[lit-ideas] Re: Is a computer program a performative?

  • From: Teemu Pyyluoma <teme17@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Tue, 10 Aug 2004 04:37:08 -0700 (PDT)

--- John McMcCreerymcmccreeryogolom> wrote:

> On 2004/08/07, at 1:24, Peter D. JuJungerrote:
> > As long as we are discussing peperformativesis a
> computer
> > program---which is often defined as ``a set of
> inintstructions> > to be performed by a
computer''---a peperformative
> Or a
> > series of peperformatives
> >
> > Does it make a difference whether the computer is
> a human being,
> > as they used to be when I was young, or a gadget?
> If we accept as a definition of peperformative>
Austin's description in 
> _How to Do Things With Words_,  a computer's
> instruction is  not a 
> peperformativeince it either works or fails to work
> regardless of 
> social context.

I think this is wrong, but I'm not quite sure what
social context means in the above. The reason I have
my doubts is that strictly speaking computer programs,
that is operations executed by a CPU, never fail.
There are cases where CPUs or other parts fail, but
this is very rare. For all practical purposes, the
mindless machine does exactly what you tell it to do.
If the results don't please you, well that's your

However, what I think John means by program is what in
industry speak should be called an application or an
app. (In practice most don't bother with such
precision.) Applications allow user to complete some
task or tasks, and if the task does not get completed
we could say the application fails. But here's the
catch, succeeding in a task is a result of
human-computer interaction.

For example in UNIX there is a little app called more.
The user types more <file> and the app prints (to the
display) as many rows as can fit in to the screen from
the bebeginningf the file, and the next screen when
user hits space. Simple enough, expect if you're
reading Hebrew or any other language written from
right to left, or from bottom to top. So if I type
more talmud.x and find the result less than
satisfactory, the program as such doesn't fail but as
an application it fails to perform the task. What
exactly the task is depends on context.

This goes to the very heart of a version of mind-body
problem that appears with technology "when describing
technical artifacts we simultaneously use these two
basic conceptualizations: technical artifacts are
physical objects that are described by physical
concepts (the tungsten wire has a length of 15
millimeters) and by intentional concepts such as
technical functions (the tungsten wire has the
function of emitting light). Moreover, both
conceptualizations are indispensable for technical
artifacts: if an artifact is described by only
physical concepts, it is in general unclear which
functions it has, and if an artifact is only described
functionally, it is in general unclear which physical
properties it has. A description of technical
artifacts thus uses both conceptualizations and in
that sense technical artifacts have a dual (a physical
and an intentional) nature." (from the site of a
research program called "The Dual Nature of Technical
(hthttp/wwwwwudualnatureutudelftlnlndex.hthtmat Delft
University of Technology.)

Analogically, the logic of a program is one way to
look at it, its function (spspecification, task,
application, etc.) is another. The two are somehow
related, but how exactly is the problem.

Using pperformative to solve the issue has some
promise,  that is program x in social context y
performs task a, because social context could be
defined in such a way that it includes the intentions
of designer and user, relevant skills and knowledge of
the user, arrangement of work, infrastructure needed
and so on. But on the other hand, a concept that broad
is not informative at all. And I also have a nagging
suspicion that on closer analysis this would turn out
to be a tautology.

Personally, I think of using computers as translating
from natural language to logical syntax, which is hard
precisely because like formal logic it is extremely
precise and thus less expressive. As a side note from
this follows that at the end there is only one
uber-problem in computer science, human-computer
interaction. Programs are translating devices,
carefully limiting your input and formating output in
a form the user is supposed to understand. Like phrase
books really. Also, I have no problem communicating
using phrases such as "what does this program do?" but
"do" in the previous doesn't function the same way as
it does in "so what does an executive assistant do
anyway?" and ought to be understood as "what can I do
with this program?"

Helsinki, Finland

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