11.0316 coming of age?

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Thu, 2 Oct 1997 21:18:59 +0100 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 11, No. 316.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Thu, 2 Oct 1997 13:04:26 +0100 (BST)
From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk>
Subject: adolescence/obsolescence?

In the latest Guardian Online, Douglas Rushkoff writes in "How cyberia lost
its chill", about the problem of identity that those of us professionally
involved with computing now tend to feel. "When I started this column [on
cyberlife] I thought of myself as something of a midwife," he writes. "We
were birthing a new culture, and had experienced some complications in our
labour.... Well, that baby is born. Cyberculture is not an edge phenomenon,
a future technology, or fringe cultural expression. It's the way things are.
We live in an online world." He goes on to note the darkening tone in the
columns he has written, and the sense of being both adrift and no longer
very special. "The birthing is over. Our job is no longer to envision and
proselytise an electronic future.... The electronic future is now the
electronic present.... There are real issues to deal with... but these are
the same issues confronting us everywhere we turn. They are not unique to
the online world. And right now, neither am I." So he talks about the
temptation to back away, stop writing the column, go off and do something
else. "How does one write a cyber column when there really is no such thing
as cyber, anymore?... It's not cyberia that has been grounded by the
realities of business and government. It's business and government that have
been co-opted by the spirit of cyberia. They just don't know it yet."

In the end, he has decided to reduce the frequency of his submissions while
he retools. Personally, as a reader of the newspaper concerned, I regret
this -- I look forward to his column in Online each Thursday -- but it's
certainly easy to understand the decision. Several people in humanities
computing have expressed more or less the same sentiments.

I recall in particular one old-time computing humanist, at a recent
conference, who said he felt like he was sitting in the middle of the road
with tire-tracks up his back. Once we owned the turf, or could easily think
we did, but now computing is everywhere, or we can easily think it is. Just
as a footnote, I'd argue that Rushkoff is quite wrong about the ubiquity --
unless you restrict what you mean by that to the tiny elite (powerful, for
sure, but still tiny) among whom the knowing involvement with computing is
commonplace. Once you consider those who use computers but don't realise
that they are (in banking machines, modern automobiles, telephones, etc.),
and the huge majority of us humans who have never even done that, ubiquity
seems rather a stretch. But yes, among our kind computers are everywhere,
our turf is now a commons, so what have we that distinguishes us, justifies
our continuing existence? This sounds to me like an adolescent's angst, does
it not?

The same could be said for Humanist. Once it was more or less the only
seminar, very nearly the first of its kind, with every new crisis a frontier
of experience, at least for the humanists then involved. Now there are
thousands of online discussion groups.

For Humanist it isn't hard to see what the role is nor is it difficult to
justify our continuing existence as a virtual seminar. The development of
the medium has restricted the scope of the job Humanist needs to do, but at
the same time clarified what remains.

Similarly, for the academy as a whole I think there's quite a good answer to
Rushkoff's question. It is simply that no one else but us will pay full
attention to what is happening in the field of humanities computing, because
others do not have the time nor the broadly interdisciplinary,
methodological focus. The bounds of this concern we may not be able to
delimit -- witness the variety of matters that arise on Humanist -- but it
does have a centre. Those who think that "humanities computing" means
text-analysis (particularly of the oldfashioned kind) will, of course, find
their subject increasingly in the minority of computing-related interests,
but it seems to me that as the computer becomes ever more a part of daily
life we should have an ever bigger audience.



Dr. Willard McCarty
Senior Lecturer, Centre for Computing in the Humanities
King's College London
London WC2R 2LS
+44 (0)171 873 2784 voice; 873 5081 fax

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