety clack merged into a symphony of metallic digits. After the girls were trained, they were put to work calculating ballistic missile firing tables. Two classrooms full of the girls doing just that, day after day, was impressive. The groundwork was being established for the invention of the computer.
    A nice image of innocence lost: "girls" sitting sedately at their desks, calculating the angles of fire required to put explosive rounds squarely on target.

    All this, I think, serves as a useful counter to a one-sided technological determinism. The development of every tool expresses something about ourselves and what we are. But these same aspects of ourselves find expression in many other social realities as well. So the tool may not force the radical change upon us that is often spoken of. The computer does not, for example, suddenly transform the corporation into a computational "device" calculating the bottom line; the corporation was becoming such a machine long before the computer happened along--due to many of the same impulses responsible for the computer's eventual development.

    In other words, the "determining forces" that seem to sweep us along originate more fully within ourselves than we sometimes appreciate. When we launch one of our technical creations into society, and when this creation meets a world substantially shaped by other expressions of the same creative impulses to which it owes its own birth, the results can indeed be so explosive that they seem to arise from the "objective" machinery outside us. But it can seem this way only so long as we ignore the manifold ways in which we fashion a world that mirrors ourselves--a world, in the case of the computer, already craving what the computer would bring.

    All of which is to say that we must combine every assessment of the "influences" of a technical advice with a companion assessment of how we have "expressed ourselves" in the development of the device.

    A couple of other items from the book caught my attention:

    Amazingly (to us, after the fact), those who built the first computers "assumed there would be no particular difficulty in getting programs to work." The Englishman, Maurice Wilkes, programmer for the first stored-program computer, the EDSAC, describes the rude shock when the truth dawned upon him:

    The EDSAC was on the top floor of the building and the tape-punching and editing equipment one floor below on a gallery that ran round the room....I was trying to get working my first non-trivial program, which was one for the numerical integration of Airy's differential equation. It was on one of my journeys between the EDSAC room and the punching equipment that "hesitating at the angles of stairs" the realization came over me with full force that a good part of the remainder of my life was going to be spent in finding errors in my own programs.
    Finally, Campbell-Kelly and Aspray describe the maturing of the software industry to the point where, in the late Seventies, advertising consumed 35 percent of each retail dollar. Noting an analogy with the pop music and book publishing industries, they comment that
    every software developer was seeking that elusive "hit," so that the marketing and R & D costs would be spread over as high a number of sales as possible.
    To whatever degree this is true, it conveys a sobering message. At the least, however, I would say that a second constraint complements the need to generate hits: a successful software product must also "plug into" the increasingly elaborate, increasingly fixed, external logic of the global technical system.

    That the heart of the modern industrial and technological thrust should be driven by pop hit psychology on the one hand, and by the external logic of the technical system on the other, raises grave questions about the social future. I will explore some of these questions in forthcoming issues of NETFUTURE.

    This book is both well written and authoritative. It is not, however, a general history of the intellectual roots of the computer. The focus is on economics and business, and the story is almost wholly restricted to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The book is part of the Sloan Technology Series, sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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    *** The Placeless, Neighborless Realm

    From Tom Jay

    [Tom Jay is a sculptor, poet, and writer who lives in Chimacum, Washington. He writes poems and essays about home and place and the bioregional implications of art. He also creates sculptures on these themes. This essay is part of a longer article, "Familiar Music: Reinhabiting Language," originally published in the 1995-96 volume of Connotations, the journal of the Island Institute, Sitka, Alaska.

    The full article will also appear in the autumn, 1996 issue of Orion. (This will be a special edition devoted to nature and justice.) For further information, write to: Orion, 195 Main Street, Great Barrington, Massachusetts 01230, or contact orion@bcm.net. Tom Jay's address: Box 295, Chimacum, Washington 98325. These excerpts reprinted by permission.

    Copyright 1995 Tom Jay; all rights reserved.]

    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

    Every language on the planet has an age. English is relatively young, 700 years old, the child of a spear point wedded between Norman French and Anglo-Saxon. Some languages are thousands of years old--Irish, German, Greek, and Persian. Some are tens of thousands of years old--Kung, Ainu, Basque, and the Aboriginal languages of Australia and the Americas.

    Each language has been lorically(1) shaped by its homescape. Languages live and die, lasting as long as their lore is true. As the Irish poetess Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill remarked in the NY Times Book Review,

    According to the linguist, Michael Krause, minority languages in the English-language sphere face a ninety-percent extinction rate between now and sometime in the next century. Therefore, in these days, a major problem is the growth of an originally Anglo-American, but now genuine global, pop-monoculture that reduces everything to the level of the most stupendous boredom. I would think that the preservation of minority languages like Irish, with their unique and unrepeatable ways of looking at the world, would be as important for human beings as the preservation of the remaining tropical rain forest is for biological diversity.
    Languages offer unique perspectives on the world, different articulations of reality. Twenty years ago I had a conversation with a then young friend named Ben. When Ben was five or six years old, his family moved to the South Pacific island of Woleai. His parents had contracted to teach English as a second language to the people of Woleai. Ben soon became fluent in Woleain and entered the culture it centered.

    For eight years, Ben spoke English with his parents and Woleain with everyone else. I once asked him if he believed in ghosts. "When I speak English, I don't," he replied. "What do you mean? I asked. "Well," he answered, "When I speak Woleain on Woleai, I see them." Language in synch with a landscape ripe with ancestral mythology can precipitate a numinous reality.

    Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill makes a similar point:

    Irish is a language of enormous elasticity and emotional sensitivity; of quick hilarious banter and a welter of references both historical and mythological; it is an instrument of imaginative depth and scope, which has been tempered by the community for generations until it can pick up and sing out every hint of emotional modulation that can occur between people. Many international scholars rhapsodize that this speech of ragged peasants seems always on the point of bursting into poetry.
    Further on Dhomhnaill picks up the theme on a deeper level:
    The way so called depth psychologists go on about the subconsciousness nowadays you'd swear they had invented it, or at the very least stumbled on to a ghostly and ghastly continent whence mankind has previously never set foot. Even the dogs in the street in West Kerry know that the "otherworld" exists, and that to be in and out of it constantly is the most natural thing in the world....The easy interaction with the imaginary means that you don't have to have a raving psychotic breakdown to enter the "otherworld." The deep sense in the language that something exists beyond the Ego envelope is pleasant and reassuring, but it is also a great source of linguistic and imaginative playfulness, even on the most ordinary and banal of occasions.

    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

    The diversity of languages, like the diversity of species, is founded in landscapes. Mountains, rivers, seas, and deserts impound and amplify our various linguistic streams. The Pyrenees and Alps transformed Latin into Spanish, French, and Italian. The ethno-linguistic puzzle of Aboriginal California is nearly synchronous with the larger features of Californian geography. Long residency in a locale, dwelling in its focus,(2) works resonance into language; local vernacular, the precious "mettle" of neighborhoods, is coined in the slow alchemy of human beings ancestrally rooted in place.

    These are quaint, almost esoteric, notions to us moderns. The deep wisdom and prescient witness of languages rooted and nourished in landscape seem archaic to modernity and its current shibboleth, the sharp toothed "wisdom" of the market.

    Certainly, language is not static. Words are born and die. Like other life forms, they adapt their behaviors to fit new circumstances, new weather. Words may spiral through a classical, almost formal, transformation from an original meaning to its opposite. Linguists tell us that, at least until recently, this pilgrimage usually took about 300 years.

    In the reductive heat of commercial-industrial time, however, words fare no better than souls or small birds. Consider the word bad, which has recently somersaulted through our speech, its gyre a circus act rather than a slow, stately, and shadowy round dance--what the ancients called enantiodromia.

    When I was a child in the late forties and early fifties, bad meant wicked--a sense still close to its root meaning of "open to all influence, especially the worse." By the time I was in high school, bad still meant wicked to my parents, but to my peers and me it meant brazen, tough, strong, and fearsome. By the seventies, Michael Jackson had promoted bad into a word that evoked daring and personal power. Bad nearly finished its loop in 30 years. I fear for bad, we may have exhausted it, fried it in the overheated rush of our ennui-driven need for clever new twists of speech to advertise our "attitude."

    It is telling that the defining metaphor of recent society, "the bottom line," derives from a business profit and loss statement. Evidently our reality is founded on currency, cash flow and liquidity. No wonder our endeavors seem to float and drift rather than root or stand.

    Money and the easy logic of profit have conspired with hyper-inventive and increasingly frivolous technologies to foster a civilization addicted to speed and change, revolution rather than evolution. The fossil-fueled mechanics and spendthrift energetics of modern civilization and its entropic friction with the natural world have serious consequences for the conservative dynamics of language. Market-induced entropy has overwhelmed and obliterated indigenous dialectics and reduced, simplified, and polished our present speech into a dubious glass that reflects our vanity and cleverness rather than refracting the wonder of creation into our collective understanding.

    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

    Students of English report that English is losing its spoken vocabulary, the diversity of its terms, despite its eminence as the lingua franca of the planet. And therein lies the reason for its malaise. Perhaps English is forfeiting its descriptive power because it has assumed a generic monocultural perspective. English is spoken everywhere but it doesn't live anywhere. Everywhere but England, English is becoming a language without a landscape. English is an imported language and, though it reigns, it doesn't dwell, a husband without a home.

    Indeed if English continues to thin in the monopop flood it facilitates it may diminish into a trade language intimate with markets and politics but unable to name the quality of light on the snow-dusted spruce of a wind clear Sitkan sunset. English has become the official argot of the fluxing no man's land of the market, and the market has become a kind of "virtual" planetary film, an agitated, digitized dead fish iridescence, a communication without community, a commerce bereft of mercy, a thin and tragic dissolution of earth's beauty.(3)

    Still there remain spirited English vernaculars, dialects of local color and weather-quickened wit (I recall my Gulf Coast Texan brother-in-law's description of Ross Perot as a hand grenade with a bad haircut). But the neighborhoods of these loric idioms are increasingly vulnerable to the acetone media and its solvent capacity to smudge the subtlest and brightest hues of lingo. It is difficult indeed for indigenous beings--birds, words, plants, critters and perhaps now even weather to escape the money-driven institutionalized revolution embodied in modern growth capitalism.

    But permanent revolution, economic or political, is terror--a terror as real as Robespierre's, Stalin's, Khomeini's or Mao's. And we are conspiring with that terror in the way we've let ourselves be named. We are now by consensus and our own calling consumers, a word that derives from the Latin consumo to spend everything, to destroy utterly, to destroy by fire.

    But as late as eighty years ago consumer had negative connotations. We used the term to name a selfish and wanton sort. The change in the word's usage testifies to a changed society. Eighty years ago we called ourselves neighbors, citizens, and brother and sister, kith and kin. Neighbor is an Old English word which meant near-fellow dweller. Citizen is from an Indo-European root ci or cei--to lie down, to rest. The same root gives us home and cemetery; a citizen is a homebody, a deep dreamer. Kith and kin arrive via Old English cyth--native land; and cynn relates to kindred, one's own kind, hence kith and kin, the local haunt.

    Like any living creature, English wants to know where it is. Now spoken English surely lives with commerce estranged from local culture. English presently has more words in its spoken vocabulary for money than it does for moving water: bread, bucks, dough, change, cash, whip-out (my favorite), long green, swag, roll, stash, dibs, currency, quid, pile, jingle, lucre, pelf, plasting, and the like.

    These words describe specific and nuanced relations to money; whip-out is not a term favored by investment bankers, nor are pelf and lucre like to leap in the hipster's rap. English is still healthy in its mission, its instinct to witness and report its present habitat, its location. English is faithfully articulating our reality, firming and confirming the current edge between us and the large world. The rub is our world by the witness of our words is becoming a fantasy, the placeless, neighborless realm of modern culture.

    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

    In contrast, consider these words, breathless pilgrims awaiting the simple gift of our breath: Lea--a meadow drenched in sunlight; rill--a small forceful stream; lynn--a pool beneath a waterfall; beck--a small brook; and brook--a break out in the bank of a larger stream that waters a marsh. Speaking these words may rearticulate and reenliven our world.

    If English continues as a commerce's barker, it may become in a few centuries a new Chinook jargon, a mono-pop argot with a simple grammar and vocabulary. The English dialects wedded to places will have perished in the cash-flow flood or evolved in fortunate solitude into sounds and names, pronunciations and enunciations incomprehensible to their cosmopolitan cousin.

    The true genius of English, its poetic eye and musical ear, the subtle temper of its humor, will be reticent, musing in hinterlands "out of touch" waiting out the scourge of money's reductive fire, faithfully naming and calling the winds, rains and creatures of the neighborhood, the kith and kin of the natural world forsaken by its mother tongue.

    In the early sixties, bioregional visionaries Freeman House and Jeremiah Gorsline used the term reinhabitation to describe a social antidote to the devastation of natural and human communities by economies of transient consumerism. They proposed that the most revolutionary act was to settle permanently in a place and assume responsibility for the neighborhood with all the near fellow dwellers, mountains and rivers, flora and fauna and, I might add, English.

    We must reinhabit our language as well as our ecologies. If we stay put in deed and word our rap will gradually unravel and in time reweave us more deeply into place. Our speech will become part of the texture of locality, its felt meaning. Then our reality might once again resonate with ancestral echoes as well as the myriad voices of the weather and the land. Our words will become the welcome and the witness of our home's peculiar beauty and our lore will last nurtured in the practiced cycles of locality.

    Imagine your home place--the giant oak in the park, the bandstand with the leaky roof, the white ice-scoured mountains, the evergreen forests and thigh-thick winter steelhead, the polished stone of your father's grave....Imagine the familiar surround and the horizon that holds it as the rim of a bell. Imagine you are the tongue of that bell, silent and still in its shelter. The tongue cannot will itself to move and ring the bell; only the swollen wave of weather's mystery may move tongue and bell together and ring out familiar music.


    1. Loric, from the Old English Laeran, to teach, to lead someone on his or her way. Laeran is akin to Old English Laest, track, which gives us last, that which endures, a remaining way, a path that lasts. Lore is a lasting, well worn track, the way of the ancestors.

    2. Focus, from the Latin for hearth, the dwelling place of the household gods.

    3. Market, from the Latin merc--merchandise, hence commerce, mercy (the price of pity?), and Mercury, god of trade, speedy messenger, secret thief, and guide of souls to the otherworld.

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    *** About this newsletter

    Copyright 1996 by The Nature Institute. You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. You may also redistribute individual articles in their entirety, provided the NetFuture url and this paragraph are attached.

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    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #26 :: August 17, 1996

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