September 30, 2018
On September 27, 2018, Professor Lorraine Daston gave the 2018 Beijing Harper Lecture, entitled “Big Calculation and Algorithmic Intelligence,” at the University of Chicago Center in Beijing.
Professor Daston is a visiting professor in the Department of History and the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, director of Department II of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, and a permanent fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. She has published on a wide range of topics in the history of science, including the history of probability and statistics, wonders in early modern science, the emergence of the scientific fact, scientific models, objects of scientific inquiry, the moral authority of nature, and the history of scientific objectivity. For her lecture at the Beijing Center, Professor Daston focused primarily on the emergence of machine calculation in the 19th and 20th century, and the way that the mechanization of calculation led to a slow decline in its perceived intellectual value.
Addressing the alums, local scholars, and other interested parties that gathered in the Center’s lecture hall, Professor Daston began with a simple question: “Why don’t we have a history of calculation?” In many cultures and epochs, reading, writing, and calculation comprise the three pillars of scribal cultures. Indeed, the former two are both well-documented in world history and frequently used, albeit in digital form, today. No one in the lecture hall, however, could remember the last time they were encouraged to complete a calculation by hand. According to Professor Daston’s lecture, this is key to understanding why the history of calculation is, essentially, a missing history: while reading and writing have weathered successive technical revolutions with their prestige largely intact, the technical advances of the 19th and 20th centuries removed calculation from the realm of intellectual activity and, consequently, from the realm of things that intuitively merit historical documentation.
The evening’s lecture led those in attendance on a lengthy journey through the history of machine-aided calculation, with stops in the factories and observatories of a rapidly industrializing England, the mass calculation projects of revolution-era France, all the way through to NASA’s jet propulsion laboratories in the 1950s United States. Professor Daston detailed the push to mechanize calculation and incorporate calculating machines within the division of labor in an increasingly centralized and supervised workplace, highlighting the challenges that this process presented for those in responsible for devising a productive and efficient organization of human-machine laborers. Ultimately, the process detailed in the lecture arrived at a place in which calculation, by virtue of the ease with which it was performed by machines, was no longer “intelligent,” nor were the machines themselves seen to possess intelligence yet.
From there, Professor Daston answered questions from the lively audience, on topics ranging from the role of early calculation aids in China to the changing representation of women in calculation and, eventually, computation. Discussion continued throughout the post-event reception, making for a full evening of robust academic discourse.