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York University
Natural Science
NATS 1700
Zbigniew Stachniak

Lecture I: Computing and Society: A Gentle Introduction (c) Z. Stachniak, 2011 informal and unedited notes, not for distribution Reflecting Upon Technology and Society... Why are we behaving in a way we do and not some other way? Does tech- nology impact out behaviour? powers our preferences? dictates our choices in almost all aspects of our daily activities? What’s special about computer and information technologies? When we reflect upon the impact of technology on society, computer and information technologies represent canonical examples. Yet, no singular technological invention or event, no matter how ground- breaking, can account for the creation of the digital electronic computer. Similarly, no digital computer, no matter how powerful or versatile, can sin- gularly explain the rapid transition of our civilization into that of consumers of digital information. The computer and information technologies are examples of high technologies in constant motion, advancing at a speed that makes projections of their fu- ture milestones and impact difficult without a systematic approach grounded in their history and in present technological social and scientific context. In- deed, no invention occurs without such a context created in part by a chain of earlier discoveries, inventions, or contributions, sometimes centuries in the making. 1 To Be Is To Invent Computing is a canonical example of the continuous interaction between inventing and the forces of cultural, social, economic, technological, and po- litical change. Inventing is: • what sets us–humans–apart from other living organisms; inventing is to venture where others have not, stretching beyond conventional frontiers of time, space, and thought; • what creates new possibilities, sets new standards, brings social and economic progress and enrichment of knowledge; • an expression of freedom, of power to create but also (and unfortu- nately) to dominate, and may bring social and economic injustice, de- struction, and suffering. The interplay between our needs and aspirations, on the one hand, and in- venting new methods to count, calculate, and compute, as well as to store, transmit, process, and access information, on the other hand, has accompa- nied human development since the very beginning of human conscious inter- action with the environment, when counting was reduced to distinguishing between one, two, and many. 2 Prehistory of Counting: One, Two, Many... The development of complex social interactions in areas such as early trade and commerce required numbers for representing quantities, and counting to perform operations on numbers such as addition. These complex interactions also required recording numbers (e.g. sale of goods or paid taxes) and, with the need to deal with operations on larger and larger numbers, the develop- ment of some counting aids. Fig. 1. Inca accountant and tax collector standing next to a counting board; source: Don Felipe Huaman Poma de Ayala, 1583–1613. The overwhelming majority of languages do contain expressions representing numbers. However, there are primitive languages that lack expressions for naming numbers. The best a native speaker of such languages could do was to distinguish ”one” from ”many” as in ”one child” and ”many children”. 3 Mechanical Arithmetic: Calculators Numbers, counting and other operations on numbers are also the point of origin of mathematics. Until the birth of the mechanical calculator industry in the 19th century, the business of advancing calculation methods was being taken care of by mathematically inclined individuals exclusively. Fig. 2. Pascal calculator replica by Roberto Guatelli (1978); source: Canada Sci- ence and Technology Museum. The first mechanical calculators started to show up in 16th century (Fig. 2 shows a replica of one of the calculators constructed by B. Pascal (1623- 1662)). Some were the work of famous mathematicians such as Pascal and Leibniz and their purpose was to support scientific research and accounting. Their scarcity severely limited their impact on society at large, still served with more primitive forms of calculating aids such as abacus. 4 Calculators for the Rest of Us The industrial revolution that took place in the 18th and 19th centuries brought profound technological changes in manufacturing, agriculture, min- ing, transportation, navigation; it initiated a remarkable chain of scientific discoveries and technological innovations. The revolution profoundly im- pacted the socioeconomic and political landscapes and socioeconomic condi- tions all over the world. More and more businesses relied on fast processing of large quantities of data (numbers). Employing a large army of ”calculators”, i.e. of people perform- ing calculation jobs manually was far from being cost-effective and error-free. In the 18th and 19th century, mechanical calculators and special look-up table publications, called mathematical tables, were used to facilitate calcu- lation, verification, selection, categorization, and extraction of data. They became manufactured in large quantities and varieties. Mechanical calculators of the 19th century were inexpensive (in compari- son with salaries paid to calculators), accurate, and could perform all the basic arithmetic operations. The social acceptance of the calculators was fast (mostly the business side) and so was the demand to improve them (e.g. add printing mechanism) and make them even cheaper. 5 Fig. 3. A collection of 16th-18th century mathematical tables at the Science Museum Library, London. 6 The Age of Computers The arrival of the first computers in the 20th century was the result of the need to automatically perform operations that were much more complex than those that could be done on calculators. Fig. 4. Eniac ”Giant Brain” computer (U.S.A., c. 1946). The rapid development of computer technologies, from mechanical and electro- mechanical devices to the present-day digital electronic computing and com- munication devices, rapidly bridged vast land masses, spanned cultural dif- ferences, and recreated the world into a digital global village. Computer and information technologies have enriched our intellectual capabilities and al- lowed for unrestricted and (to some degree) free access to a variety of digital resources. While the advancements in computing have mostly brought far reaching ben- efits to humanity, they also sculpted a dark side of the present-day digital reality: computer-related crime continuously threatens the stability of our daily activities so deeply immersed in the computer world, cyber terrorism may cause environmental, economic, and political instability and even cata- clysms. 7 Is the knowledge of the past necessary, helpful? This course • is a historical voyage through the centuries of human involvement with calculating and computing; • begins with the prehistory of computing, when the understanding of numbers and performing basic arithmetic operations on them was the domain of just a few; • explores our present-day computing reality, trying to decipher its mean- ing, to arrange what we know and understand in a coherent body of knowledge that can be used to confidently discuss problems faced by our society (such as social obligations and individual rights and free- doms in the digital age), to understand where we are and were we are going, or to predict what else is there to invent. Is the knowledge of the past necessary, or even helpful, to understand the present or to predict possible trajectories of social an technological advance- ments in the future? 8 A few observations and examples instead of the direct answer • Scientifically justified facts do not have an expiry date only because they have been established in the past. They will stay valid as long as the foundations used to justify them remain accepted as true. For instance, 1 plus 1 remains 2 in ”standard” arithmetic (yes, there are non-standard systems of arithmetic) in spite of the fact that our understanding of addition of numbers has begun to shape thousands of years ago. Similarly, the fact that a single molecule of water is composed of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen (hence H O)2 established in 1805 by Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac and Alexander von Humboldt, remains valid although our understanding of the concept of ”parts” or atoms has evolved substantially. • Past experiences, or history, shape our behaviour and preferences, hence our
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