12.0265 gleanings

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Sat, 17 Oct 1998 08:22:10 +0100 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 12, No. 265.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Sat, 17 Oct 1998 08:24:25 +0100
From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk>
Subject: gleanings

>From the TLS for 16 October. A fine issue for those who like to think about
words and dictionaries.

(1) Erich Segal, "Not quite immortal", rev. of Who's Who 1998. 150th edn.,
on CD-ROM, pub. A and C Black. This, I find, is a very odd review from the
computing perspective. Segal, a classicist, does add to our stock of wit by
identifying this as a fifth in the traditional scheme of the ages: gold,
silver, bronze, iron -- and now silicon. He is considerably less clear about
the nature of this new age, however. Consider this: "...the electronic media
(the word 'cyberspeak' denotes the raw material used for data storage) are
indestructible.... Henceforth, the text will endure immutable." Segal also
sees the CD as threatening notable individuals' passports to posterity in
the immutability of print, because "a CD-ROM may be changed at minimal
expense". Is this an example of a cultural pundit whose authority in other
realms greatly outstrips actual experience of his subject?

(2) Geoffrey Miller, "Looking to be entertained: Three strange things that
evolution did to our minds". Commentary. This, it seems to me, is a very
fine discussion of two approaches to evolution, by stages and by adaptation.
Allow me, however, to cut directly to the passage I think has most relevance
to us, or at least to those of us who express our love for language in
computing it --

"Sexual selection seems to have liberated human ideologies from the need to
have any epistemological relevance to the real world. How did this happen?
Most animals produce courtship displays that play upon each other's eyes and
ears more than their brains. Their simple signals activate sensations but
not concepts. Humans are different. We load our courtship displays with
meaning, to reach deeper into the minds of those receiving the signals. From
this angle the evolution of language was driven not so much by survival
advantages of communicating useful information, but by the reproductive
advantages of activating more complex ideas in the heads of potential mates.
Through deftly modifying exhaled breath (that is, speaking) humans can
conjure imagined worlds full of engaging characters and memorable stories.
The importance of language as a sexually selected medium for fiction may be
equal to its importance as a naturally selected medium for non-fiction."
(p. 15)

The term "information technology" (IT) seems to me to put the stress
altogether in the wrong place. If communication is important to the
humanities (rhetorical conditional!), then we need to think not so much
about information as what happens with it when we "reach deeper into the
minds of those receiving the signals" and activate "more complex ideas in
the heads of potential mates", whether these be sexual or intellectual
mates, or both. Like the notion of "productivity", which so vexed
discussions of computing a few years ago, the terminology of IT pollutes the
water before we drink it. As in the terminology of accounting, which has
infected thinking about what our institutions of higher education should be
about. Some here will remember the slogan, "make love not war". Slogans are
anathema, but perhaps chanting "make love not information" would be better
than tacit agreement with the tendency to reduce humanities computing to
mere IT?

End of mischievous sermon. Comments, and serious ones, most welcome.


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