Thought, Sign and Machine - the Idea of the Computer Reconsidered

Copenhagen: Danish Original: Akademisk Forlag 1994. Tanke, Sprog og Maskine. (1999)
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Throughout what is now the more than 50-year history of the computer many theories have been advanced regarding the contribution this machine would make to changes both in the structure of society and in ways of thinking. Like other theories regarding the future, these should also be taken with a pinch of salt. The history of the development of computer technology contains many predictions which have failed to come true and many applications that have not been foreseen. While we must reserve judgment as to the question of the impact on the structure of society and human thought, there is no reason to wait for history when it comes to the question: what are the properties that could give the computer such far-reaching importance? The present book is intended as an answer to this question. The fact that this is a theoretical analysis is due to the nature of the subject. No other possibilities are available because such a description of the properties of the computer must be valid for any kind of application. An additional demand is that the description should be capable of providing an account of the properties which permit and limit these possible applications, just as it must make it possible to characterize a computer as distinct from a) other machines whether clocks, steam engines, thermostats, or mechanical and automatic calculating machines, b) other symbolic media whether printed, mechanical, or electronic and c) other symbolic languages whether ordinary languages, spoken or written or formal languages. This triple limitation, however, (with regard to other machines, symbolic media and symbolic languages) raises a theoretical question as it implies a meeting between concepts of mechanical-deterministic systems, which stem from mathematical physics, and concepts of symbolic systems which stem from the description of symbolic activities common to the humanities. The relationship between science and the humanities has traditionally been seen from a dualistic perspective, as a relationship between two clearly separate subject areas, each studied on its own set of premises and using its own methods. In the present case, however, this perspective cannot be maintained since there is both a common subject area and a new - and specific - kind of interaction between physical and symbolic processes.

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Niels Finnemann
University of Copenhagen


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