Kirtz Post #1: Computers & English- A Western Way

Selfe states that the computer’s potential is just being to be realized; and that they “make scholarship accessible” (63). But what about the control mechanisms and limits built into computers by the very humans who program them and the structural biases and cultural discourses into which computers enter? Selfe acknowledges this briefly, mentioning that computers can be used for “the unproductive competition, the political hegemony, the abuse of part-timers and secretaries, and the segmentation of information and communication” (63) if used unimaginatively. However, computers themselves are construction and programmed within traditional institutional and cultural discourses. Every year thousands of students graduate university with computer science degrees and thus the programmers that create software are inculcated with systematic beliefs and ingrained to work within liberalism and power hierarchies. Even Apple’s so-called rebel founders, such as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozinak, attended university; Wozinak, the Apple I’s primary programmer, attended the University of Colorado Boulder (“About,” woz.org). While many authors are concerned with how computers are being integrated into departments, hardly any are considering the origins of the basic functions of the computer and the unconscious discourses within computer systems.

Selfe notes that the more important question of access is tied to knowledge, rather than immediate exposure (64). “Power involves control of information as well as access to that information;” (Selfe 65) this is never more evident than the design of the GUI (graphical user interface). While Selfe references an individual’s knowledge about using a computer within the context of the English department, I believe that the GUI is an example of this inherent discourse substrate-like structure. The GUI essentially packages information for the user, making it more accessible, but also limiting the types of functions that the user can do without the command line. Apple’s use of the GUI illustrates the forcible control that the corporation issued on their products, and therefore their users.

The GUI makes the computer less foreign, something with arises again in Selfe’s essay. In illustrating the technocrat speak, with phrases like “gigahertz” or “networking,” Selfe posits the computer as Other. The GUI eliminated certain terms needed for access thus making it less like an Other while still hiding or creating an illusion about the actual processes occurring beneath the interface. While this leads to dichotomies between those who understand these terms/interfaces and those who do not, it also highlights the foreignness of computers and their inability to connect to humans in ways that we as a society are used to. C.P. Snow notes that the disconnect between science and humanities is a “problem of the entire West” (3). Ultimately Western notions of control through capitalism are built into the foundation of computers themselves and this has manifested in the difficulty to even describe humanities computing. The ubiquity of the QWERTY keyboard as a model for non-Western keyboards highlights this. Connected is Moretti’s argument, which seeks to quantify literature production rates between Western and non-Western countries. Moretti’s use of computing points to perhaps a way out of the Western discourse so embedded in literary studies, since it at least recognizes the Otherness of non-Western literature through computers. Yet can this ever be achieved, as the computer is truly a Western machine?

“About.” Woz.org. n.d. Web. 5 Sept 2015.

Moretti, Franco. 2003. “Graphs, Maps and Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History.” New Left Review 67-93. Accessed August 28, 2015.

Selfe, Cynthia. “Computers in English Departments: The Rhetoric of Technopower.” ADE Bulletin. 90 (Fall 1988): 63-7. Web. 29 Aug. 2015.

Snow, C. P. The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Print.

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