3.606 culture in computers (61)

Willard McCarty (MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca)
Wed, 18 Oct 89 19:09:43 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 3, No. 606. Wednesday, 18 Oct 1989.

Date: Tue, 17 Oct 89 09:39:42 EDT
From: Jan Eveleth <EVELETH@YALEVM>
Subject: Humanists and Computer Culture

Why does it seem difficult for many humanists to approach the
machines of the most recent technology, in this case, supercomputers?
Perhaps the following contributes: humanists come to perceive and
interpret the world differently than computer scientists/engineers. In
much the way that genes help to fashion the bodies and minds of our
children, the "genetic-thinking makeup" of the computer
scientists/engineers established by their years of training, becomes
transferred to the machines they create. Thus the machines interface
with the world in a way intelligible to their creators. What the
humanist faces is not just the simple task of reading a manual to learn
how to operate the new creation, but becoming immersed in a culture that
is foreign to him/her, learning to think the way the creators of the
machine think in order to understand it.
What do we ask of computer scientists/engineers when we ask them
to create a humanist computer? We are asking them to see the world the
way a humanist sees it and transfer this mode of interpretation and
problem solving into the circuits and operating system of the new
machine. Is this unreasonable? Probably not. It seems that David
Packard's Ibycus is the perfect example of such a request. Knowing how
difficult it is for us to see the machines through the eyes of the
computer scientists/engineers it is likewise a significant feat when
they are able to see the world through the eyes of a humanist and
transfer that information into the circuitry of a machine or the lines
of software thus allowing it to interface with the world in a manner
more familiar to the humanists.
My immersion in computer culture has been aided by many active
voices through the pages of magazines and screens of email. These
voices have translated and interpreted the computer culture into a world
that is familiar which allowed me to be productive in an otherwise
difficult situation. Does it really matter if there are no 1's and 0's,
no trues and falses? We live so much aided by analogy and symbols that
it shouldn't matter to anyone but the engineer that what is *really*
happening is changes in magnetic fluxes. It is well and fine to be a
realist, but that shouldn't get in the way of communicating information
and ideas which help us to learn a new technology.
Willard McCarty suggested that sometimes the creation of a new
computer can prompt a novel approach to the way the user poses a
question. Perhaps this is because the user has been forced to think
about the problem in a way he/she was not originally trained to think.
What can the humanist gain from posing their problems and questions in
the paradigm of the computer scientists/engineers? And still yet to be
discovered, what can the computer scientists/engineers gain by
approaching their designs from the perspective of the humanist?

Humanities Computing Specialist
Yale University