Dándole la vuelta a la tortilla

First, let me apologise for using a Spanish expression in the title, but it is the best one I could think of to describe my feeling about the reading for this week. In English, it would translate to “changing the subject”- though it literally means “turning the omelette over.” What subject did The Universal Computer by Davis change, then?

I am happy with telling people that I chose to study English because I could not compute complex equations. I just can’t hack them! And this week I felt the same way. Just as I flipped through the digital pages of the digital book, the terror I stopped feeling six years ago came back. As such, at some point through the reading I was struggling to understand all the mathematics, logics, symbols and fractions involved in it.  I even thought that I mistakenly must have entered a world I would never come to make sense of. So, I told myself: “stop trying to make sense of the formulas and pay attention to the narrative.” It worked. I realised that I could read the book from a different point of view: Humanities.

This is the wall I picture in my head for those who don't want to embrace the digital, whatever that might entail.

This is the wall I picture in my head for those who don’t want to embrace the digital, whatever that might entail: ebooks, digital tools, data-mining, DH, etc.

Usually, humanists have found computers to be extraterrestrial artifacts that must remain out of their kingdom; the machine is the enemy, some might think. Somehow, a wall has been built between both of them. The way I see this fear is that while an engine works mechanically, with a definite set of units, human(ist)s have been studying works on an interpretative or speculative manner, many times without a particular and limited result. How many times has Shakespeare been analysed? Right. His corpus continues to be studied whether for literary, linguistic, historic purposes. Cantor, one of the men Davis writes about, studied the playwright to prove that Francis Bacon was the real author of plays. And this could be a present-day example: What Shakespeare Plays Originally Sounded Like. Though DH is enhancing the possibilities of study, some humanists still think that the cold-hearted robot is not able to help, or that it is going to limit chances to speculate, or worse, contribute to nothing new.

Davis, nonetheless, demonstrates that the creation of an “all-purpose machine/computer/artifact” was nothing but a big contribution to human knowledge. Therefore, I believe, we are facing a humanist development. The abstract concept took form only when one man followed the discoveries of another, adding to it more ideas, and finally achieving Leibniz biggest dream:

He dreamed of machines capable of carrying out calculations, freeing the mind for creative thought (3).

Ha! So as early as by the last years of the 17th century, someone was thinking logically about a means of obtaining data so that we could then creatively play with it. Clearly, he was not able to create that perfect calculator, but sow the seeds for it. Little by little, Leibniz himself, Boole, Frege, Bertrand, Cantor, Hilbert, Gödel and others, set the basis for Alan Turing.

While his predecessors had, in 1930s Turing attention did not focus on the set of rules that lets a person compute an algorithm. Instead, he paid attention to what the person did when computing on a tape. This way, he found a mathematical model that was able to replace the person for a machine that could perform any algorithmic process. Turing machine would use a strip of tape and a table of rules in order to manipulate symbols.

With his work, he set forth the limits of the mechanical computation for those who would develop computers years later. Then, it could be said that humans have been the ones to be inventive enough as to create an “all-purpose computer” that can carry out an unlimited number of tasks which we no longer have to spend time in. Why are we afraid of it then? The optimism posed by Leibniz is obscured by the constant fear of humanists to include the digital realm on their labor. It is necessary to understand how machines can help us.

In sum, that is what I meant by “dándole la vuelta a la tortilla:” being able to recognise the humanist work of mathematicians, or logicians, or engineers in the past, at least. This way it would be easier, possibly, to accept the fact that Digital Humanities is a convergence of two traditionally separated fields that will help us, time-limited humans, process knowledge quickly and give us time to think more about it. Since some information is just a click away, why not take advantage on something as data-mining to explore new questions of research instead of spending 3/4 of the time in just searching for what we think is on a giving text.

Likewise, I may have used the expression because I really miss my dad’s heavenly “tortilla de patata.”


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