Category Archives: Computers

Computer Article

Homo Programmatis

When Gutenberg invented the printing press, a lot of people thought it was going to ruin everything.  What would happen to peoples’ memories if they could just look things up in a book?  And besides, common people should be kept in their place.  If they wanted information, they should be obliged to go to their master or their priest.

We face a similar attitude today when it comes to the Digital Culture.  Many educators and commentators claim that it’s demolishing attention spans and destroying peoples’ ability to absorb written material.  They fear that digital technology is creating a generation of cultural illiterates.

But it seems to me the larger question is this:  what exactly is cultural literacy?  Obviously it‘s something defined within very sharp boundaries of time, geography, and history.  For example, an aborigine in Australia and a librarian in New York City might both be considered culturally literate within their own milieus.  But how good would the librarian be at finding water in the Outback?  And how successful would the aborigine be at using an online card catalogue?

Colleges and universities delight in their role as arbiters of cultural literacy.  But if you’ve read the course descriptions in a few college catalogues, it’s clear that the mumbo-jumbo of the academic world has a fatal similarity to the flabby, marshmallow dialects of corporate and political bureaucracies.  Honesty and directness are sidestepped completely—blandness and political correctness rule as banality comes to a slow boil in an unsavory, polysyllabic stew.

It’s my belief that the true architects of cultural literacy are the doers and the makers, the designers, inventors and creators—the people who forge the new vocabulary and create the new syntax.  We only have to read about the events of the day in a newspaper or online to see that the most dynamic energies of our culture flow through science and technology and media as well as the printed word.  It’s clear to me that by definition cultural literacy by its very nature is multivalent.  The ability to grasp the contents of Tolstoy’s War and Peace is on equal footing with the ability to grasp 300 lines of code in a Java app.  To choose one over the other shows the worst kind of cultural bias.

In the beginning of human history it was tool making that separated our species from so many long extinct competitors.  And tools are more than the handmade variety.  After all, language is the ultimate tool—it allows concepts and ideas to be explained and shared.  And science and technology are the logical by-products of language and our tool making culture.

Programming languages are arguably the most extreme development of tool making.  Just as biological evolution tilted in favor of those early humans with flint chipping abilities, natural selection and the biological imperative of the 21st Century will tilt toward those with an innate feeling for digital culture and the language of machines.

It is interesting to speculate on what will happen over the next millennium.  Will an entirely new species emerge, eclipsing Homo sapiens?  Is the human race as we know it moving toward extinction, facing a die-off similar to that of the Neanderthals?  And what will mankind’s successor call itself?  My suggestion would be Homo Programmatis.

The Computer Ticket

1401It’s hard to believe, but my father was a computer salesman in Glasgow, Scotland in the 1940s.  He worked for a company that sold mechanical computing machines the size of a refrigerator.  They were designed to compute an Aged Trial Balance and they were the very latest thing.  My father’s assistant was a sturdy young man who rolled the bulky machine about on a dolly.  I wonder what my father would have thought if I could go back in time and show him a super slim laptop loaded with an Aged Trial Balance program.1401

In the late 1950s we moved to the U.S. and my father became the director of a data processing center.  One Saturday morning he showed me their IBM mainframe.  A programmer proudly demonstrated the machine by feeding a set of punch cards into it. Moments later the machine belted out in a high-pitched whine the melody of “Mary Had A Little Lamb”.  My father seemed impressed, but not me.  “But Dad,” I said, “The machine doesn’t have a sense of rhythm.  It doesn’t know the difference between eighth notes and quarter notes!”

When I was 18 my father had this career advice for me:  “Computers — there’s the ticket!”  But getting into that field was about as appealing to me then as a double hernia.  I had more practical ideas, such as being a novelist or a jazz musician.

But I couldn’t get away from computers.  I kept bumping into them in books I.  In Vulcan’s Hammer by Philip K. Dick I read about a hyper-rational computer wreaking havoc on a totalitarian society.  In Colossus by D.F. Jones I read about American and Russian computer systems merging into super-consciousness and deciding to rule the world.  And then there was Fritz Leiber’s The Silver Eggheads in which computers churned out bestselling novels.   How humiliating for a would-be novelist!

The faster I tried to run away from computers, the more they seemed to catch up with me.  I finally landed at a software company, first as a technical writer and then as an EDI programmer.

I soon found out that programmers were actually much more interesting than computers.  I saw them blow up and walk out the door over a point of logic and react to criticism like a mother who had just been told that she had an ugly baby.  I saw them working 36 hours straight, absolutely ecstatic when they had a breakthrough, or banging their heads against their desks when they failed.  They were passionate, intense, and larger than life.  They were amazing.

Finally it dawned on me.  I would write a book about people like these.  Not the same people, but imaginary characters filled with intense passion and bubbling over with that odd mix of logic and irrationality.  I finished the book a while ago.  It’s called The Infinity Program and will be released by the Camel Press on April 1, 2014.  It’s about a systems programmer who meets his ultimate challenge when he encounters a sixty million year old alien information system.