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Sean Silver Lecture: "Early Modern Glass in the History of Cognitive Technology"

Tuesday, October 30, 2012
12:00 AM
202 S. Thayer, room 2022, Ann Arbor

In the entrance hall at Gorhambury House is a set of enamelled glass windows that formerly belonged to Sir Francis Bacon, the man most responsible for the modern form of empirical inquiry.  The windows display a perfectly diverse array of flora and fauna in a perfectly regular grid. The Museum of Computer Science in Bletchley Park, a 25 mile drive on the A5, houses a Williams-Kilburn Cathode Ray Tube. The tube, which was part of the first experiments in artificial intelligence, projects a perfectly regular array of 512 dots and dashes. These two artifacts are both products of a certain way of thinking about knowledge; each renders a string of statements visible as an arrangement of images in space. They both, what's more, perform what we would commonly recognize as a cognitive act; they are instruments of thought that themselves shape and replicate habits of thought.

We have a tendency to think of our minds as replicating the tools with which we think. This tendency has taken many forms; historically, we might have agreed that a mind is like a library, a museum, or a cabinet of curiosities. The microcomputer is their distant cousin: its central processing unit, paired with long- and short-term memory, replicates the common-sense model of the human mind developed in early modern England. This talk will examine the intellectual conditions that had to be prepared for us to think of ourselves this way, discussing a critical moment in early modern intellectual history as it was captured in two frames of early modern glass. It will also consider some of the technical achievements that are part of that history, the very material forms that reconfirm our common sense of ourselves. A proper history of modern cybernetics, that is, of the human crossing with digital computing, begins in St Albans, in the entry hall to Sir Francis Bacon's Gorhambury House.

Sean Silver, assistant professor, English; former Helmut F. Stern Professor