July 16, 2008

Plato Comes to Missouri

Filed under: Burroughs,writing — jrice @ 10:09 am

Did Plato come to Missouri in 1886?

In 1886, Burroughs founded the American Arithmometer Company in St. Louis, Missouri. By 1889 the company had sold about 50 machines, but they were difficult to operate. Burroughs immediately improved them by inventing the dash pot, a mechanism used to regulate the pull in the machine’s handle and combining his invention with several functional features of Felt’s inventions. This is reflected on the patent awarded to Burroughs in May 5, 1892. Burroughs achieved his objective but he only saw the beginning of his success for he died in 1898.

Missouri, a focal point of contemporary computing, owes some of its rhetorical legacy to the Burroughs adding machine. As much as Plato discusses the invention of writing (connecting it to mythology as much as to memory), the adding machine as well performs a similar role. It allows computation to take place in another body (writing projects thoughts to another body – the page).

When McLuhan teaches at St. Louis University between 1937 and 1944, he likely would have considered “adding” as much as he considered any other feature of computation. His notable interest, based on later writings, is pattern formation. Burroughs’ cut-up underscores the role of pattern formation (unintended patterns reveal ideology) and one of his most famous concepts is mathematics based: the algebra of need. The algebra of need is a rhetorical concept; its focus is how needs are sold to consumers (drugs, sex, consumerism, etc.) through persuasion. Addiction, in other words, stems from the power of argumentation.

While Plato, a math software application, could serve as a reference point here, it is also important to note that the quadrivium includes “math” as one of its four areas of study. The others (astronomy, geometry, music) comprise four of the seven liberal arts (rhetoric, grammar, and logic are the other three).  With one from each side (math and rhetoric), an equation of sorts might be created.

I, however, cannot do math. I have no brain for math. I cannot break down my syllabi into percentages (for work done) because I cannot do percentanges.I struggle  to divide classes for group work (“Let’s see. . . there’s twenty of you. . .if we want six groups, we need how many in a group?”). At almost 50 %, Plato Elementary’s math results should be considered failing. Plato comes to Missouri is the move from math (the adding machine) to lack of math (failing grade).

More later? Probably. I have to add up other parts of this narrative first.

1 Comment

  1. Hey Jeff,

    Two things. First, I was wondering if you knew of anyone that publishes small magazines really cheap (I mean, incredibly cheap). Second, would you like to contribute something? I know that this is probably pushing it, but I thought you might possibly be interested.
    I’ll give you more info if you are.

    Comment by jargoncomputer — July 21, 2008 @ 3:23 pm

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