Languages, platforms, and systems that break from the norms of computing.
I don’t think I agree with Don Knuth’s argument here from a 2014 lecture, but I do like how he sets out his table:
Why do I, as a scientist, get so much out of reading the history of science? Let me count the ways:
- To understand the process of discovery—not so much what was discovered, but how it was discovered.
- To understand the process of failure.
- To celebrate the contributions of many cultures.
- Telling historical stories is the best way to teach.
- To learn how to cope with life.
- To become more familiar with the world, and to know how science fits into the overall history of mankind.
SETI—the Search for Extra Terrestrial Information processing:
What we get is a computational device surrounding the Asymptotic Giant Branch star that is roughly the size of our Solar System.
The intent is for this website to be used by self-forming small groups that want to create a “watching club” (like a book club) and discuss aspects of technology history that are featured in this series.
I’m about ready to rewatch Halt And Catch Fire. Anybody want to form a watching club with me?
In 1990, the science fiction writer Douglas Adams produced a “fantasy documentary” for the BBC called Hyperland. It’s a magnificent paleo-futuristic artifact, rich in sideways predictions about the technologies of tomorrow.
I remember coming across a repeating loop of this documentary playing in a dusty corner of a Smithsonian museum in Washington DC. Douglas Adams wasn’t credited but I recognised his voice.
Hyperland aired on the BBC a full year before the World Wide Web. It is a prophecy waylaid in time: the technology it predicts is not the Web. It’s what William Gibson might call a “stub,” evidence of a dead node in the timeline, a three-point turn where history took a pause and backed out before heading elsewhere.
Here, Claire L. Evans uses Adams’s documentary as an opening to dive into the history of hypertext starting with Bush’s Memex, Nelson’s Xanadu and Engelbart’s oNLine System. But then she describes some lesser-known hypertext systems…
In 1985, the students at Brown who encountered Intermedia had never seen anything like it before in their lives. The system laid a world of information at their fingertips, saved them hours at the library, and helped them work through tangles of thought.
Claire L. Evans on computational slime molds and other forms of unconvential computing that look beyond silicon:
In moments of technological frustration, it helps to remember that a computer is basically a rock. That is its fundamental witchcraft, or ours: for all its processing power, the device that runs your life is just a complex arrangement of minerals animated by electricity and language. Smart rocks.
The characteristica universalis and the calculus racionator of Leibniz.
Portrait of the genius as a young man.
It is fortifying to remember that the very idea of artificial intelligence was conceived by one of the more unquantifiably original minds of the twentieth century. It is hard to imagine a computer being able to do what Alan Turing did.
From Xerox PARC to the World Wide Web:
The internet did not use a visual spatial metaphor. Despite being accessed through and often encompassed by the desktop environment, the internet felt well and truly placeless (or perhaps everywhere). Hyperlinks were wormholes through the spatial metaphor, allowing a user to skip laterally across directories stored on disparate servers, as well as horizontally, deep into a file system without having to access the intermediate steps. Multiple windows could be open to the same website at once, shattering the illusion of a “single file” that functioned as a piece of paper that only one person could hold. The icons that a user could arrange on the desktop didn’t have a parallel in online space at all.
I am not a believer in the AI singularity — the rapture of the nerds — that is, in the possibility of building a brain-in-a-box that will self-improve its own capabilities until it outstrips our ability to keep up. What CS professor and fellow SF author Vernor Vinge described as “the last invention humans will ever need to make”. But I do think we’re going to keep building more and more complicated, systems that are opaque rather than transparent, and that launder our unspoken prejudices and encode them in our social environment. As our widely-deployed neural processors get more powerful, the decisions they take will become harder and harder to question or oppose. And that’s the real threat of AI — not killer robots, but “computer says no” without recourse to appeal.
We construct top-10 lists for movies, games, TV—pieces of work that shape our souls. But we don’t sit around compiling lists of the world’s most consequential bits of code, even though they arguably inform the zeitgeist just as much.
This is a fascinating way to look at the history of computing, by focusing in on culturally significant pieces of code. The whole list is excellent, but if I had to pick a favourite …well, see if you can guess what it is.
Decomputerization doesn’t mean no computers. It means that not all spheres of life should be rendered into data and computed upon. Ubiquitous “smartness” largely serves to enrich and empower the few at the expense of the many, while inflicting ecological harm that will threaten the survival and flourishing of billions of people.
Frank yearns for just-in-time computing:
With each year that goes by, it feels like less and less is happening on the device itself. And the longer our work maintains its current form (writing documents, updating spreadsheets, using web apps, responding to emails, monitoring chat, drawing rectangles), the more unnecessary high-end computing seems. Who needs multiple computers when I only need half of one?
A bit of a tangent, but I love this description of reading maps:
Map reading is a complex and uniquely human skill, not at all obvious to a young child. You float out of your body and into the sky, leaving behind the point of view you’ve been accustomed to all your life. Your imagination turns squiggly blue lines and green shading into creeks, mountains, and forests seen from above. Bringing it all together in your mind’s eye, you can picture the surroundings.
Boolean logic manifested in a Turing-complete game
This is a great piece! It starts with a look back at some of the great minds of the nineteenth century: Herschel, Darwin, Babbage and Lovelace. Then it brings us, via JCR Licklider, to the present state of the web before looking ahead to what the future might bring.
So what will the life of an interface designer be like in the year 2120? or 2121 even? A nice round 300 years after Babbage first had the idea of calculations being executed by steam.
I think there are some missteps along the way (I certainly don’t think that inline styles—AKA CSS in JS—are necessarily a move forwards) but I love the idea of applying chaos engineering to web design:
Think of every characteristic of an interface you depend on to not ‘fail’ for your design to ‘work.’ Now imagine if these services were randomly ‘failing’ constantly during your design process. How might we design differently? How would our workflows and priorities change?
Before leading the software project that put men on the moon, Margaret Hamilton worked on the equations that led to chaos theory, followed by Mount Holyoke graduate, Ellen Fetter.