Category: history

Your brain is not a computer.

How do contemporary technologies shape our understanding of ourselves?

By the 1500s, automata powered by springs and gears had been devised, eventually inspiring leading thinkers such as René Descartes to assert that humans are complex machines. In the 1600s, the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes suggested that thinking arose from small mechanical motions in the brain. By the 1700s, discoveries about electricity and chemistry led to new theories of human intelligence – again, largely metaphorical in nature. In the mid-1800s, inspired by recent advances in communications, the German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz compared the brain to a telegraph. Each metaphor reflected the most advanced thinking of the era that spawned it. Predictably, just a few years after the dawn of computer technology in the 1940s, the brain was said to operate like a computer, with the role of physical hardware played by the brain itself and our thoughts serving as software.

More on this, and why the same stimulus may not lead to the same experience, at Aeon.

‘The Myth of the Computer’

John Searle, NYRB, 1982:

A lot of the nonsense talked about computers nowadays stems from their relative rarity and hence mystery. […] Until computers and robots become as common as cars and until people are able to program and use them as easily as they now drive cars we are likely to continue to suffer from a certain mythological conception of digital computers. This book is very much a part of the present mythological era of the computer.

Plus ça change. More here.

“Bye-bye radioactive jockstrap”

Taylor Orci on the rise and fall of radium:

Numerous are the ads of this time for wares like “radium silk lingerie” and decks of cards with the word “radium” emblazoned on them. In one ad, a pastoral landscape dotted with grazing cows near a pristine stream are bathed in the warm glow of a rising sun. Above the sun are the words, “Radium Brand Creamery Butter.”

More at The Atlantic.

Pauper ubique jacet

How to ensure enough men become soldiers? Daniel Defoe, 1704:

’tis as plain our people have no particular aversion to the war, but they are not poor enough to go abroad; ’tis poverty makes men soldiers, and drives crowds into the armies, and the difficulties to get English-men to list is, because they live in plenty and ease, and he that can earn 20s. per week at an easie, steady employment, must be drunk or mad when he lists for a soldier, to be knock’d o’th’head for 3s. 6d. per week; but if there was no work to be had, if the poor wanted employment, if they had not bread to eat, nor knew not how to earn it, thousands of young lusty fellows would fly to the pike and musket, and choose to dye like men in the face of the enemy, rather than lye at home, starve, perish in poverty and distress.

More thoughts on the nature of poverty in ‘Giving Alms no Charity, and Employing the Poor A Grievance to the Nation’.