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Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe Hardcover – 1 Mar 2012
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Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe
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I skimmed sections that seemed dense in technical details of valves and command lines, but the stories of wives and women working on computer hardware and programmes, plus the vibrant "work hard, play hard" atmosphere in the various campus-type living arrangements were fascinating. Klari von Neumann's narrative was one of the most engaging for me. I also quite like stories of how institutions are shaped, so I wasn't put off by this strand.
A stand out comment related to the power of computer processing keeping men honest, because we've all seen how powerful computer models can be created and used dishonestly.
The Manchester University Small Scale Experimental Machine or Baby was repeatedly referred to in the same breath as Colossus and thus was a bit confusing. For instance "the core of the computing group from Bletchley Park were continuing from where their work on Colossus had left off". I (unlike the author who counts Max Newman as the core) imagine that the core of the computing group were the ones who actually designed and built the machine; Williams, Kilburn and Tootill who had all been based at the Telecommunications Research Establishment in Malvern. It isn't the most straightforward of family trees, but these vague references don't help to give people their proper credits or to understand why things came about in the way they did.
Kindle-wise, quite a few of the photos at the end seemed to have become separated from their captions on the following page which is a bit annoying, but I don't remember any particularly awful lay out issues.
Unusually for me, I wrote over the margins all the things that irritated me as I was reading - The analogies, the hyperbole, the sentences that I re-read only to still find no meaning.
A very disappointing book.
The first of these is a certain lack of balance. Despite the title, Alan Turing is given only a minor role, and - despite some acknowledgement of British contributions to both the MANIAC project and other early computers - the author clearly takes the view that von Neumann and IAS were the principle inventors of the modern stored program computer. This is debatable. British computer developments were ahead of US developments at many stages during this period, including the completion of Colossus ahead of ENIAC, the completion of the Manchester Baby ahead of MANIAC and other early computers, and the introduction of the Ferranti Mark1 as the first commercially available computer. von Neumann's "First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC" (1945) was the first published account of the idea of a stored program computer, and gave rise to the term "von Neumann architecture" which is still used today, but the idea had by then been current for a year or two and others, including Turing, were already experimenting with it. It can be argued that storage, or "memory" was the key innovation that allowed computing to develop and, once used for intermediate results during a computation, its use to store programs was an invention waiting to happen. Therefore, the book should be read in conjunction with Andrew Hodge's "Alan Turing: The Enigma" and other books on early computers to arrive at a balanced view.
The second flaw is, unfortunately, more serious. Dyson's view of the "digital universe" is based on his perception of current offerings from companies such as Amazon, Facebook and Google and on a dystopian interpretation of modern developments in which computers and networks reproduce themselves and become the controllers of mankind rather than its servant - a view more reminiscient of works of science fiction such as The Matrix rather than serious history. Several of the later chapters contain uncritical discussions of this theme. Dyson argues that computers have influenced human behaviour - and so, of course, has every other new technology - but he also says "Facebook defines who we are; Amazon defines what we want; Google defines what we think." Really? We are just waking up to the fact these companies pay little or no tax in the UK but, given the fact that their current services are easily fooled, perhaps we don't to worry about them taking over our minds just yet.
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