10.0740 the software of culture?

WILLARD MCCARTY (willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Wed, 26 Feb 1997 10:52:27 +0000 (GMT)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 10, No. 740.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
Information at http://www.princeton.edu/~mccarty/humanist/

[1] From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk> (34)
Subject: the software of culture

Francis Bacon somewhere (as I recall) warns us against the use of analogies,
but they are what remain with us perhaps most persistently from the Essays:
"Men fear Death, as children fear to go in the dark; and as that natural
fear in children is increased with tales, so is the other." Imaginative
language pipes a primal world of mythology into the discourse of reason and
informs it. Likewise, in his latest book, <cite>Creation of the Sacred:
Tracks of Biology in early Religions</cite> (Harvard, 1996), Walter Burkert
resorts to the same device in his attempt to explain the persistence of
religion, and the commonality of its basic forms. "To use another metaphor:
verbalized culture, transmitted by teaching and learning, may be called the
'software' of humanity, easy to copy and pass on regardless of its
complexity. Still, the question is whether this software can be chosen and
modified arbitrarily, or whether it remains bound to certain preconditions
of the original programming, to patterns and effects left by the 'hardware'
that generated it" (p. 21).

On one level, we are amused by the feedback of computing terminology into
ordinary, even learned language. I began to notice this sort of thing about
2 years ago, when riding the streetcar in Toronto I saw an advert that
invited readers to "debug" their houses with a certain insecticide. Since
then there have been numerous such occurrences.

On another level, the feedback loop looks quite different, and is far more
interesting, if less certain. Where does the notion of software come from if
not, by some subliminal path, from our age-old speculations about mind? If
computer hardware is a simulacrum of the body, and software an
externalisation of its encoded patterns of behaviour, then what does this
imply about the work we do?

I suppose to a cognitive scientist this is all babytalk, but then I never
tire of that.


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Dr. Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer, King's College London
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