The AI Project

I've been tracking the emerging Story (well, Stories) of the gathering wave of AI for almost two months, after quite a while of paying no attention to the incoming seas and the movements of rivers of air.

In fact, the weather makes a pretty good metaphor for what AI is about to deliver to humanity: a mixture of nourishment, crippling surplus, tragedy...

My collection of links-with-quoted-bits grows every day, as I become a bit better at navigating the technologies and in the face of what seems like an incoming tsunami. I'm also broadening and trying to nuance my opinions in re: AI, and that's what I hope to get to discussing below.

but somewhere in the back of my mind is the question why I'd choose to interest myself in the evolution and spread of this emergent technology in sociocultural spaces, since I can't imagine using some of the affordances myself, and I'll not be around to find out how it all works out (one never is...). And the answer comes back that I've been an active participant-observer in the 60 years of run-up to now, and that I've been riding that surfboard joyfully on successive waves. So I have at least a useful perspective on where the present came from. I think I've spun more or less the same me-and-the-computer narrative before, but another iteration may surface some new facets of the Saga.

Thinking back to 32 years ago, when I repotted myself with a daring leap from /anthropologist in sociology department/ to another of Academia's lily pads... Library School suited me perfectly, and the whole idea of 'Reference Librarian' seemed such a perfect match with my proclivities. When I got the job at Washington & Lee, my general notion of what I was doing was

Helping people find
things that they need
in their pursuit of
what they want to know,
need to know

Part of the package I brought with me was 30 years of ...entanglement... with the emergent world of the Computer — not that I had much in the way of expertise, but I'd seen a lot of what was going on (in a participant-observer sort of way, though not systematically) and was convinced that libraries were about to be transformed by what 1992 still called the Microcomputer. I was, of course, right about that, and my 13 years at Washington & Lee were a delight as an active participant-observer, building and promulgating W&L's WWW infrastructure, teaching with computer as centerpiece (in and out of many disciplines), encouraging and supporting faculty as they figured out how to make use of the computer in their research and teaching, exploring the potentials of Geographic Information Systems (quite unsuccessfully: no takers). But the primary beneficiary was myself: carte blanche to explore and basically do as I wished, talking with people in about a dozen Departments, following the development of tools for learning, finding out stuff... much more satisfying than garden-variety professoring.

But rewind to Harvard, 1962, for the beginnings:

In the fall of 1962 I was hired as a research assistant on a Quixotic scheme to produce on the Computer the text of A Cross-Cultural Summary (published by HRAF Press in 1964). Here's what its Svengali Robert B Textor said about how he fell into the project, after 5 years of fieldwork in Thailand (1953-1958). He was at Yale 1959-1961:

It was during this period that it first occurred to me that perhaps the computer could somehow be programmed to produce output suggestive of covert patterning not only in the form of numerical tables but also in the form of English sentences coordinated with such tables. ...In 1962 it was finally possible to produce computer output containing both two-by-two contingency tables and coordinated English language sentences stating the manifest content of these tables...

Our work with decks of "IBM Cards" was carried out in Emerson Basement (Emerson Above was home at the time to Philosophy and Sociology titans), where, (1) 15 or so years before my mother had consulted the papers of Charles S. Peirce, and (2) Phil Stone's General Inquirer Project ("A Computer Approach to Content Analysis") had processed and stored its data, and (3) Betsy had worked for a summer-job continuation of her freshman seminar in Statistical Analysis. Hallowed halls, the Basement.

A Cross-Cultural Summary is 4 1/2 inches thick, weighs 7 1/2 pounds, and may be one of the least-often consulted volumes in any library that has a copy. It seems a marvelous curiosity nearly 50 years after its appearance, but I owe many blessings of that 50 years to its existence.

After two years of Peace Corps in Sarawak we fetched up at Stanford (1967-1972). Betsy had more to do with computers in those years than I did, but a memorable event was Steve Butterfield's visit, when he used the Stanford mainframe computer to send email to his colleagues at BBN — in the very early years of ARPANet.

In Nova Scotia, I followed the beginnings of personal computing via CoEvolution Quarterly and Whole Earth Review, and aspired to learn more during my 1979-1980 sabbatical at Stanford, on the cusp of the early years of microcomputers. Betsy wrangled data with the Stanford Heart Disease Prevention Project, and I worked on mapping data from the 1900 and 1910 Hungarian Census, using SYMAP (a Harvard-developed line-printer output mapping package), and Steve Butterfield treated me to a tour of XeroxPARC, where I saw many of the technologies that inspired Steve Jobs during his XeroxPARC visit.

Back in Nova Scotia, I bought a CRT terminal and acoustic coupler to enable connection to Acadia's computer, and then in Spring 1984 I bought the TI-Pro, with a digitizing tablet and plotter so that I could make maps (using AutoCAD), and started using text files to generate handout materials for my courses. By the end of the 1980s Betsy was using an early Mac to analyze speech, and I used it to make spectrograms for the Cross-Cultural Studies in Music course. Somewhere in there the penny dropped about hypertext.

By 1990 I was experimenting with OCR and (with HyperCard) imagining hypertext as a modality for teaching and electronic publication. And at that point I left Acadia on another sabbatical, which eventually (January 1991) took me to Simmons and on to the evolution of career to librarianship.

Recollect that in the early 1990s there was no WWW, no graphical browsers, and not much Internet use. Terminals and then PCs were beginning to appear in the public areas of Boston-area college libraries, but most library computer use was dial-up. The expensive commercial search databases (DIALOG and a few others) had arcane need-a-trained-librarian interfaces. While I was running the Simmons Library School computer lab in 1991-1992, one of my tasks was to install a very early version of Windows and help library school students navigate the various possibilities of the graphical interface. The computer was clearly becoming essential in the work of librarians, but the routes that the Information Highway would carve out were still mist-shrouded when I got my MSLIS degree in 1992 and started a job hunt.

At Washington & Lee (13 years, August 1992-August 2005) I was initially hired to be Coordinator of Bibliographic Instruction. I was enormously fortunate to be able to learn from John Doyle at the W&L Law School library, and then to experiment with the early WWW browsers, and imagine and then build the W&L library presence on the emergent Web, and begin to construct my own personal html presence, which I then used as the basis for all my library teaching opportunities. I was the Internet evangelist, and Bibliographic Instruction morphed into experiments with personal learning management, with students making their own Web presences to display and share their work. A lot of my work with W&L's Global Stewardship program was centered on teaching iterations of Human Geography in the emerging networked environment. I can also take much of the credit for urging Frank Settle to use the Web to distribute his Alsos Project on Nuclear Issues, an NSF-funded database project at W&L — in which Betsy served as Editor for nearly a decade.

And then in retirement (2005-present) I used my own domain to continue to explore the evolution of now-ubiquitous computing power: sound, images, video, blogging...

And so we arrive in the 2020s, COVID time and the jumping of the shark by several of the giant corporations that grabbed the Interwebs in the 2010s — Facebook, Twitter, etc. — which I had pretty much ignored and disparaged for my personal learning purposes. And now the question whither next? seems to have AI as its current answer. Certainly AI in various guises is clearly becoming a disruptive technology in the digital world that ensnares us all. Careful tracking of that disruption of the digital status quo seems a vital part of the ongoing saga of the Anthropology of Computers.


So here I am, trying to improve my understanding of and develop a sense for the process of the emergence of AI as an affordance, and also to connect a lot of various dots from my own past with and enthusiasms for the technological history I've been at least nearby, and sometimes in the thick of.

Today's acrimonious debate over AI seems to divide participants into moieties: one sees the various facets of AI as negative, harmful, frightening, inauthentic, to be shunned as polluting, vastly dangerous, false and deceptive, or simply insulting. The other sees new dawns, fresh horizons, opportunities (for creativity... for profit...), New Jerusalems, incipient singularities... Commentators from both extremes are readily found, are irreconcilable, are deaf to the Other Side, and absolutely convinced of the rightness...

Have we been here before?

Some material harvested:

From NYRB 1973, William H Gass article on Gertrude Stein as Geographer:

Almost at once she realized that language itself is a complete analogue of experience because it, too, is made of a large but finite number of relatively fixed terms which are then allowed to occur in a limited number of clearly specified relations, so that it is not the appearance of a word that matters but the manner of its reappearance, and that an unspecifiable number of absolutely unique sentences can in this way be composed, as, of course, life is also continuously refreshing itself in a similar fashion.

a collection of YouTube videos on facets of AI