11.0276 spooked online

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Mon, 22 Sep 1997 07:34:33 +0100 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 11, No. 276.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Fri, 19 Sep 1997 17:37:13 -0400
From: Wendell Piez <marcus@lab.com>
Subject: Re: 11.0274 Online developments

Willard, on the subject of our governments' desires to steam open our
electronic mail at will....

> Yes, it would be difficult even for some well-funded agencies to
> employ enough people to read all those messages, but since they are in
> electronic form, supercomputers can be put to the task to run
> text-analytic algorithms on the data stream. Perhaps there's
> employment for some of us in this exciting new development. One must
> consider both sides of the question, however. In other words, we are
> now coming to bear on the full range of human failures as well as
> edenic visions. As computing humanists, we have arrived!

Yes, "arrived," but where? I can hardly imagine a sadder (and scarier)
application of our understanding of the subtle vagaries of language and
text analysis: well-paid, we will dumb down this hard-won wisdom to the
point where it can be encoded and sold off, on the pretense that it
answers the requirements of the spymasters. How will this algorithm
work? Will it perform an irony test? Will it distinguish between real,
earnest threats, and (say) on-line fantasy games? What will it actually

Willard, you have sometimes remarked that it is in those moments when we
confront what the computer _cannot_ do, readily or at all, that we learn
the most, about computers and about human culture. How is such a
sensibility to be encouraged among the dark lords of literalism (while
they are sorting through our mail)? I shudder to think what they will do
(are already doing) with these crude instruments.

Wendell Piez

Humanist Discussion Group
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