2(4), August 1985, page 63

Fighting in the Computer Revolution: A Field Report from the Walking Wounded

Cynthia L. Selfe
Billie J. Wahlstrom

In their book Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson contend that the linguistic metaphors a culture produces reveal how its people structure their reality and their world. In this paper, we provide a look at the language and the culture of computers as they appeared to us when we first entered the computer revolution as two rather naive humanists approximately five years ago. Although we believe now that computers can be immensely valuable to scholars and teachers in the humanities, we are still convinced that the culture of computer scientists and the culture of traditional humanists are separated by the metaphors that inform their realities. These differing metaphorical realms make free and uninhibited exchanges between the two groups difficult. To explore these boundaries, we wrote the following narrative.


A while ago two of us went down to the local high-tech store to sign up for the computer

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revolution. We found we couldn't even read the enlistment material. Before we entered that shiny world of polished plastic, cathode tubes, and silicon chips, we had been fairly confident of our grasp of the English language. After all, for the past fifteen years we have been charged with trying to teach assorted students how to read, write, and speak effective English in six different colleges and universities around the country. But the variety of English spoken by the computers, the people who talked to them, and those who ministered to their needs was as foreign to us as the untranslated Aeneid is to most first-year college students. Indeed, these people had taken the same language we used every day in our scholarly pursuit of the humanities and transformed it into a language of mechanistic violence.

And herein, in the schism that exists between the vocabulary and the dominant metaphors of the computer scientist and the teacher-scholar of literature, composition or linguistics, lies the potential failure of the computer revolution in the humanities. Although we may continue to run across the occasional eighteenth-century man down the hall who has come to swear by his personal computer for word processing or the sociolinguist who uses a computer for her research work, we may never see English professionals en masse enlist in the ranks of hardware aficionados because the metaphorical language barrier is just too high for most of us to clamber over. In fact, anyone who takes a careful look at the imagistic language surrounding computers, will be hard pressed to imagine how any humanist has managed to scale that slippery semantic wall.

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To support our reasoning, we offer a protocol of our own initial session with a microcomputer--typical enough, we think, to be depressing.

1:00 Our first step is to sign up for a time during which we can use our department's Brand X microcomputer. The machines are becoming increasingly popular among students who seem to be able to learn computer languages as fast as the technocrats can invent them. They know BASIC, PASCAL, COBAL, SNOBAL, SPITBOL, PILOT, and PYLON. We know nothing.

We pull rank and commandeer a terminal for one hour. In stentorian tones, the lab director, an ex-military man by his stature and deportment, informs us and a room full of sniggering students that we have failed to sign up in military time. Now, we have a problem. Neither of us has a watch with military time; Lady Hamilton doesn't make them. Nor are we veterans of a foreign war, initiated on the battle field into the fraternity of the 24-hour clock. We cheat by counting on our fingers under the table--13:00!

13:05 We sit down and look at the computer before us. The blank screen, like some dark, electronic eye, is vaguely threatening even when it is empty. The student next to us calls his a CRT--Cyclops's Ray Tube? Cute Radioactive Time bomb? We skim the manual to identify the other parts of the computer. At the heart of our operating system is a metal disk called the WINCHESTER 30-30. The directions tell us to LOAD another floppy disk in the "A" drive. Our with the weaponry of the revolution has begun.

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13:10 All according to the manual, we begin the session by BOOTING UP the computer. Billie wonders if the delicate machinery can withstand such physical treatment. Cindy recalls that the last time she booted anything was when her puppy, Moosebrain, gutted her stuffed armadillo. We request assistance. A soldier of the hardware wars approaches.

13:14 The machine starts to gag and wheeze. It knows we are here, that we want to communicate. It responds to our tentative overtures by flashing PASSWORD on its screen. Shades of The Red Badge of Courage! We feel more and more like one of the enemy. What does it do if you give it the wrong word? HALT! WHO COMPUTES THERE? We consider deserting, but the lab director is on patrol, and he's standing right behind us. Prisoners of war.

13:16 The computer is saying something. In big letters it's telling us about RAM. It should be careful. We're close enough to shoving it already.

13:18 Skimming a few more pages of the manual tells us that we must give the machine COMMANDS. The military operation has begun. We are told to STRIKE the "X" key and HIT the carriage return if we wish to EXECUTE one of the prepackaged programs. (No wonder people devoted to these machines are called HACKERS!)

13:25 We've read too many freshman composition papers. We spell the name of the program wrong. The computer is a harsh teacher. It

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tells us we have made a FATAL ERROR and that our program is TERMINATED. Apparently, its programmers had chosen from a liberal bank of synonymous terms. Other computers in the room are ABORTING, KILLING, or BOMBING programs when they catch the scent of human error. Next to us, a pale young woman moans as her program CRASHES. She didn't have time to fire a single shot; it was an act of static electricity.

13:30 We boot up again and manage to spell our request correctly. We try word processing, but when we print out our English sentences, they are translated into Cyrillic characters. Someone didn't change the daisy wheel. Isn't Daisy the one who makes B.B. guns? Our "quick brown fox..." is transmogrified into a physics equation for predicting the movement of unbalanced rotating machinery. We've sustained a direct hit to our pride. We hit ESCAPE.

13:50 We're frustrated and depressed. Across from us a skinny lad with pimples and a calculator on his belt tippity-taps his way through a paper for first-year English; the machine seems friendly enough to him. Are they on the same side? If so, what side are we on? We've failed at all the easy stuff, and we haven't even tried to CRUNCH our disc, ZAP some text, or CALL UP some data. What's left in life? We REBOOT the computer, flip our floppy discs out of the drives, and crawl off under the barbed wire. We have not had a happy experience.

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We're not ready to give up the fight to master computers. They are powerful tools that help us do our work more quickly and with less drudgery that we could do it alone. But the metaphors and the language that are now used in connection with these machines makes us feel like interlopers, spies behind enemy lines. Without a blitzkrieg Berlitz course in computerese, we stand little chance of rising through the ranks of technopeasants and receiving a commission in this computerized army.

We know this polarized vision of "we" and "they" is counterproductive to unified efforts by humanist scholars and computer scientists. And we suspect that the metaphorical linguistic barrier is one important reason behind the scarcity of truly collaborative projects between the two camps.

The attempts by computer scientists to make software and hardware friendly to users and our attempts to integrate computers into our curriculum are beginning overtures of peace. However, before humanist scholars and computer scientists can truly join forces and pursue ventures that take full advantage of our combined expertise, we must extend linguistic olive branches. And these SALT talks, we contend, will determine the success or failure of the electronic revolution in our field.

Cynthia L. Selfe

Billie J. Wahlstrom