Essay on Simon Cook and the Digital World

Essay on Simon Cook and the Digital World

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Simon Cook and the Digital World


Industrialization and the Digital

A contemporary, Simon Cook, argues that the origins of the digital world can be traced to the times of Late-Victorian thought. Though he provides a compelling history of the visual, the digital world on a whole does not derive from the Late-Victorian pictorial diagrams from such logicians as Venn, Carroll, or Marshall as Cook contends. My argument throughout the rest of this paper will use the work of three economists— Adam Smith, Charles Babbage, and Alfred Marshall— to show that the origins of Cook’s visual interface in Late-Victorian times do not coincide with the foundation of the digital; rather, the establishment of modern digital processes can be seen thirty years earlier when the mechanization of physical and mental tasks emerged during the Industrial Revolution.

A Partial History

Cook, a British historian of Victorian economics, is a primary authority on the origins of the digital era. It is no wonder, then, that he portrays the digital in terms of the work of the economists and logicians of the Victorian age. This leading history of the digital is unquestionably partial and should be treated with skepticism. A dissection of his arguments reveals a fallacy: the treating of the digital world as a visual interface.

The critical flaw in characterizing the “digital world” as a product of Late-Victorian thought and Modernist visual forms is the failure to define correctly the precise meaning of the digital. Cook characterizes this world purely in terms of the visual, failing to analyze the role of the digital on the whole. He argues that, at present, we are living in the “digital stage; a moment in our history in which the visual interface of ...


... middle of paper ...


...ns stem from Industrial thought and the recognition of the machine’s capacity to replace man in physical and mental tasks. The model for the mechanical mind, an algorithmic computing mechanism, is the same model that exists for the computer today. It is the same model that has existed for over one and a half centuries.

Cook’s attempt to place the foundation of the digital world during the 1870s is misguided: he equates the necessary visual interaction between human and machine noted by Marshall as the origin for all present digital processes. This visual interface, though first developed by Marshall in 1870, acted to grant humans some form of supervision over the ‘machinery of thought’ developed in the early nineteenth century by Babbage. The ‘machinery of thought,’ the Analytical Engine, is the Industrial predecessor to the computer and modern digital process.

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