28 Mar 2024 – Hofstadter, handshakes and black boxes

In the preface to the 20th edition of Gödel, Escher, Bach, Hofstadter talks about writing it in the late 1970s on one of the earliest word-processing programs, TV-Edit. The program allowed him to write quicker than longform, but also to play with style and form. As he wrote, he designed.

By the time I had a solid version of the manuscript ready to send out to publishers, visual design and conceptual structure were intimately bound up with each other.

In a turn of events that seems unbelievable now, his publisher was willing to let him typeset the entire book himselfThe podcast, Reading Writers, discusses novelists taking liberties with layout., using a computer typesetting system from the same maker of TV-Edit.

I had to insert into each chapter or dialogue literally thousands of cryptic typesetting commands, next chop each computer file into several small pieces – five or six per file, usually – each of which had to be run through a series of two computer programs, and then each of the resulting output files had to be punched out physically as a cryptic pattern of myriad holes on a long, thin roll of paper tape.

This was followed by taking the tape to another building where the hole puncher was located to load the paper tape and carefully monitor that nothing jammed. The task is still not finished. There is yet another building, this one containing the phototypesetting machine used by the local newspaper, and another lengthy process of darkrooms, chemical baths, and clotheslines.

A labour of love that took all summer.

Until disaster struck. After completing nearly all the galleys, Hofstadter discovered that the first ones were faded yellow beyond use. The ageing rollers in the machine no longer wiped the galleys clean, and the acid ate away at the black ink.

He had to do it all again.

I was raised by a single father, so I often tagged along to all sorts of errands. In the early 90s, one of these was connecting to the internet. What he needed the internet for, I have no idea. Commercial dial-up was brand new and he was an early adopter.

I have clear memories of being squashed in a public phone booth, while he velcro-ed a funny-looking corded telephone handset to the public phone handset. Then came the modem soundThe sound of dial-up.. I now know that he was using an acoustic coupler, and the modem sound is – delightfully – called a handshake.

A grey handset with large black rubber earpieces, with a velcro strap
A portable telecoupler from the Computer History Museum

An acoustic coupler was a speaker device that could send and receive acoustic signals. The dial-up tone and subsequent sequence of digits – each assigned a special tone – is a negotiation between 2 machines. One initiates the protocol, the other responds, and a connection is established.

Today, I am connected to fibre optic broadband, typing on a word-processorGoogle Docs for drafting, Visual Code Studio to put it online. with seemingly unlimited formatting capabilities. When I choose, I publish it on the internet with a few clicks. Processes that used to take weeks and months take minutes.

I know next to nothing about how these things actually work.

Post dial-up internet mostly relies on radio frequencies. There is still a handshake, but as Oona Räisänen says, modern versions

“vastly exceed the information capacity of human hearing, or of any sense of biological creature, for that matter.”

Google Docs corrects my spelling and if I choose to turn on its AI writing assistantI do not., Duet AI, can suggest the ending of my sentences and more. Gmail users may be familiar with this, Smart Compose was released in 2018. Large learning models – such as those which power Duet AI – are black boxes, incomprehensible to the average user and very often to the engineers who design them.

The workings of technology, increasingly complex, are hidden. As are the values and prejudices encoded in them.

What is the cost of moving faster?