0xDECAFBAD

It's all spinning wheels and self-doubt until the first pot of coffee.

Trying to imagine hackers of cognition and the infinite

I've just read Mark Pilgrim's post, "The infinite hotel", which I'm sure I'll need to re-read a few times and chase down references to read. Also I'm reading Gödel, Escher, Bach again for the third time, since I first read it in high school and needed corks in my ears to prevent brain slurry from spilling out. I really need to read more of this sort of thing, refresh myself on all the math I took in college, and explore some of this really abstract stuff.

Something I've been musing about lately, without any real novel ideas or insights, is about the history of computation and these thinking machines. Not history in terms of events and when, but in terms of the concepts and discoveries leading up to keyboards, screens, and code today. Thinking about things like recursion, and sets, and logic, and all the patterns and revolutions in thought that are the basis for everyday business and life today.

I've been trying to imagine the world in each moment where each of these things were new, when these things were worked out in minds and on paper. When there were no computational engines available to carry out calculations or work out conclusions to logical constructions. Today, these discoveries are crystallized in computing architectures, and so geeks hack and play and learn by example. The construction of the CPU is objective fact, independent of subjective thought or understanding, and the behavior of code demonstrates the laws and rules. Before, the rules were carefully reasoned out and intuited from observations on the objective universe, but now they're assimilated by example from mechanically working artifacts.

I'm not sure I'm expressing this very well, or if my thoughts are very well formed altogether, but I'm trying to imagine mental life without readily available, objectively existing computational artifacts with which we can play, without prohibitive investments of effort or time. No scripting languages with which to just try out logical constructions. No calculators with which to solve formulae. All manual, all by hand, all worked out by careful thought and precision. I'm trying to imagine what geeks like me, as I am today, would be like at a time when everyone dealing in these things was an abstraction astronaut, and there was not really a such thing as that-which-just-works or worse-is-better. Does this make any sense?

Again, this is not really an expression of anything coherent or novel. This is mostly me just in awe of how we got here, and trying to get myself above the mode of being just a hacker chasing down the phylogeny of all that's come before, and into some meta-mode of understanding of the things behind what makes these thinking machines and the thinking itself work. Maybe after a few more decades of this I'll have some thoughts worth sharing synthesized from all that I've learned.

shortname=hacking_infinite_and_cognition

Archived Comments

  • Is this really just a trailer for Neal Stephenson books? :-)
  • Heh, no, but it occurred to me shortly after writing this that I really need to get Quicksilver :)
  • Found this today: Cogprints. It has lots of fun stuffage.
  • Coincidentally, I saw Don Knuth speak this past Wednesday, about some of the earliest designs for programming languages. His new book might relate to your musings about the "history of computation and these thinking machines". I found it interesting that some of the languages were in some ways far *less* restrictive than the ones we use today (e.g., Plankalk├╝l, with its weird vertical grouping). See http://tmp.i.am/2003/12/04.html#a498 for a brief review of the talk.
  • I think you're asking what life was like before View Source. ;) Collaboration in meatspace was more necessary, and progress was slower. And people were probably smarter. Not actually smarter, but more functionally intelligent. Or maybe we'm just being arrogant. Anyway, I don't think you're going to become enlightened by pondering this for years. We all learn faster when we work together. :)
  • I think you're asking what life was like before View Source. ;) Collaboration in meatspace was more necessary, and progress was slower. And people were probably smarter. Not actually smarter, but more functionally intelligent. Or maybe we'm just being arrogant. Anyway, I don't think you're going to become enlightened by pondering this for years. We all learn faster when we work together. :)
  • l.m. orchard http://www.decafbad.com/blog comment 1076209614.7 This is a test comment.
  • On a tangent: Charles Petzold's book describes the history of our modern-day toys in terms of how mankind got here from not having them. Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software by Charles Petzold