What I've Been Reading

05 February 2019

  • Joy Lisi Rankin: A People’s History of Computing in the United States

Rankin targets the Silicon Valley myth with its exultation of company founders. In its place, she tells a story of time-sharing systems maintained by educational institutions, such as Dartmouth College, and enabling what she calls “computing citizens”. Accessing mainframes through terminals, students and professionals wrote BASIC programs and engaged in social computing.

Throughout the book Rankin pays close attention to the role of race and gender. While in a handful of cases these interpretations felt slightly forced, Rankin mostly fills in socially relevant blanks. I wonder whether there is a tension in Rankin’ praise of the computing citizen and her focus on identity-based social justice, but if there is, she balances the two issues extremely well. Despite giving on occasion the impression of being an extended thesis for a degree in social history, Rankin’s book offers an intriguing counter-narrative that makes “what-if”-questions salient and allows to write the unwritten future of free participants in the computer age.

  • Emil Ferris: My Favorite Thing Is Monsters

An Eisner Award winning, well-executed, and original graphic novel. It plays with the medium, shows care for the main characters, and still I am not falling in love with it. Perhaps it is just that I am not sharing sufficient life experience with Karen, the protagonist, but there is at least one other problem: The abundance of problems.

The plot presents us with a murder, bullying, mental illness, the Shoah, child prostitution, cancer, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., riots, and a dark family secret. While there are also positive elements in the plot - usually having to do with friends, family, and fantasy - I could not shake the feeling that the graphic novel tried to get through a list of all hardships a person could face. I hope Ferris had to confront fewer, although the information I found online points into the opposite. For a grapic novel that employs the theme of escaping into fantasy, it does not allow much of an escape from the ills of the world. Be that as it may, certainly one of the most ambitious graphic novels of the last years and it works surprisingly well.

  • C.P. Snow: The Two Cultures

As an MPhil student in advanced computer science and a PhD graduate in philosophy I occassionally opine on the relation between the sciences and the humanities. About 60 years ago but also in Cambridge, C.P. Snow gave his Rede lecture entitled ``The Two Cultures’’ laying down how he saw the divide between the cultures of scientists and literary intellectuals. He advocates for comprehensive education covering both the sciences and the humanities in hope that their combination can lead to a better world, that is a world with less poverty and better institutions.

Much of Snow’s position is tinted by the 50s and 60s modernism. Snow neglects factors of engrained social practices and norms in his vision of modernising countries and enabling them to achieve prosperity and liberty. Top-down technocratic modernisation as Snow proposed it has its limits. Still, he speaks of progress with an energy worth remembering and reviving.

A number of changes have taken place since Snow’s lectures, including the rise of computer science and, the expansion of tertiary education, but I want to point out one factor that has complicated the divide between the sciences and the humanities: In his days both the sciences and the humanities in Western universities were dominated by men. Snow talks about male scientists and male literary intellectuals. By now the majority of bachelor students in the humanities are female. One should not draw the lines too strictly. For example, women also form the majority of students in medicine, a field which at least Snow considered part of the sciences. Nonetheless, whatever there is to a debate about two cultures must now - and probably should have back then - also pay attention to gender dynamics. Progress can lead to additional complexity.

  • Michael Dummett: Origins of Analytical Philosophy

Dummett’s lectures-turned-book on the origins of analytic philosophy start with the premise that two substantive axioms characterise the tradition:

  1. A philosophical account of thought can be achieved through a philosophical account of language.
  2. A philosophical account of thought can only be attained in this way.

In the rest of the book Dummett discusses how Frege’s work imbued these axioms with power and plausbility, and how they relate to the work of Husserl. Presumably in virture of the topic and the book being derived from lectures, Dummett offers a great philosophical edifice without filling in all the details, but the attraction of key theories associated with the two axioms becomes apparent.

Reading Dummett made clear to me that while I work in the analytic tradition, his approach is not mine. The influence of cognitive science and a computational perspective on the mind lead me to adopt a radically different take on methodology and content. For example, Dummett makes a number of claims about animal cognition for which he offers no to little support, and he does not even seem to worry about it. On multiple occasions, I wondered whether introducing a Fodorian language of thought wouldn’t solve the issue, but the idea appeared foreign to Dummett’s thinking. I read the book to keep in touch with a specific type of philosophy and Dummett served as an outstanding sample, both in excellence and shortcomings.