Homo informaticus

Essay by Luc de Brabandere: “The history of computer science did not begin eighty years ago with the creation of the first electronic computer. To program a computer to process information – or in other words, to simulate thought – we need to be able to understand, dismantle and disassemble thoughts. In IT-speak, in order to encrypt a thought, we must first be able to decrypt it! And this willingness to analyse thought already existed in ancient times. So the principles, laws, and concepts that underlie computer science today originated in an era when the principles of mathematics and logic each started on their own paths, around their respective iconic thinkers, such as Plato and Aristotle. Indeed, the history of computer science could be described as fulfilling the dream of bringing mathematics and logic together. This dream was highlighted for the first time during the thirteenth century by Raymond Lulle, a theologian and missionary from Majorca, but it became the dream of Gottfried Leibniz in particular. This German philosopher wondered why these two fields had evolved side by side separately since ancient times, when both seemed to strive for the same goal. Mathematicians and logicians both wish to establish undeniable truths by fighting against errors of reasoning and implementing precise laws of correct thinking. The Hungarian journalist, essayist and Nobel laureate Arthur Koestler called this shock (because it always is a shock) of an original pairing of two apparently very separate things a bisociation.

We know today that the true and the demonstrable will always remain distinct, so to that extent, logic and mathematics will always remain fundamentally irreconcilable. In this sense Leibniz’s dream will never come true. But three other bisociations, admittedly less ambitious, have proved to be very fruitful, and they structure this short history. Famous Frenchman René Descartes reconciled algebra and geometry; the British logician George Boole brought algebra and logic together; and an American engineer from MIT, Claude Shannon, bisociated binary calculation with electronic relays.

Presented as such, the history of computer science resembles an unexpected remake of Four Weddings and a Funeral! Let’s take a closer look….(More)”.