11.0145 mindless enthusiasms

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Wed, 2 Jul 1997 19:52:27 +0100 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 11, No. 145.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Tue, 01 Jul 1997 13:39:56 +0100
From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk>
Subject: mindless enthusiasms

Danger... strong opinion ahead.

If the fate of ideals felt and articulated by the now ruling segment of
society has taught us anything, it is that even intelligent enthusiasms tend
to become mindless and so dangerous as they spread. Take the notion of the
"electronic library" as an example. What happens when this fine idea spreads
across the lands to places where the person in charge needs for whatever
reason to keep up with what is happening elsewhere and has not the wit to
sift fads for their value? Disaster, of course.

In the latest TLS (4719, 27 June) J.C. writes in the "NB" column about nice
words from the new Minister for the Arts in the U.K., Mark Fisher, who spoke
last week at the Library Association Reference Awards, declaring strong
support for public libraries, reading, literacy and publishing. In the same
week the same Association published appalling statistics about the state of
school libraries in England and Wales -- book funds down 33% in Kent and
Anglesey, 26% in South Tyneside, and so on. As J.C. notes, paradoxically the
first thing to go when library budgets are short is acquisition of new books.

Into this situation enters the fever for "that unassailable symbol of
progress, information technology". Once people believe (I use this word
advisedly) that information access is the point rather than the reading of
words and looking at pictures, then one has no choice but to buy the latest
gear, and for many there goes the book fund. The main problem here is that
computers are VERY BAD at presenting words for the purpose of continuous
reading, though they are undoubtedly superior when synchronic access is what
one wants. So it is at least arguable that quickly one very powerful way,
perhaps the most powerful way of relating to knowledge becomes much more
difficult, and then amidst the druggy haze of cant disparaging "linear" ways
of presenting knowledge this old technology slides into decline -- or at
least becomes very much more expensive, and so increasingly out of reach for
those without money. Democratization of knowledge?

Tales have circulated, in the august TLS and elsewhere, about destruction of
books by those who thought they were no longer necessary. Some of these have
been refuted, others not. J.C. for example notes that writer Nicholas Baker
is currently suing the San Francisco Public Library for access to records
documenting the discarding of 200,000 books. J.C. also quotes, from a
recent article in Harper's, Sallie Tisdale's lament of the demise of her
local public library in Portland, Oregon. It seems that the noisy
activities of entertaining the folks with audio-visual/multimedia gear
has made ordinary reading impossible.

Isn't it up to us to raise a critical voice against the mindless enthusiasm?
Or are we too badly compromised already? I sometimes suspect that
pronouncements about the new medium, even from those who are qualified to be
scholars, are made by people who have not been inside a library, and
actually among the books, in quite some time. (Yes, this is sometimes hard
to manage in a busy life, alas, but would appear to be a great occupational
hazard for computing humanists.) I've always found that my street-cred among
colleagues and students increases with intelligent scepticism. How do we
develop the critical attitude? What courses do we put in place, what other
disciplines involve, what approaches do we take?


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Dr. Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer, King's College London
voice: +44 (0)171 873 2784 fax: +44 (0)171 873 5801
e-mail: Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk