11.0429 toys & non-trivial pursuits

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Sat, 29 Nov 1997 07:27:55 +0000 (GMT)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 11, No. 429.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

[1] From: Chris Floyd <cfloyd@carmen.murdoch.edu.au> (40)
Subject: Toy promotion

[2] From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk> (46)
Subject: constraints

Date: Thu, 27 Nov 1997 09:03:48 +0800
From: Chris Floyd <cfloyd@carmen.murdoch.edu.au>
Subject: Toy promotion


When I first scanned your "the trivial and the arcane" post, I picked up a
few key words including: toy; promotion; reading; paper; and tube, so put
that together to think about how I felt about all the must-have crappy toys
flogged in glossy brochures shoved into snail boxes, etc. The conservation
value in not producing all this ephemeral junk that litters $2 shopfront
has to be healthy, though it might need a mathematician figure it out. But,
of course your post was about something else; the promotion of computer
knowledge tools. But the paradigm is similar, where on the one hand the
consideration is of the conservation of material resources, and on the
other intellectual priorities.

Entrepreneurial wisdom is, it's good to make a buck whatever, and look at
the success of the Asian economy because of precisely this kind of
enterprise. Well, actually the Asian economy is looking a bit rough this
morning, with its pollution and dodgy currencies. A lot of this cheap
merchandise circulates money and keeps people in work, even if the more
durable, sensible products are preferable. The same applies in computer
software, where the annual upgrades of packages does not reflect a quantum
leap in development. In other words, the busy work does not add up to much

The material versus intellectual opposition is perennial, as per the
contrast between the waste of physical resources and mind work. Now I am
not an economist, but my impression is that this collective busy work is to
keep people straight, or at least heading in the right direction around the
threadmill. Otherwise, they might think too hard or something.

A model that has been hanging around in such as Douglas Adams and Deep
Blue, is of a godhead computer that will somehow solve all the world ills
if it gets the right parameters. A "humanities computing" approach might be
to match computer grunt with a humanist symbolic system. My poser is, why
can't we design a better economic system from first humanist principles not
market mystification? I admit this is naive. That economics is as "real" as
say Freud's "unconscious".


Dr Chris Floyd
Phone: +61 8 9339 0490
Fax: +61 8 9385 7443

Date: Fri, 28 Nov 1997 21:18:19 +0000
From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk>
Subject: constraints

Gary Shawver, in Humanist 11.425, is surely right when he points to the
pressures that force the junior scholar into writing before the time that he
or she has something to say. Tales from N American graduate students I know
suggest that publishing before completion of the PhD is now a de facto
requirement in order to be considered for an academic job. I'm morally
certain that I don't know the half of it, and certainly part of me doesn't
want to. There's also the problem of the scholarly soul in a semi-scholarly
position whose opportunities to publish are confined to the promotional
description of untried tools. My note was intended in part to provoke
qualifications such as Gary's; doubtless others have been too kind in not
taking me to task for launching an insensitive broadside. Be that as it may,
a real problem remains for our field. I'm raising the question of what we do
about it.

Actually, of course, it's a set of problems, but let me focus on one: the
quality of work specifically identified as "humanities computing". A bit of
a digression first.

Just today, over quite good pasta in a restaurant near my College, a
professor of English with whom I was having lunch said that our
post-graduates really should be trained in the techniques of digital
imaging, e.g. for mss. study. I agreed, of course, and said that this was
part of our humanities computing programme for them. She replied that such
training belonged in the English department, not for example as part of a
humanities computing MA. The two alternatives are not necessarily
contradictory, but I was reminded of the tendency, as aspects of humanities
computing become recognised as properly scholarly, for them to be claimed by
this or that discipline as its own. I still think this tendency is deeply
mistaken. Not that English professors cannot teach digital imaging but that
the loss of the interdisciplinarity inherent in a humanities computing
approach is a serious one.

The rewards are, however, with the departments that have the jobs, so a
gradual absorption of the scholarly into the conventional disciplines should
be no surprise. If this absorption is in fact taking place, then it follows
that the quality of work in our field will decline.

>From my own work and that of some others with which I am familiar, I
conclude that the problem is not an intellectual one at all, rather it is
institutional. What is required to solve it are enlightened administrators,
I would suppose at the level of the dean / head of school or higher, who are
willing to make a substantial long-term investment by creating positions as
secure as they may be. Serious commitment from senior academics who have no
more to gain in status would help a great deal.


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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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