Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, Vol 4, No 1-2 (2008)

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Of Mice Moths and Men Machines

Susan Schuppli

Abstract


In 1947, Grace Murray Hopper a pioneer in early computing made an unusual entry into her daily logbook: ‘Relay #70 Panel F (moth) in relay. First actual case of bug being found.’ Accompanying this entry is an actual celluloid tape encrusted bug, or more specifically a moth, fastened to the page of the logbook. According to Hopper, one of the technicians in her team solved a glitch in the Harvard Mark II computer by pulling an actual insect out from between the contacts of one of its relays. Word soon went out that they had ‘debugged the machine’ and the phrase quickly entered our lexicon. After languishing for years this mythic moth was eventually transported to the Smithsonian where it now lies in archival state. The moth’s dynamic vitality had introduced a kind of surplus or aberrant code into the machine, which in effect pushed the machine towards a state of chaos and breakdown. Its failure to act as desired, to perform the coding sequences of its programmed history suggests that even a seemingly inert or lifeless machine can become ‘more and other than its history’. (Elizabeth Grosz, 2005) Hopper’s bug is thus a material witness to the creative co-evolution of the machine with the living matter of the moth. Moreover, as a cipher for machinic defect the bug reminds us that mutations are in fact necessary for systems to change and evolve. The crisis introduced into a biological system or machine through the virulence of the bug is terminal only to the extent that it becomes the source for another kind of order, another kind of interaction. This is used as a case study to argue that chaos is not only an animating force in the constitution of new systems but is necessary for the evolution of difference.

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