I’m reading Belinda Barnett’s excellent history of hypertext, Memory Machines.
The second chapter, on Vannevar Bush, has so many excellent bits of historical context which I was unaware of.
First, the term “computer” originally referred to a profession.
I’ll tell you what a computer was in [the 1940s]. It was an underpaid woman sitting there with a hand calculator, and they’d have rooms full of them, that’s how they got their computing done. So you’d say, ‘What’s your job?’ ‘I’m a computer.’ (Doug Engelbart interviewed by Henry Lowood 1986)
Bush developed some of the first computing machines. In particular, the Differential Analyzer solved differential equations which were (among other things) necessary for calculating ballistics. The military’s contracting of MIT for devices like this was the start of the partnership between defense and academia which would lead to ARPA, etc.
I was particularly attracted to a passage in which Bush describes how he developed respect for a mechanic he worked with, who developed an understanding of differential equations solely through working with the machine.
I never consciously taught this man any part of the subject of differential equations; but in building that machine, managing it, he learned what differential equations were himself […] [It] was interesting to discuss the subject with him because he had learned the calculus in mechanical terms – a strange approach, and yet he understood it. That is, he did not understand it in any formal sense, he understood the fundamentals; he had it under his skin. (Bush cited in Owens 1991, 24)
This type of understanding is one of the true joys of programming. When you really wrestle with a problem, you can almost feel the shape of it, you know it viscerally, “under the skin”. This way of knowing is the heart of Seymour Papert’s project: put a kid in “Math Land” and she’ll learn math as naturally as a kid in France learns French. So this recognition by Bush is a very early understanding of the profound cognitive effects of computing technology.
This understanding crops up again, of course, in Bush’s Memex. But until I read this chapter by Barnett, I didn’t fully appreciate that the Memex was imagined entirely in the analog paradigm.
I can’t help but wonder if we collectively lost a great deal of visceral understanding in the past 60 years through the dominance of the digital paradigm. The mechanism of the Differential Analyzer reminds me of the style of geometric proofs that can be found in old math books but which are absent from present day curricula. Barnett remarks that the Differential Analyzer was “mathematically transparent”. You could watch it “think”, its memory was physically “held”, it drew its answers as curves.
This reminds me of a passage from Ivan Illich’s Tools for Conviviality. Illich begins by talking about hand tools, tools which directly amplify human power, such as levers. Then tools which are partly human powered and partly use power we “harness”, such as chainsaws. Then tools in which the human power is absurdly dwarfed by the harnessed power, like a modern jet plane. Illich remarks, “The pilot is reduced to a mere operator guided by data which a computer digests for him. The machine needs him for lack of a better computer; or he is in the cockpit because the social control of unions over airplanes imposes his presence.”
Illich worried that our tools tend to grow into institutions which use us (manipulatory tools) more so than tools which we can use to express our autonomy (convivial tools). Any tool, high or low tech, can in principle be convivial or manipulatory, Illich says, but the contrast between hand tools and power tools is useful for seeing the difference.
Tools foster conviviality to the extent to which they can be easily used, by anybody, as often or as seldom as desired, for the accomplishment of a purpose chosen by the user. The use of such tools by one person does not restrain another from using them equally. They do not require previous certification of the user. Their existence does not impose any obligation to use them. They allow the user to express his meaning in action.
This directness, “they allow the user to express his meaning in action”, is what makes “transparent” tools convivial.