University Lecture Series

Ecologies of Chinese computing: a guided tour through recent history

February 07, 2017

4:00 p.m.

Cohon University Center, Peter/Wright Rooms

Thomas S. Mullaney
Associate Professor of Chinese History and History of Technology, Stanford University
Founder and Director, Stanford's Digital Humanities Asia (DHAsia)


Early in the history of computing, Western engineers determined that a 5 x 7 dot matrix grid offered sufficient resolution to print legible Latin alphabetic letters. To do the same for Chinese - a writing system with no alphabet, and whose graphemes present greater structural nuance, variation, and complexity - required engineers to expand this grid to no less than 18 x 22. In the 1960s, the development team behind ASCII (the American Standard Code for Information Interchange) determined that a 7-bit coding scheme and its 128 addresses offered sufficient space for all of the letters of the Latin alphabet, along with numerals and key analphabetic symbols and functions. Chinese characters, by comparison, in theory demanded no less than 16-bit architecture to handle its more than 70,000 characters. And of course, long ago Western computer engineers piggy-backed on the preexisting typewriter keyboard, using the two-dimensional SHIFT key to toggle between lower and uppercase letters. By comparison, Chinese keyboard designers from the 1970s onward experimented with what might be termed “hyper-SHIFT” - 15-level SHIFT keys which transformed “flat” touchpad surfaces into hyper-dimensional Chinese character interfaces. Whether in terms of screens, printers, interfaces, character encoding schemes, optical character recognition algorithms, or otherwise, Chinese has constantly pushed to the world of computing far beyond its familiar alphabetic ecologies. In this talk, Thomas S. Mullaney charts out the ecologies of Chinese computing, an unfamiliar terrain that remains unmapped despite China’s present-day status as a global I.T. powerhouse.


Thomas S. Mullaney is Associate Professor of Chinese History and History of Technology at Stanford University and Founder and Director of Stanford’s Digital Humanities Asia (DHAsia). He is the author of Coming to Terms with the Nation: Ethnic Classification in Modern China (University of California Press, 2010; Foreword by Benedict Anderson), principal editor of Critical Han Studies: The History, Representation and Identity of China’s Majority (University of California Press, 2012), and the two-volume work, The Chinese Typewriter: A Global History of the Information Age (MIT Press, Forthcoming 2017) and The Chinese Computer: A Global History of the Information Age (MIT Press, Forthcoming 2022). He is also the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Dissertation Reviews, which publishes 500 reviews annually of recently defended dissertations in 30 different fields in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Dr. Mullaney is a frequent contributor in public media, including Aeon, Foreign Affairs, and Foreign Policy and recently curated and produced a museum exhibit – “Chinese in the Information Age” – which debuted at the Stanford East Asia Library in January 2016 and was widely featured in outlets such as the LA Times, BBC World Report, Sing Tao, World Journal, and elsewhere.

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