In 1889 Herman Hollerith patented a “…method of compiling statistics, which consists in recording separate statistical items pertaining to the individual by holes or combinations of holes punched in sheets of electrically non-conducting material…” The resulting retangular cardboard slips were used, along with machines of Hollerith’s design, to conduct the 1890 census. Other uses were soon found. For example, punching into a time clock… as an aid to counting beans… initiating the second largest voting dispute in US history. Unless you believe Hillary Clinton’s Russiagate theory, in which case it’s the third largest.
By 1947 the name for the tiny individual bit punched from the cards was established as “chad.” This was a syllabic improvement over “confetto,” though a fluster* of chads are still known by the plural, confetti.
It was at this point that the traditional confetti manufacturing cartel began a slow downward spiral, ameliorated only slightly by the gradual disappearance of the competition; ticker tape. Hanging chads were far in the future.
By the 1960s, Hollerith’s invention had surpassed mere statistical applications, simple time recording, mundane accounting, or future farcical election chaos. Individual consumers were being assailed by “IBM” cards mailed as invoices. We were to carefully return those cards with our payment. No folding, spindling, or mutilation.
I began my IT career in those days as a “unit record operator.” The cards being records, and the various machines (which on occasion mutilated the cards beyond the imagination of the most malicious consumer) being the units operated. Or maybe the single cards were considered units of record. Never thought about that until just now.
In any case, this employment gave me the opportunity to experimentally modify such dunning cards as I received. What would happen if I “overpunched” the amount due? This single new hole meant the figure was owed to me by the vendor, not to the vendor by me.
What would happen if I put a tiny red rectangular bit of tape (designed for the purpose of correction) over the hole of the leading number in the amount due? This would reduce the payment requested, from say, $13.50 to $3.50.
The Columbia Record Club, a thoroughly analog enterprise, was unfazed. Presumably, some other unit record operator had to correct the card when it was rejected by their mainframe, but I never heard about it. I suppose they anticipated enough folding, spindling, and mutilation to have procedures for it.
Meanwhile, computers got much smaller and much cheaper. Confetti dropped off the Sierra Club’s top ten list of industrial waste. Computer errors no longer had to be fixed by anonymous specialists wielding keypunch machines the size of a love seat. Computers and computer errors were being democratized.
By the 1980s the general public was regularly hearing excuses from smaller businesses dependent on computers: “It’s not my fault, the computer says you didn’t pay that invoice,” or “The computer won’t let me give you a refund.” This was mixed blessing. Immediate knowledge that the business was not set up to serve you has value, but it lacks the opportunity for careful sarcastic refinement provided by the calm pace of mail correspondence with a Record Club.
We hear the generic excuse, “I can’t help you, our computer is messed up,” less frequently these days. Of course, we’re less often interacting with a human, from whom it could be just a generic excuse for inaction. Computers do not offer excuses, nor do they argue.
In the 1980s-90s I was a partner in a small business selling custom software, technical support, and business counsel to mostly small business. All my employees were required to read, as cautionary advice, Gordon R. Dickson’s 1965 short story Computers Don’t Argue. I like to think the lesson improved our software. Thereby improving the services of our customers to their customers.
These days there is a lot of bloviating about advanced computer algorithms as artificial intelligence: “AI.” We’re to regard the mindless mining of petabytes of data as intelligence. It isn’t intelligence, much less sentience. And it’s surely not sapience, which is implied as just around the corner. Get back to me when you can actually argue with a computer. Turing’s test has been found inadequate, and playing chess doesn’t qualify as intelligence.
That does not mean that the Algorithm Intelligence of Google, Facebook, Apple, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Amazon, Pinterest, etc., etc., etc., etc, isn’t dangerous. That not yet even Paramecian level of intelligence may well destroy our chances of ever knowing Artificial Sapience. The jury is out on the benefit of that possibility.
In the 21st century computer blaming tends more toward, “The network is slow today.” Something with which customers are familiar, and unrelated to the specific business. If some clerk tells you their computer is impeding commerce at your expense, you take your business elsewhere. Corporations have outsourced their
keypunch data entry departments to consumers.
Most people have learned to reject deflective technocratic BS as an excuse for poor service. They have, however, not learned to get off Facebook – so maybe natural intelligence is overrated.
We have reached a new level of sophistication, some strange limited modified reverse hangout neo-luddism… Here is a company whose computers are indistinguishable from their business, blaming those computers for their business problems when the computers operate as designed:
Facebook Blames ‘Technical Issues” for Its Broken Promise to the US Congress
So, here’s Zuckerberg’s corollary of Hollerith’s patent: “a method of compiling statistics, which consists in recording every separate statistical item pertaining to all individuals by holes or combinations of holes punched into the fabric of society.”
*TOC group name nominee, though I would consider tumult, furore, agitation, or ado.