4.0002 Thinking about computers (166)

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Mon, 7 May 90 18:31:43 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 4, No. 0002. Monday, 7 May 1990.

(1) Date: Fri, 04 May 90 18:06:13 EDT (20 lines)
From: Willard McCarty <MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca>
Subject: self-reflections in the machine

(2) Date: Sat, 05 May 90 08:55:07 CDT (46 lines)
From: "Eric Johnson DSU, Madison, SD 57042" <ERIC@SDNET>
Subject: Talk about computers

(3) Date: Sat, 05 May 90 16:44:10 EDT (17 lines)
From: Willard McCarty <MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca>
Subject: language of computing

(4) Date: Mon, 7 May 90 13:05 EST (56 lines)
From: "Peter D. Junger" <JUNGER@CWRU>
Subject: First Impressions of the Machine

(5) Date: Sat, 05 May 90 11:20:40 BST (27 lines)
From: DEL2%phoenix.cambridge.ac.uk@NSFnet-Relay.AC.UK
Subject: The sex of computers

(1) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: Fri, 04 May 90 18:06:13 EDT
From: Willard McCarty <MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca>
Subject: self-reflections in the machine

Since Mary Dee was bold to reveal herself by telling tales of a computer
I also remember working with -- in fact [name-drop warning!] I toggled
switches on an IBM 709 (with its 6000 vacuum tubes) in my youth -- I'll
also uncover. I was once asked by a friend what sex I thought the
computer had. Wanting to provoke her, I remarked that it was obviously
female: bitchy, powerful, and mysterious. She said, "No, no, it's
obviously male -- handy to have around the house, but when I don't need
it I can turn it off and walk away."

I'm fascinated by the number of people who think of the machine as
neuter. There's almost nothing I regard as neuter. According to
Chinese tradition, if I'm not badly mistaken, everything can be sorted
into male and female. And what do we mean by neuter? Sexually
unremarkable, which could suggest the same sex as the beholder?

Willard McCarty
(2) --------------------------------------------------------------54----
Date: Sat, 05 May 90 08:55:07 CDT
From: "Eric Johnson DSU, Madison, SD 57042" <ERIC@SDNET>
Subject: Talk about computers

I believe it was I who enlarged the tidy question of the gender of words
meaning "computer" in languages other than English. My (unexpressed)
premise was recently stated by Willard McCarty: the way we talk about
computers can "tell us a considerable amount about ourselves."

It appears that the systems programmer I know may be using the masculine
pronoun for a program (the VM/CMS operating system) rather than for the
hardware ("he is thinking about crashing"). The comment is usually not
about something good. The only times I have heard feminine references
were in speeches of encouragement ("You can do it, girl!") or praise
("She found the file in the root directory!").

I am interested in the pronoun number used for a computer. "The"
computer may be used of a mainframe rather than for "a" microcomputer,
but it does not seem that simple. I used to think that those who were
sophisticated about computing, and who recognized that there were
significant differences among computers talked of "a" computer or of
"computers," and that those who failed to understand the differences
talked of "the" computer. It now appears to me that some very
sophisticated computer users speak of "the" computer when they mean any
computer: a micro, mini, or mainframe.

Another matter (that may "tell us a considerable amount about
ourselves") is that we talk about computers in a highly metaphoric way;
technical and non-technical language about computers is filled with
figures of speech of all kinds: files (a metaphor to start with) are
packed, squeezed, crunched, and squashed; they can be killed, or they
may hang or crash the system and force us to boot or reboot.

I notice that my students "boot" a computer to start it (the original
metaphor seems to be that the operating system pulls itself up by its
own boot straps), but they also "boot" a computer by kicking out the
operating system (rebooting it).

Do HUMANISTs have observations about the metaphoric language of

Eric Johnson
(3) --------------------------------------------------------------27----
Date: Sat, 05 May 90 16:44:10 EDT
From: Willard McCarty <MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca>
Subject: language of computing

This query represents somewhat of a digression from the ongoing talk
about the sex of computers and the number (singular or plural), but it
is the same kind of question.

When listening to others talk about the behaviour of computers I have
often noticed what seemed to be an unusually high percentage of
superstitious expressions. Sheizaf Rafaeli, as I recall, refers in an
article to our habit of speaking in animistic terms about the machine,
but I wonder if anyone has studied contemporary linguistic usage and
found that superstition was unusually prevalent amongst systems
programmers and other experts who deal with very complex computing

Willard McCarty
(4) --------------------------------------------------------------62----
Date: Mon, 7 May 90 13:05 EST
From: "Peter D. Junger" <JUNGER@CWRU>
Subject: First Impressions of the Machine

Mary Dee Harris's posting about not remembering `ever thinking of the
machine as anything but a machine -- without gender' invokes memories.
At the time of which she speaks--or maybe a little later, the IBM/360
had just come out--I was not working with assembly language. I was a
lawyer working on Wall Street, for the most part assembling contracts,
leases, and other legal instruments (instruments that to a surprising
extent were composed of `so long as ...', `if ... then ... ', `else
...', `while ...', and similar control structures).

And then we became peripherally involved with the case of a corporation
that had acquired a computer and--as a consequence--ended up with a
mismatch between billings and receivables of fifty million dollars, back
in those innocent days when that was a lot of money. The corporation
wrote off five million dollars for its losses from this matter and went
out and purchased a lot of quill pens, while at my office several of us
decided that it was time that we learned something about computers.

Being a very establishment sort of firm, we were able to pull a few
strings and infiltrate ourselves into the IBM Executive Computer
Concepts Course--a peculiar cross between a boondoggle and a bootcamp
for financial vice-presidents and comptrollers of Fortune 500 companies
that were considering the initial purchase of a computer. The course
was taught with a simulated time machine: on the first day the computer
had just been invented and the only way to program was machine language;
the next day assembler was invented; the day following came Fortran; the
day following that introduced Cobol, and so-on to APL ... that was on
the day they were going to demonstrate the C(athode) R(ay) T(ube), only
it was broken.

And so, for me too, the first introduction to computers was to registers
and to `the Chinamen inside the computer with abacuses that really made
it work.'

And then years later, when I was trying to write a filter that would
insert double underlining into a Wordstar file, I learned BASIC, which
didn't work because it would not treat a carriage return as an ASCII
character, and PASCALZ, which worked but excruciatingly slowly and
required that I like to the machine by telling it that ASCII characters
were simply bytes, and finally assembly language, which not only worked
but also gave up the pretense that there was no such thing as a register
inside the machine.

And now whenever I work with a computer I sense the data being moved on
conveyor belts through the machine, looping around, like marbles in a
pinball machine: tahpucka, tahpucka, ..., tahpucka.

The computer is not alive, it does not have gender, it does not
have--except most periphally--a G(raphical) U(ser) I(nterface). It is
an abacus, disguised is a great, big Rube Goldberg contraption.

Peter D. Junger--CWRU Law School--Cleveland, Ohio
(6) --------------------------------------------------------------38----
Date: Sat, 05 May 90 11:20:40 BST
From: DEL2%phoenix.cambridge.ac.uk@NSFnet-Relay.AC.UK
Subject: The sex of computers

I was grateful for Willard's contribution on the sex of computers. We
are in danger of making some fundamental linguistic muddles which in my
own field (not generally at the forefront of linguistics) were exposed
and attacked as long ago as 1961 by James Barr, *The Semantics of
Biblical Language*. Only in a language like English where all nouns
are neuter unless explicitly male or female could the use of the
pronoun be at all significant. If 'computer' in Dutch is a masculine
noun of course it will be 'hij', just as 'teknon' (child) in greek is
'auto' (neuter) not 'autos'. But to translate these into English as
'he' (for the computer) or 'it' (for the child) would simply display
ignorance of the workings of language. dare I say that parts of this
discussion have come perilously close to displays of such ignorance?

I liked Willard's analysis of 'metaphorical sex' but feel it's
potentially simplistic. Is a car in English 'she' because it is
temperamental, or 'she' because it is a symbol of masculinity or 'she'
because (like a woman) it gives one a special sort of thrill? Or do
males generally personalise things as female, because another male
would be a potential rival? One would need to know a great deal more
about the sex-stereotyping which influenced the original choice, as
well as that (potentially very different!) of the other users of the

Douglas de Lacey <DEL2@PHX.CAM.AC.UK>