Thursday, November 17, 2005

Ordinateurs et Informatique

The French they have a word for it: ``un ordinateur,'' which I suppose refers to something that orders things, that puts things into an order. We, and the rest of world, now call those somethings ``computers,'' although back in the mid-sixties my English-German dictionary translated ``computer'' as ``ein Hollerithmaschine'' in honor of the punch card calculators that were invented by Hermann Hollerith back in 1886.

I use that French name here for the gadgets---if not the people---that we call ``computers'' in the hope that it will jar us out of the misleading stereotype that all that computers can do, or, at least, what they primarily do do, is compute.

The French have another useful word---that sometimes appears in other languages, including English: ''informatique,'' which refers to what we can only call, in long-winded fashion: ``the science of information processing,'' which is not quite the same thing as the field of study that we call ``computer science.'' .

I shall be including here some of my recollections of my collisions with ordinateurs and informatique, although I shall say nothing further about the time that I actually tripped over a computer.

I am far too old to be able to think that ordinateurs are simply an ever-existing part of the environment, like chairs and horses and milkwagons. In fact, the first computers that I had to deal with were not the machines that the French call ``ordinateurs,'' but rather human---all too human---beings.

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