7.0002 Information Technology and Questions for Humanists

Tue, 11 May 1993 14:56:43 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 7, No. 0002. Tuesday, 11 May 1993.

Date: Sun, 9 May 93 12:38:33 EDT
From: mccarty@epas.utoronto.ca (W. McCarty)
Subject: TLS on information technology

The Times Literary Supplement for 30 April 1993 (no. 4700) is a
special issue on information technology, with articles on virtual
reality, hypertext (unfavourably reviewing David Jay Bolter's
_Writing Space_), cyberpunkery and techno-futurism of the wilder
sort, CD-ROM textual collections and reference works, and
finally, an article by Hugh Kenner, "The scholar's friend: The
irresistible rise of the word processor". There's considerable
matter for discussion in this TLS, but I would like to draw
attention only to Kenner's article, in which he raises some
matters particularly relevant to Humanist and its relations.

The first half of the article is devoted to the `irresistible
rise' of Kenner's subtitle, to the early history as he observed
it, including some telling anecdotes of resistance from the likes
of editors and publishers. The second half turns to the
computerisation of the humanities in our universities, beginning
with classics, David Packard's work, the Thesaurus Linguae
Graecae and its Classical Latin counterpart. (Kenner appears not
to realise that the TLG and Latin corpora are available on CD-ROM,
which most of us now access via MS-DOS or Macintosh
machines. But this is a minor point.) The most interesting part
of the article occurs at the end, where he discusses the crisis
in scholarly publishing and some electronic means of dealing with

Why, Kenner asks, need we incur the rising costs of niche
journals when these could be published electronically? There are
two points to be made here: first that this is already beginning
to happen, and second that mere imitation of print is not the
answer, or at least not a particularly good answer. Note, in
particular, the Bryn Mawr Classical Review (BMCR) and recent
announcements on Humanist from the American Philological
Association, the journal Arethusa, and Johns Hopkins University
Press. BMCR is my favourite example, not so much because it
publishes good reviews via e-mail, keeping networked classicists
up to date with work in their field free of charge. Rather, it
and a few others are interesting from our perspective because
they use the medium to do something it is particularly suited
for. Consider the role reviews, as distinct from articles and
books, play in research; wouldn't it be better on the whole to
have these things not merely delivered free very soon after they
are written, but more significantly, perhaps, in electronic form,
so that a collection of them can be searched for key terms?
Consider what kind of work the ability to search especially
favours, and what such work can do for fields characterised by
narrowly defined specialities.

It may be that the only way for many journals to survive will be
to publish electronically, although there are some very serious
social and technical problems to be solved before exclusive
e-publication can be a practical alternative. I am bothered,
however, by the imitative approach, both because it lacks wit and
because it avoids the systemic problems of the academy, of which
the crisis in scholarly publishing is only one manifestation.
Let me suggest that instead of trying to figure out how to make
e-publication as secure and respectable as print perhaps we
should be using our energies to reconstruct the academic world so
that free interchange of ideas in electronic forums (such as
Humanist) can replace premature, and very expensive, print
publication. Kenner notes that, "For marginal pockets of
civilized discourse, computer networks are likely to be the last
hope." My point is that right now we can realise this hope,
indeed we already have to some degree, but that the attempt to
realise it within the existing structures of academic reward is
profoundly procrustean. Where is our Theseus? -- i.e., to
allegorize, how can we arrive at the understanding and will
necessary for the civilized discourse of the humanities to
survive its monstrous impediments?

I said that the imitative approach lacks wit, i.e. is
uninteresting and unintelligent. At root what makes it so is the
tired assumption that the computer is merely a tool, which is to
say (curiously ignoring the fact that no tool is JUST a tool)
that it has no inherent characteristics of its own. Thus, we
assume, `computer-mediated communications' can simply be used as
a means to repeat what we've been doing all along, though more
expensively, via the printing press. The same attitude also
surfaces in most novices' approach to computing, away from which
they must gently be weaned, that the machine offers them not new
ways of thinking but merely a faster, more convenient, more
accurate, cheaper way of getting the old job done. How many of
our colleagues, for example, still use their computers as
typewriters? Of course the computer can be used only thus, but
at the great cost of abusing the enormous potential of our most
interesting invention. Are we so wealthy that we can afford this

Automata, of which the computer is the latest manifestation, turn
up in Homer (e.g. Iliad 18.376-7) and have been the subject of
attention ever since. The computer is not, then, an object
foreign to us, just as the communication it enables is not a
foreign process. It is, perhaps, a `monster' in the etymological
sense (L. monstrum), a somewhat spooky object with much to tell
us about ourselves and our situation. If we cannot figure out
how to use it intelligently, who can?

Willard McCarty