11.0420 the trivial and the arcane

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Wed, 26 Nov 1997 21:50:47 +0000 (GMT)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 11, No. 420.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Tue, 25 Nov 1997 21:05:56 +0000
From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk>
Subject: trivial vs. arcane

Just this evening, riding home on the tube, I was reading a recent
collection of papers in our field, and as I skimmed through them I felt a
mounting annoyance and frustration, particularly with one of them. How far
we have yet to go! (and yet Father Busa has been there already). Mark Olsen
was last to rattle our cage on this particular frequency, and I still think
he was quite wrong in the substance of his remarks though just as right to
point out that we need to do some fundamental thinking about our field (yes,
ok, "if it is a field") and how we conduct our practice. Though utterly
incapable of doing an Olsen properly (or, more to the point, improperly),
I'd like to make an informal attempt here provocatively to examine the
snapshot of humanities computing I saw in that collection of papers and, I
hope, stir you to some comments.

Broadly speaking, the papers fell into two categories: the
new-flexible-powerful, or "I can't show you any results but my nifty new toy
sure does alot of nifty things with this great collection of scholarly
resources" kind; and the heavy-duty number-crunching, or "if you take the
coefficient of the cube root of the frequency of every third word,
multiplied by the Mueller factor, the answer is within 0.43 of the standard
deviation" kind -- accompanied, of course, by a thorn-bush of equations.
Please don't get me wrong: I love toys that do nifty things; I love
mathematics though am not very good at it, and I have deep respect for the
intelligent application of statistics to textual material. All things
considered, however, shouldn't these two kinds of projects both be in the
relative minority? Where do we find studies that show, rather than merely
assert, the value of the computational approach to knowledge? Where are
considerations of how computers alter our intellectual landscape rather than
just the claims that they do so? Highly mathematical studies are fine, but
can these be considered "humanities computing" if they do not communicate
(as John Burrows' studies do eloquently) to working humanists and interested

I was particularly frustrated by the former kind because at least with the
latter one has the sense (taking leaps of faith where required by one's
ignorance of the maths) that competent persons are at work with tools they
understand. The former is all promise, all possibility. The toys may work
exactly as described, but what reasons do we have to think the mechanisms
provided will do anything at all for the study of the subject material? THE
AGE OF PROMOTION IS OVER, and if delivery is yet a little ways off, then
perhaps we should shut up and finish the projects to the point that we have
something real to say.



- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
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

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