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Directions in DH: Victorian Prehistory of the Digital

November 2, 2017 @ 3:30 PM - 4:30 PM

Presented by Jason Puskar, UWM English.

Many people associate the digital with the computational binarism of ones and zeroes, but this talk will trace the emergence of the digital from the earlier and more rudimentary binarism of nineteenth-century buttons and switches. Before the nineteenth century, there were hardly any functionally binary switches in use.

Even the word “switch” did not acquire its contemporary meaning until the Victorian period, when inventors borrowed it from the railway switch track to describe semi-automated circuit closing devices. The application of binary controls to mechanical systems is thus an extremely recent development, and an extremely neglected one, which is all the more surprising given its extensive social and political effects.

Drawn from a longer cultural history of the pushbutton from the telegraph to the touch screen, this talk focuses specifically on “Victorian digitality” in its most immediate sense: the invention of a wide range of interfaces that recruit the human digits in functionally binary operations.

The contemporary digital clearly derives from familiar sources such as communications networks, the codes of punch cards and piano rolls, and the algorithms of calculating machines, but it also derives from the simpler digitality of early servant bells, voting machines, typewriters, light switches, and guns.

When we focus on the advent of binary interfaces between people and machines, we can perceive that the digital has been changing what it means to be human — for longer than we may have imagined.


November 2, 2017
3:30 PM - 4:30 PM