Reading an unpublished paper by Nir Fresco led me to discover a website where Brian Cantwell Smith announces the imminent publication of his seven-volume “The Age of Significance,” to be published simultaneously online (one chapter per month over several years) and in print by MIT Press.
BCS has been announcing the publication of his opus for at least 14 years (since his 1996 book “On the Origin of Objects,” where “The Age of Significance” is listed as forthcoming). It will be interesting to see the degree to which BCS follows through this time.
According to the Introduction to the first volume, which is available on the same website and gives and overview of the project, “The Age of Significance” addresses the “foundations of computing”.
Most of the material to be published appears to be organized around discussions of what BCS considers the “current construals of computation” (such as “formal symbol manipulation, effective computability, information processing, digitality, digital state machines”) and their putative shortcomings.
The main thesis of the books is that computers are “meaningful material systems” or “intentionally significant physical artifacts” and that there is nothing more to say about them (Introduction, p. 39). This is an especially inclusive version of what I call the “semantic view of computation”. it appears to include things like paintings, pictures, DVD players, digital-to-analog converters, etc. among the computers. This strikes me as a problem, but maybe BCS won’t mind because he also holds that no theory or account of computation can be given.
BCS also maintains that computers are ushering us into “the age of significance”, in which we can see the world as more imbued with meaning. Or something like that.
In his Introduction, BCS makes some good points–for example, that computation is a concrete physical process (as opposed to something “abstract”). Of course, this sort of point has been made by Rolf Landauer–one of the pioneers of the physics of computation–with his slogan “computation is physical” at least since the 1960s. This is one case among others in which BCS exaggerates the originality of what he says. For example, the point about the concreteness of computation is presented as if BCS were the first person to notice it; Landauer is not mentioned.
BCS tends to present his views as standing as the lone opposition to various received views. The views that BCS criticizes are rarely attributed to any names, which makes it difficult to know who if anyone holds them. BCS appears to be responding primarily to philosophy of mind literature from the 1980s (by people like Haugeland, Fodor, Putnam, Dreyfus, and Searle) plus the views of computer scientists that he talked to and that remain mostly unnamed. BCS complains that people have not devoted enough attention to the foundations of computing but he does not seem to have noticed (or learned much from) the best philosophical literature on the foundations of computing (by people like Chalmers, Copeland, Shagrir, Sieg, myself, etc.).
All in all, I didn’t notice any interesting thesis defended by BCS that is both correct and novel. To be fair, I did notice several theses that were definitely novel. Unfortunately they all struck me as false or at least misleading. For instance, BCS maintains that “computability theory … is not a theory of computation at all” (Introduction, p. 27). This is wrongheaded. Computability theory is the theoretically deepest and most important body of knowledge we have about computation.
But please let me know what I’m missing. I will try to read the rest of the seven volumes as they appear, to see what can be learned from them.