12.0157 gleanings (TLS)

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Tue, 4 Aug 1998 07:51:06 +0100 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 12, No. 157.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Mon, 03 Aug 1998 21:44:07 +0100
From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk>
Subject: taming of cyberspace

The Times Literary Supplement, nr. 4970 for 3 July, carries the title
"Information technology: The taming of cyberspace". The first 8 articles
review the subject and a number of books in our bailiwick. My apologies for
not publishing this summary earlier -- there are so many books to mention
here, and so little time of late to devote to the task, that it has been
unseasonably postponed. The mere fact of so much attention to the digital
realm in the TLS is significant, though this is not always the kind of
attention we would wish for, as I remark below.

[1] Philip E. Agre (Information Studies, UCLA), in "Yesterday's tomorrow:
The advance of law and order into the utopian wilderness of cyberspace",
discusses cyberspace as "a utopian idea that stands in the main line of a
long millennialist tradition", and its particularly American flavour in its
idea of community. He cites Jack Green's The Intellectual Construction of
America (1993) and Brian Shain's The Myth of American Individualism (1996),
concluding that "[c]ausal connection or no, the intellectual construction of
both America and cyberspace has proceeded along similar lines: utopian
visions projected onto a putatively blank space in the form of consciously
designed communities" -- like this one, I suppose.

He notes that as the Internet matures, or rather our use of it, this is
changing, however. "Border problems" identified by David Johnson and David
Post, in Borders in Cyberspace: Information policy and the global
information infrastructure (1997), "grow worse as the Internet becomes
integrated into the world around it.... The borders between cyberspace and
real life are less obvious than they seem, and they are becoming less
distinct every day." Where, he asks, are these borders when, for example,
"Internet protocols begin flowing in cars and in kitchen appliances?" Hence
the shift he documents from utopian vision to an understanding based on the
place of cyberspace in the larger institutional world. This world is by
nature profoundly conservative. "The concept of institution entered the
social analysis of computing partly in an attempt to explain the famous
productivity paradox -- the long-standing difficulty of demonstrating
clear-cut productivity improvements from industry's vast investments in
information technology." None of us, needless to say, ever believed in the
productivity argument.

Problems with the Internet -- viruses, privacy, spamming, content filtering
-- show that "institution building on the net has hardly begun" but suggest
that this is inevitable. The outcome, he notes, is as difficult to predict
as are the ways in which IT is changing the institutions it has
interpenetrated. The process of agenda-setting "by which our global society
articulates its values and embodies them in institutions and information
technologies" requires "a post-utopian imagination that embraces the
complexity of human institutions and a critical technical practice that
embraces the coevolution of institutions and technologies. Both the
imagination and the practice can be dimly seen taking form around us."

[2] Bruno Latour, "Evolution, not revolution: The dangers of over-hyping the
influence of the computer", reviews Brian Winston's Media, technology and
society: A history from the telegraph to the Internet (Routledge). Winston
finds no revolution at all in the history of media, networks, communication
and computers. "Sixty years have passed since the alleged 'birth' of
computers, and still no truly radical change has been induced by the
technology itself." Latour does not object to this conclusion (which would
seem possible only if one viewed human activity from a rather high
altitude), rather finds the book in the main a useful corrective to the
visionary's projection of what he or she thinks should be happening onto
actual events. "Whatever dissolves the hype and helps us retain our sanity
is to be welcomed." Latour ends with an interesting observation: "What is
missing from the book, however, is an explanation of why information
technology is especially vulnerable to such inflated claims. One reason may
be that, like the printing press, it principally serves intellectuals -- or,
more generally, symbol manipulators. Symbol manipulators cannot so easily
see through other symbol manipulators. Here lies IT's main danger, because
it is more intoxicating than the bicycle or the pressure cooker. Burke would
not have liked it any more than the French Revolution."

[3] Jack Copeland and Diane Proudfoot, "Enigma variations", review Andrew
Hodges, Turing: A natural philosopher (Phoenix); George Dyson, Darwin among
the machines (Penguin); and John L. Casti, The Cambridge quintet: A work of
scientific speculation (Little, Brown). Hodges' new biography is an update
to his "marvellous 600-page intellectual biography of Turing which marked
the end of Turing's relative obscurity"; most of the review article is
concerned with recounting the subject's career. The review finds Dyson's
book, despite minor errors, "a pleasant introduction to Turing's work".
Casti stages a philosophical dialogue between Turing and Wittgenstein, with
Schroedinger, Haldane and Snow as minor characters.

[4] Keith Miller, "Tough luck for editors", rev. of Kathryn Sutherland, ed.,
Electronic text: Investigations in method and theory (Clarendon); George P.
Landow, Hypertext 2.0 (Johns Hopkins). Seldom, in my experience, do
incompetent reviews creep into the TLS; this is not so much an incompetent
review, rather it refuses to engage with the first book under review. The
fact that it does not may be related to my second objection to the kind of
review one sees increasingly often as important figures in the cultural
establishment examine work in our field. They seem often not to understand
either enough of the technical detail or to have read enough of the
literature that assimilates it to matters educated non-technical people can
grasp. Part of the fault lies simply with the fact that the field is young:
we deal often with nascent tendencies in a time when the mindless
enthusiasts provide such easy targets for undereducated reviewers. Part of
the fault, however, lies with us, who need (amidst everything else) not only
to reach and understand what is happening in humanities computing but also
to articulate it for the ignorant but highly intelligent audience. But to
the review itself....

Miller identifies first what has not changed in one's encounter with printed
words, despite the amount of electronic preparation behind the scenes. "It
is easy to conclude that the changes wrought by computers are primarily
logistical -- that they have changed the landscape of the culture in rather
the way that rail travel changed the physical landscape a century or so ago.
It is not that you cannot go out into the country without seeing a viaduct,
but simply that getting out into the country is a swifter and more
comfortable journey than it used to be." A telling comparison, but Miller
doesn't make it tell as it could, e.g. by examining the kinds of travel then
undertaken, how it affected people's lives, and so on.

Two full paragraphs are devoted to "those for whom digitization poses the
same kind of threat to our culture today as industrializatopm did to our
rural social practices a century and a half ago". The problems are these:

-- "the figity indiscipline which high technology allows the culture to get
away with, from focus-group politics, to newspapers which redesign
themselves every fortnight, to the puzzling assumption that 200 bad
television channels will be better than four good ones";

-- "the potential failure of complex technologies which few of us
understand, and on which we are coming increasingly, and incredibly quickly,
to rely";

-- "humanist/romantic revulsion at a science which believes it is better
than society";

-- "digitization [that] seems an inappropriately mechanical, unambiguous and
materialist system for the preservation and dissemination of texts in which
passionate intellectual investment has been made".

There are, to be sure, problems here, but the reviewer does not see past
them, or see that anyone in our field does, and at least one of them (the
last) in fact points the way to what may be the major scholarly contribution
to our understanding of the humanities. Miller takes a sideswipe at
electronic text, and so by implication at the books under review, by
identifying its acceptance with the postmodernist view, which in its
excesses makes a particularly easy target these days. He cites the use of
emoticons in e-mail, for example, as an example of mental laziness ("rather
than thinking of words to express the feeling"), never asking the question
of whether the casual electronic mode of writing is not by nature different,
in its current manifestation pushing us to gesture with emoticons toward the
gestural mode of face-to-face communication. In other words, he finds
problems (not hard, given the juvenile state of the medium) and uses them to
dismiss our efforts toward a still distant, and perhaps receding goal.

[5] Alexander Masters, "The modern alchemists", rev. of Philip Ball, Made to
measure: New materials for the twenty-first century (Princeton), on the
so-called "smart materials", about which I wrote in an earlier posting, so I
won't spend time summarising the review here.

[6] Benjamin Wooley, "Beauty isn't for wimps", rev. of David Gelernter, The
aesthetics of computing (Weidenfield and Nicolson), characterises the book
by the persistent irritation that so many of us now cannot appreciate the
absolute nature of scientific truth. Gelernter (who received one of the
Unibomber's letters) "is one of the world's most interesting thinkers in the
field of software design. He has some profound ideas about the way we should
be interacting with PCs and the Internet, at a time when the computing
industry is desparate for them." He invokes the idea of "machine beauty",
which apparently remains undefined in the book, and which most software
fails to live up to. He proposes to replace the familiar "desktop" with
something called "Lifestream", "a time-ordered stack of all the information
and documents a user has ever created or received" that takes the form of
something like a pile of index cards. The reviewer seems to think rather
highly of Lifestream, much less highly of Gelernter's book: "The design is
messy, the writing is inelegant, the organisation is confusing" and so on.

[7] G.W. Pigman, Searching in vain for some solid flesh", rev. Jonathan
Bate, ed., Arden Shakespeare CD-ROM (Nelson) -- at 2,500 pounds sterling!
Pigman (who, I recall, was once a member of Humanist) finds numerous things
wrong with this expensive product, chiefly that (1) it is obsolete, much
work having already been done on the new Arden edn., not included here; (2)
it is vexed with many technical problems and design flaws. "Even if the
Arden Shakespeare had been reasonably priced, its shortcomings should serve
as a warning to editors and publishers preparing electronic books. At 2,500
[pounds sterling], it is a scandal. This is not the way to bring about a
revolution in publishing."

[8] Mary Beard, "Just like reading a book", rev. Leona Carpenter, Simon Shaw
and Andrew Prescott, eds., Towards the digital library: The British
Library's "Initiatives for Access" programme (BL). Only one essay in this
volume gets individual attention, Lorcan Dempsey's on the relationship
between physical space and how one perceives the Library's collection, the
different kinds of catalogues (cards, electronic) and how each tends to
define a relationship to the books. There is, however, apparently too much
of the technological triumphalism in the collection for Ms. Beard.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Dr. Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer, King's College London
voice: +44 (0)171 873 2784 fax: +44 (0)171 873 5801
<Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk> <http://ilex.cc.kcl.ac.uk/wlm/>
maui gratia

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