“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:

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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).

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“Man” and Machine