Technologies of Anticipation: How Chinese Typists Invented 'Predictive Text' during the Height of Maoism

Thomas Mullaney, Assistant Professor of History,Stanford University

Please bring a bag lunch. Light refreshments will be provided.

DIRECTIONS: To reach Encina Hall East 207, enter Encina Hall Central, go left through an office area, and up one level to the second floor.

When mechanical Chinese typewriters first entered the marketplace in the 1910s, they featured tray beds containing approximately 2450 free-floating metal characters arranged within a rectangular matrix. Characters were arranged according to the Qing dynasty reference, the Kangxi Dictionary, whose "radical-stroke" system had for centuries formed the basis of an immense and highly diverse information infrastructure encompassing dictionaries, indexes, catalogs, name lists, telegraph codes, typewriters, and more. Beginning in the Republican period (1911-1949), linguists and engineers experimented with alternate organization and retrieval systems, witnessing a proliferation of competing taxonomic systems. It was not until the early Communist period (1949-present), however, that a decentralized network of largely anonymous typists broke with tradition and began to develop natural-language systems of categorizing Chinese characters. Rather than following the radical-stroke system, they sought to maximize the proximity - if not adjacency - of those characters that, when paired together, formed the most commonly used two-character compounds (known in Chinese as ci) and political phrases. What these typists conceptualized and created, this paper will argue, was a technology of probabilistically anticipating the instantly immediate future - or, in other words, the conceptual and practical foundations of what is now referred to as "predictive text" or "autocompletion." This paper will examine the epistemological, technological, and sociopolitical foundations of this technology, one that has become central to modern computing, commerce, and governmentality.

Thomas S. Mullaney received his Ph.D. in History in 2006 from Columbia University, and in the same year joined the faculty of Stanford University as Assistant Professor of Modern Chinese History. He is the author of Coming to Terms with the Nation: Ethnic Classification in Modern China (University of California Press, 2011, Foreword by Benedict Anderson). This book charts the history of China's 1954 Ethnic Classification project (minzu shibie), a joint social scientific-Communist state expedition wherein a group of ethnologists, linguists, and Party cadres traveled to the most ethnically diverse province in the People's Republic to determine which minority communities would and would not be officially recognized by the state. He is also principal editor of Critical Han Studies: The History, Representation and Identity of China's Majority, a pathbreaking volume that examines China's majority ethnonational group. He is currently writing the first-ever global history of the Chinese typewriter, one of the most significant and misunderstood technological innovations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Monday, May 16, 2011 | 12:00 pm — 1:30 pm
Encina Hall East Wing Room 207

Science, Technology, and Society (STS)