Babbage knew that if you put garbage in, you get garbage out
One winter, in days as a curate, I attended the Friday evening meetings of a local camera club. I knew nothing about photography and hadn’t a camera (well, not the sort of camera one might have taken to a club meeting), but had a friend who was an enthusiastic amateur. Mostly the talk was of f-stops and shutter speeds and was of little interest to a passing outsider, but the anoraks and geeks sometimes allowed speakers who talked of photography in an altogether different way.
One Friday, there was a visiting speaker who was invited to address the subject of what makes a good photograph. “How do you decide on whether it will be a good picture?” asked one of the club members.
The man smiled. Putting the tip of his right index finger to the tip of his left thumb and the tip of his left index finger to the tip of right thumb, he created a rectangle.
He closed his left eye and raised the the hand-made rectangle to a point where it was in front of his right eye. “Look through that lens and decide if the picture is good”.
His message was unambiguous, if you couldn’t find a good picture with your fingers and thumbs, then even the best of photographic equipment would be of no use.
The expectation that bad material might be transformed by good apparatus is nothing new.
It was on this day in 1822 that Charles Babbage first proposed the difference engine, the mechanical forebear of the modern electronic computer. However, there were some who imagined that the machine could produce right answers from wrong information.
Writing more than forty years later, in 1864, Babbage recognized the principle of garbage and and garbage out.
In his book Passages from the Life of a Philosopher, he commented:
On two occasions I have been asked, “Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?” … I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.
How Babbage would react to the confusion of the 21st Century can only be imagined. The notion that a Google search, or a Wikipedia page, or, even worse, a social media post, could provide undisputed answers would have seemed nonsense to Babbage. He would have dismissed it as a confusion of ideas.
No electronic device, nor any other piece of apparatus, can produce truth or beauty if truth and beauty have not been there at the outset.
I am not sure he really did. It was, it seems to me, a rhetorical question; it was Babbage —a difficult personality by all accounts— who failed to appreciate the difficulties.
He was not the first, nor was Leibniz
“The only way to rectify our reasonings is to make them as tangible as those of the Mathematicians, so that we can find our error at a glance, and when there are disputes among persons, we can simply say: Let us calculate, without further ado, to see who is right.”
I fear my post is an example of putting laziness in and getting non-sequiturs out. Spotting that it was the anniversary of Babbage’s proposal, I attempted to rework a piece from about ten years ago, leading to logical incoherence.