“My Mother Was a Computer”

In my last post I wrote that I wanted to look at the relationship between programming language and natural language, maybe something about signifiers and the signified. I didn’t have a particular thesis or really any salient thought about the topic so I started googling a bunch of words I thought might go together. One book seemed to have a fair number of mentions and so I Amazon Primed My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts by N. Katherine Hayles (University of Chicago Press, 2005). Hayles is a professor of literature at UCLA and has written a lot about the dynamics of technology, science, and art.

If you Google Book API it, you will find it listed under the subject “Computers.” It’s description would be:

“We live in a world, according to N. Katherine Hayles, where new languages are constantly emerging, proliferating, and fading into obsolescence. These are languages of our own making: the programming languages written in code for the intelligent machines we call computers. Hayles’s latest exploration provides an exciting new way of understanding the relations between code and language and considers how their interactions have affected creative, technological, and artistic practices.

My Mother Was a Computer explores how the impact of code on everyday life has become comparable to that of speech and writing: language and code have grown more entangled, the lines that once separated humans from machines, analog from digital, and old technologies from new ones have become blurred. My Mother Was a Computer gives us the tools necessary to make sense of these complex relationships.”

I thought it was going to be a breezy read since I can read good and do other stuff good too, but it’s quite dense and extensively end-noted with references to other texts. Which is to say, especially with my current schedule, that I didn’t get much further than the prologue. However, there were a lot of interesting things in this reading that I can relay, and I will report on subsequent chapters throughout this blog. 

The first surprising thing I learned was related to the title itself. I thought Hayle might have been referring to some sci-fi trope about artificial intelligence or simulacra, and she probably does later, but in this usage it has historical significance. In the 1930s and 40s people, predominantly women, were employed to perform the clerical work of calculations and were called “computers.” Hayles lifted her title from a line in Anne Balsamo’s book Technologies of the Gendered Body (Duke University Press, 1995). Balsamo’s mother actually worked as a “computer” and she uses this family history “to launch a meditation on the gender implications of information technologies,” which seems another interesting text to explore apropos of current discussions around diversity in tech.

Hayle addresses the semantic shift of the sentence:

“For my purposes, the different implications of the sentence from World War II to the end of the twentieth century mark a shift from a society in which the intelligence required for calculations was primarily associated with humans to the increasing delegation of these labors to computational machines. The sentence stands, therefore, as a synecdoche for the panoply of issues raised by the relation of Homo sapiens to Robo sapiens, humans to intelligent machines.”

Here is another nougat of thought to chew on from the Prologue:

“For scientists making the strong claim for computation as ontology, computation is the means by which reality is continually produced and reproduced on atomic, molecular, and macro levels. In A New Kind of Science, Stephen Wolfram extends the claim to include biological systems and, indeed, complex behaviors of every kind, including social and cultural systems. In this context, “My mother was a computer” can be understood as alluding to the displacement of Mother Nature by the Universal Computer. Just as Mother Nature was seen in the past centuries as the source of both human behavior and physical reality, so now the Universal Computer is envisioned as the Motherboard of us all.”

Next time I will report on my original point of inquiry after I read Chapter 1 on Language and Code.

Dec 19 2016