Friday, October 18, 2013

What Swift Has to Teach Us About Digitized Mind and Text Machines (I)

Employing mechanical devices for the purpose of learning seems to us like a trivial fact. We use these devices as educational means in our everyday life practically all the time. But it was not always so. There was a time when many of the notable European intellectuals regarded newly emerging world of machines with the considerable dose of suspicion. There were even intellectuals that adopted an openly hostile attitude towards mechanical devices. Appearing more visibly in the XVII century, this attitude reached its peak during the industrial revolution.

The reason behind this inimical stance was a belief that the domain of the mechanical is something opposed to the spiritual realm. Therefore, where the mechanical prevails, the spiritual has to absent itself. And yet, the spiritual had higher value for these intellectuals. Not only because the machine was of the flash, and the flash had less worth than the spirit. In a turn characteristic of the philosophy as such, the mechanical came to designate the very essence of the flesh in the modern era. This turn was initiated by René Descartes, famous french philosopher of the XVII century.

Jonathan Swift's speculative learning machine

Jonathan Swift, author of the novel Gulliver's Travels, stands historically somewhere between the Descartes' mechanization of the world picture and the socially ravaging machines of the industrial revolution. In his novel, he describes a fictional knowledge device, the so called speculative learning machine.

The word “speculative” stands for spiritual. Philosophically, it designates something divorced from the world of sensual (perception). The machine itself is depicted as a room-sized wooden frame covered with bits of wood connected by wires. All of the existing words of Laputa language are written on these wooden bits. The functioning of the machine consists in generating random sequences of text in accordance with the “proportions between the numbers of particles, nouns, and verbs, and other parts of speech”. Here is how Swift describes the functioning of the machine:

The professor then desired me "to observe; for he was going to set his engine at work." The pupils, at his command, took each of them hold of an iron handle, whereof there were forty fixed round the edges of the frame; and giving them a sudden turn, the whole disposition of the words was entirely changed. He then commanded six-and-thirty of the lads, to read the several lines softly, as they appeared upon the frame; and where they found three or four words together that might make part of a sentence, they dictated to the four remaining boys, who were scribes. This work was repeated three or four times, and at every turn, the engine was so contrived, that the words shifted into new places, as the square bits of wood moved upside down.

Interestingly enough, the fictional device described by Swift strangely resembles the first electronic general-purpose computer, ENIAC. Take your time and read the whole relevant passage from the novel. It is worth it. Than go on and join our philosophical effort to analyze this “wonderful machine” in the third part of this essay.

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