“Man” and Machine

I’ve just finished reading Vannevar Bush’s 1945 article in the Atlantic Monthly, “As We May Think,” which makes some prescient predictions about the future of computing, science and industry in the wake of the massively destructive bombs brought to life during World War II by some of the brightest scientists of that generation.

A great many passages struck me as I read, including Bush’s description of a conceptual machine called the Supersecretary, which would “take dictation, type it automatically and even talk back if the author wanted to review what he had just said.” The concept drawing looked like this:


I thought to myself, well, I used such a fantastical device just a few months ago to record a theoretical hook for the academic book I was writing a proposal for. The hook occurred to me all of a sudden, while driving (as these things do) and lest I lose the thought or run over an undergraduate student, I used my amazing device to capture a voice recording and have it read back to me.

Okay, okay, maybe you don’t want to watch the video (even though it’s short) so I’ll clue you in. It was my iPhone 4s, the first with Siri and the ability to accurately convert speech to text. Well, mostly. Here’s what the uncorrected text looked like:

The structure of the economy has changed. The job market is unstable. Low income and entry-level workers are seen a disposable. Individuals do not keep jobs of the life course anymore. So it should not surprise is that Highridge occasion as being you differently and our conception of marriage kitchen is changing in Butte these other structural changes the economy, jobs, our ideas of class-based appointment.

Unless I’m much mistaken, marriage kitchens in Butte are much the same as always. Still, it’s amazing technology in the palm of my hand, and I did manage to preserve—and correct—the actual idea.

But on to the second thing that struck me, as a gender scholar, about Bush’s piece: the prodigious use of the pronoun “he” to describe these future inventions to benefit “men,” replacing the “girls” of the day who, for example, operated a stenotype by “strok[ing] its keys languidly.” Men created, “girls” operated. And in many fields it is still that way: 89% of practicing engineers are men; 9 out of 10 contributors to Wikipedia—a Memex beyond Bush’s wildest dreams—are also men. We’ve made some progress, certainly. In Bush’s day, half of the world’s population could not even bring their pronouns to the table, while today we at least lament the state of affairs. Of course, we too often flirt with victim-blaming in our search for the causes of the imbalance. Still, hope springs eternal, and here I am, not-so-languidly touch-typing on a Bluetooth keyboard synced to my iPad Air, “establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record” (Bush, 1945).

“Man” and Machine

4 thoughts on ““Man” and Machine

  1. frisardm says:

    Sometimes Siri is right on the mark… and sometimes she fails miserably. Maybe we should conduct a research study to identify the context and situations by which (and when Siri) can understand what we say (and when she cannot).


  2. I am very excited that a gender scholar is in the group! Given the date and content of Bush’s article, I am surprised that “girls” even made it in. What is not surprising, however, is that these girls are the consumers rather than the innovators of technologies. I am looking forward to thinking about how new media may affect gender and racial barriers in technology.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh let’s please talk about this more today! I love how you bridge the gendered norms and assumptions of Bush’s era with the prevailing inequities of today. My other “favorite” snippet from “As We May Think” on this topic: “Such machines will have enormous appetites. One of them will take instructions and data from a whole roomful of girls armed with simple key board punches….”. It’s a good thing we have reminders, such as “When Computers Were Women” and the BBC series “The Bletchley Circle” about the importance of women’s labor and intellect to the founding of modern computing. Also on my list of things to do this semester: finish the readings and activities for the Wikipedia sections of the “Gender, Equity, Access” unit of the Cmooc I took last semester. http://connectedcourses.net/thecourse/diversity-equity-access/


  4. ZacZ says:

    So…I locked myself out of WordPress. Oops. Instead I’ll post my initial “nuggets” as a comment to your blog. Anyway:
    The Primacy of the Machine, or Bush’s anti-humanism

    Striking to me were the moments when Bush expressed a profound anti-humanism, and betrayed a general suspicion of human cultural institutions. For instance, he affirms:

    “Our present languages are not especially adapted to this sort of mechanization, it is true. It is strange that the inventors of universal languages have not seized upon the idea of producing one which better fitted the technique for transmitting and recording speech. Mechanization may yet force the issue, especially in the scientific field; whereupon scientific jargon would become still less intelligible to the layman.”

    In other words, human language is to be reshaped in order to assist technological progress. This goes beyond speech to encompass writing itself:

    “All this complication is needed because of the clumsy way in which we have learned to write figures. If we recorded them positionally, simply by the configuration of a set of dots on a card, the automatic reading mechanism would become comparatively simple.”

    Progress itself, Bush seems to say, demands the triumph of logic over…well, over human language, which I suppose functions as logic’s opposite.

    Bush’s entire framing of the problem—that specialization is necessary for progress, but human knowers get lost in the details of ever-increasing specialized information—very clearly connects with Google’s articulated early mission to organize all knowledge. But I think that moment has long since passed, save for a few important battles surrounding digitized public libraries, etc.; now the corporate titans of the Internet are much more focused on organizing (and directing) human subjectivity. How interesting that affect—a clear blind spot for Bush the information scientist—has become the primary raw material of our organized digital universe.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s