12.0060 humanities computing & the history of science & medicine

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Wed, 3 Jun 1998 18:53:46 +0100 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 12, No. 60.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Wed, 03 Jun 1998 15:26:24 +0100
From: Brad Scott <Brad.Scott@routledge.co.uk>
Subject: humanities computing

[The following is a lengthy commentary on a recently circulated essay,
Willard McCarty, "What is humanities computing? Toward a definition of the
field", <http://ilex.cc.kcl.ac.uk/wlm/essays/what/>, by Brad Scott,
currently a publisher at Routledge (London) and formerly a biochemist
whose most recent academic involvement was in history of science and
medicine, hence the references in his commentary. --WM]

I've just been reading your piece on 'What is Humanities Computing?' and
have a few observations, comments and questions.

It is interesting that you note that there is little attention given to the
of the computing technology in the creation of humanities knowledges. This
not surprise me too much, it is exactly the same in the sciences. A research
paper _may_ note what statistical or other computing tools have been used
in the
construction or interpretation of the experiment, but will never speculate on
the relationship between them and the results presented. However,
scientists are
well aware of the existence of artefactual 'results' generated through
technological aberration since these occur all the time, but they are
from the report and any discussion of the methodological approach since these
artefacts are to be eliminated through technological mastery. After that,
one is
silent on the relation between technology and the results it has produced
especially on the theoretical framework in which those results are placed).
Consequently, it is also the case that traditional science education does not
encourage thinking about the way technologies construct the knowledges they
purportedly 'discover'.

That being so, work in the sociology of (scientific) knowledge in recent
has informed a view of the role of technology in exactly the way you
describe as
being needed in the humanities, but this work is not even necessarily
within history of science, let alone within science education. I am not
sure if
anyone has done any work specifically on the way computing technologies
construct scientific knowledge, but the people who publish in Social
Studies of
Science will have a better idea, if you are interested. Compared with the
sciences though, I would expect the humanities in the end to be more
with issues of the relation between its methods and its 'results', and this
develop in time; at the present moment, I would imagine that these issues are
not addressed more widely due to a combination of the relatively low
of computing in the humanities and a tendancy on the part of unsophisticated
users of computers to believe relatively uncritically the results presented
them in a way that they would deplore if analysing more traditional methods.

I agree with you that it is important that people in the humanities using
computers need more comprehensive training and teaching, which will include
considerations of the way computers inform the shape of the knowledge they
produce, as well as the practicalities of using the things. Interestingly,
has been a long-standing debate in history of science and medicine about
the academic practitioners of the field should previously have actually done
science or medicine. There are compelling arguments both ways; many
ex-scientists have a rather restricted view of what the shape of their
may be, and especially of what may have formed it in the past. Non-scientists
may well have a much more open mindset when it comes to trying to conceive of
other ways of seeing the world. But, often without some experience of the
_practice_ of science or medicine (even in its late twentieth century
incarnation), one can easily lose sight of the fact that it is the
that form the core of the daily activities of the practising scientist or
and one does gain a different view of an area and the way its practice can
inform theorising when one actually does it.

Reading your section on locating humanities computing in the institution,
me to make parallels with the sitution of electronic publishing units within
traditional publishers. At Routledge, we are notionally seamlessly
into the (book) departmental model; I, in editorial, conceive and commission
projects, which are produced and handed over to Publishing Services to
create in
a publishable form, while Marketing and Sales beat their parallel tracks to
the things to market. However, it is not like this linear process at all.
electronic, we have had to reinvent the way projects are managed. There is
more (to begin with, informal) collaboration between departments, and all
departments have to be much more involved at all stages of the process. We
have expertises to bring to bear on trying to get these things to work
(ie technically, and economically). It also happens that we in editorial
end up
doing parts of the process that for books would have been carried out by
departments; for some projects we manage the data capture, creation and clean
up, and have what is arguably a greater involvement in the marketing of
electronic products than is the case with books. Conversely, marketing
colleagues, for example, are learning about the technical (and hence
implications of functionality changes that they suggest for good market
As such, the boundaries of our responsibilities are constantly being tested.

So, yes, the relation between humanities computing academic and colleagues in
humanities departments needs to be rethought in an entirely analogous way,
surely so does the relationship between the academic, the library, the
and (dare one say) the publisher. Increasingly we are all involved in the
creation of data and technologies for their use and interpretation. And, to
this, we all have to think about the scholarly issues that we are
unravelling as
we engage in this activity. I am reminded of part of the story of the
development of biochemistry as a discipline in the UK; the Biochemical
when it was first set up in 1911 included people from a wide range of
organisations - chemistry, physiology and botany departments, fruit research
institutes, commercial horticultural organisations, and breweries. There
was no
'big theory' uniting them all together (which is what one of the protagonists
was trying to achieve), it was more of a forum for the sort of
inter-institutional discussion which was just not conceivable anywhere
else. The
Society was also set up in a way that was more decentralised, democratic and
inclusive than either the Chemical Society or the Physiological Society
(after a
brief acrimonious debate they even admitted women, the first scientific
to do so, I believe). Biochemistry is of course now a firmly established
discipline within the academy, but the traffic between academia and industry
continues. Though there will never be the money in humanities computing that
there is in biomedical science, I do think that it is important that
computing is not just defined as being a preserve exclusively of the academy.
The other organisations (eg libraries and publishers) who are involved may
be doing exactly the same thing as the academics, but there is considerable
overlap. I think it is in all our interests to collaborate and explore these
things together as much as possible.

All the best



Brad Scott
Electronic Development Manager

11 New Fetter Lane
London EC4P 4EE

Tel: *44 (0)171 842 2134
Fax: *44 (0)171 842 2299
Email: <bscott@routledge.co.uk>
Web: <http://www.routledge.com/routledge/electronic/default.html>

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