Inference and Historical Analysis

See page 24 in The Language of New Media

In discussing the historical convergence of computers and the media arts, Lev Manovich asserts that:

“the key year for the history of media and computing is 1936. British mathematician Alan Turing wrote a seminal paper entitled ‘On Computable Numbers.’ In it he provided a theoretical description of a general purpose computer”

Manovich observes that the diagram of the machine Turing describes in his paper “looks suspiciously like a film projector,” and then asks provocatively: “Is this a coincidence?”

Absent any documentation to the effect that Turing’s design was directly influenced by the appearance of a film projector, any assertion that such a connection exists would best be treated as conjecture, and the appearance of a connection ought to be treated precisely as coincidence; there certainly is little to be found by way of functional similarity. The hypothetical connection between the diagram of Turing’s machine and the design of a film projector has more to do with a programmatic attempt throughout The Language of New Media to interpret the history of new media in terms of an existing body of literature on film criticism.

While we might be reasonably certain that Turing was aware of cinema, as a mathematician he was probably far more familiar with the mechanics of an adding machine. Moreover, the 1936 paper cited here by Manovich has more to do with esoteric problems of number theory than it has to do with the material properties of practical computers. The machine Turing outlined in his 1936 paper was not intended as a schematic, but rather as something more along the lines of Albert Einstein’s “gedankenexperiments.”

Turing’s machine requires an infinite strip of tape upon which symbols are printed and from which symbols are read; that the machine in this way has access to an infinite amount of memory is at once essential to its conception and also a reminder that it is impossible to physically construct such a device. The machine was meant to help visualize how the act of performing arithmetic calculations transforms information about infinite sets of numbers (such as the set of whole numbers).

Where Turing comes into the text, it is worth noting that the word “computer” in Turing’s day did not refer to machines at all, but rather to people employed for their arithmetic abilities.


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