Turing’s Cathedral

Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe
By George Dyson

On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem
Alan Turing, Proc. London Math. Soc. (1937) s2-42 (1): 230-265

IAS Electronic Computer Project

In this 1953 diagnostic photograph from the maintenance logs of the IAS Electronic Computer Project (ECP), a 32-by-32 array of charged spots––serving as working memory, not display––is visible on the face of a Williams cathode-ray memory tube. Starting in late 1945, John von Neumann, Professor in the School of Mathematics, and a group of engineers worked at the Institute to design, build, and program an electronic digital computer.


There are two kinds of creation myths: those where life arises out of the mud, and those where life falls from the sky. In this creation myth, computers arose from the mud, and code fell from the sky.

In late 1945, at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, Hungarian American mathematician John von Neumann gathered a small group of engineers to begin designing, building, and programming an electronic digital computer, with five kilobytes of storage, whose attention could be switched in 24 microseconds from one memory location to the next. The entire digital universe can be traced directly to this 32-by-32-by-40-bit nucleus: less memory than is allocated to displaying a single icon on a computer screen today. {&myemph;}

Von Neumann’s project was the physical realization of Alan Turing’s Universal Machine, a theoretical construct invented in 1936. It was not the first computer. It was not even the second or third computer. It was, however, among the first computers to make full use of a high-speed random-access storage matrix, and became the machine whose coding was most widely replicated and whose logical architecture was most widely reproduced. The stored-program computer, as conceived by Alan Turing and delivered by John von Neumann, broke the distinction between numbers that mean things and numbers that do things. Our universe would never be the same.

Working outside the bounds of industry, breaking the rules of academia, and relying largely on the U.S. government for support, a dozen engineers in their twenties and thirties designed and built von Neumann’s computer for less than $1 million in under five years. “He was in the right place at the right time with the right connections with the right idea,” remembers Willis Ware, fourth to be hired to join the engineering team, “setting aside the hassle that will probably never be resolved as to whose ideas they really were.”

IAS Shifting Register

Electronic Computer Project
Institute for Advanced Study
Princeton, N.J.
Shifting Register No. 7
Functional Diagram

The First Five Kilobytes are the Hardest:
Alan Turing, John von Neumann, and the Origins of the Digital Universe at the IAS

IAS Video, March 16, 2012

Dyson also gave this presentation June 6th at the 2013 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences [Theme: “@The Edge”]. Part 2 | Part 3

Net Presence and Breaking the Fourth Wall

Came across “net presence” around 1994-1998. Don’t think it’s Phil Agre’s paper (Red Rock Eater News Service, Imagining the Internet), but that link is an example of a simple, non-graphical, web page. Top 10 websites from Alexa, currently: Google, Facebook, Youtube, Yahoo, Baidu, Wikipeida, Qq, Taobao, Live and Twitter.

These sites use sophisticated (and somewhat invasive) measurements to track online activity. What those measurements don’t track is Net Presence. The main point of the article I read in 199-whatever: a simple web page can have more net presence than a corporation website spending a lot of money.

The Betrayal of the Internet Imaginaire (h/t) reminded me there’s a big difference between the World Wide Web and the Internet:

What is the difference between the Web and the Internet?

From the definition in the Wikipedia: “The Internet is a global system of interconnected computer networks that interchange data by packet switching using the standardized Internet Protocol Suite (TCP/IP).”

Thus, the Internet is a network of networks, defined by the TPC/IP standards.

The Web, on the other hand, is defined in W3C’s Architecture of the World Wide Web, Volume I as follows: “The World Wide Web (WWW, or simply Web) is an information space in which the items of interest, referred to as resources, are identified by global identifiers called Uniform Resource Identifiers (URI).”

Thus, the Web is an information space. The first three specifications for Web technologies defined URLs, HTTP, and HTML.

What does it mean that Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web?

Tim Berners-Lee wrote a proposal in 1989 for a system called the World Wide Web. He then wrote the first Web browser, server, and Web page. He wrote the first specifications for URLs, HTTP, and HTML.

Just the other day, while making a breathlessly wordy point involving Tina Turner, a small teenage voice finally managed to stop my flow: Who’s Tina Turner? OK. Next time the kid unit shows up I’ll have a playlist ready.

Phil Agre wrote about privacy and security in the 1990s (some posts are here). Contrast Why Online Tracking Is Getting Creepier with this from 1994: Privacy includes a broad right to control the uses to which one’s personal information is put. It includes, in particular, to know *who* has such information and *what* they’re doing with it.

Finally, my own interpretation of Net Presence is in the title. It’s the power to break through walls of fiction, which I think is more important to collapse than Moldbug’s concept of The Cathedral.

Piketty’s Game of Thrones for intellectuals

Jedediah Purdy at The Daily Beasts puts forth some great questions about economy post-Piketty. Are these the best questions? This seems relevantly pointy:

Much as Occupy Wall Street set loose political arguments about inequality that had been banned as “class warfare,” Piketty has given walking-around money to everyone who has the sense that We Need to Talk about the Economy.

I’m going to call our economy, hmm, Neoausten? {cracking myself up}. Sunday was my birthday. So. Neoausten it is.

Bitcoin, the Poster Currency

Before quoting from a 2013 article by Scott Smith (Bitcoin is just the poster currency for a growing movement of alternative tender), here’s a quick synopsis:

Bitcoin, Scott writes, has “become an object of economic escapism—but the kind you can’t escape from”. Why? We’re becoming more skeptical of global financial systems, many wanting to return to “locally-focused systems of exchange”. Smith notes Keith Hart’s “informal sector” (that’s always been present) becoming “a new kind of ‘formal informal’ market, recognized by many citizens as a valid option for work, earning and exchange”. This “formal-informal connection” is accelerating due to global recession. Alternative currencies are gaining increased interest as local solutions. Not replacing, or threatening, national currencies, but providing local and accessible (wired and nonwired; easy to understand, ease of entry, &c) solutions. Local systems of exchange provide resilient stability, while maintaining social structures, when financial globalization becomes unstable.

Here’s the quote from Smith’s article, with input from Ken Banks’s (meansofexchange.com):

“Most of the action I see is around software development—people getting excited by local currency platforms, or virtual currencies,” Banks wrote. “The problem here is that these are generally being run by techies, and we need to lead with the problem we’re trying to solve, not a cool technology. Most of the software being developed is unusable unless you have a degree in computing, or a server that costs about the same as a small car, and is hard to understand.”

This doesn’t mean technology should be thrown out completely though, but rather used where appropriate to the task. For Banks, and a growing cadre of others looking at the issue, this means using technology as a simple underlying platform to bring various systems together.

“In terms of software and tools development, I’m fascinated by what we might be able to do if we can build a brand around local economic empowerment that resonates with a wide range of people, including younger people,” Banks said. “What we need is a platform—yes, I’d go that far – which can capture the whole range of behaviours and activities which make up a better locally-engaged citizen. Right now we don’t have that, and it’s problematic, and confusing.” [&myemph;]

Bitcoin as the “poster currency” is good, Smith seems to suggest, because it’s not the only game in town. Less attention-getting, alternative currencies may succeed, on the down low, with local, accessible and sustainable solutions.