14.0088 viva la computing revolution!

From: Humanist Discussion Group (willard@lists.village.virginia.edu)
Date: Mon Jul 03 2000 - 07:24:19 CUT

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                    Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 14, No. 88.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

             Date: Mon, 03 Jul 2000 08:19:34 +0100
             From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
             Subject: caught in the revolution

    Thanks to Dr Han Baltussen (Philosophy, King's College London) I have to
    hand Christopher Luethy, "Caught in the electronic revolution: Observations
    and analyses by some historians of science, medicine, technology and
    philosophy", Early Science and Medicine 5.1 (2000): 64-92. Luethy (whose
    name is spelled with a u-umlaut) asks, "For ought we not, as historians of
    science, technology, and medicine, [to] be in the possession of privileged
    conceptual tools with which to analyse the changes we are all observing?
    Should not our vocabulary be particularly sharp when we speak of the ways
    in which new technologies affect intellectual development, and vice versa?"
    (p. 65). Whether one thinks that Luethy's article exemplifies the
    privileged tools and particularly sharp vocabulary, he is surely right that
    the history (AND philosophy AND sociology) of science and technology (not
    omitting mathematics either) are essential to the task we have centrally
    before us.

    Luethy reports in his article on the results from a questionnaire sent out
    by the journal Early Science and Medicine to 80 colleagues in the field and
    to some historians of 19th and 20th-century science (including e.g. Peter
    Galison). 30 responses came back. Although the article promises only that
    the responses will be online until May 2000, they appear still to be at
    <http://www.kun.nl/phil/center/revolution.html>. The article offers a
    selection of these responses and Dr Luethy's analysis.

    Luethy was surprised that very few of the respondents questioned use of the
    word "revolution". Evert van der Zweerde noted that if the word
    "presupposes a powerful resistance that has to be overcome" then we are not
    witnessing a revolution; and Michael Hunter that it may not apply in any
    profound sense in established academic fields: "the extent to which these
    developments have altered the real agenda" of such fields simply isn't
    clear yet. Most, however, accepted the term, meaning by it a change
    involving rapid growth of computational power, the all-pervasive nature of
    computing and its effects on our vocabulary, metaphors and ways of thinking.

    Luethy cites a recent study, Impact of the Internet Economy in Europe (for
    which see Neue Zuercher Zeitung 21/9/99, electronics suppl. B8), in which
    the authors develop a model for the change based on historical parallels
    "as well as a heuristic concept of 'revolution' to designate fast,
    multilayered, and economically and demographically significant reactions to
    new technologies" (p. 68). Respondents to the questionnaire cited the
    invention of the printing press, of course. One, Thomas B Settle, cited in
    addition the development of written languages and mathematics,
    domestication of plants and animals, the subsequent invention of the
    city-state et al. and of civilisation as a whole, the revolutions of
    gunpower and sailing ships, the development of steam-based power
    technologies and so on and so forth. Whether one wishes to be as inclusive,
    Dr Settle certainly raises the question of socio-cultural change and its
    relation to new technologies. Are there studies of this area we should know
    about? After surveying the responses, Luethy notes, "These divergent views
    underline forcefully how unclear the mid- and long-term effects of
    computerization still are." Indeed.

    To the question of whether the use of tools has changed the working methods
    of the scholars involved one person answered to the effect that there is no
    generation-gap in the use of the computer: "Irrespective of age, no one who
    answered the questionnaire continues to use paper, scissors and glue
    sticks" (p. 71). Perhaps a shaky conclusion on the basis of only 30 answers
    -- we can possibly all find colleagues who eschew computers, somewhere --
    but "the irreversibility of this technological revolution" seems difficult
    to deny.

    The geographical decentralisation of research, reported by Luethy, will
    come as no surprise, but you may find the German term for the condition to
    which it has led, "die neue Unuebersichtlichkeit", to be quite useful!
    Complaints about our ironic lack of success in surveying what is happening
    have surfaced here from time to time. At the same time, respondents note
    the possibilities, being realised in specific cases, to connect what has
    formerly been separated e.g. in different, sometimes non-cooperating
    libraries and archives. The proliferation of materials in differing states
    and versions gets notice and complaint.

    Several of the respondents asserted, some vigorously, that "good research
    will remain unaffected, while new patterns are a sign of lower quality" (p.
    80): "At top levels, no change. At lower levels, a further lowering of
    quality", Loren Graham dishearteningly said (p. 79). Well, them's fighting
    words.... About how the technology will affect our perception of history,
    one camp strongly asserted that there is NO interrelation between "the
    perception of history and the means of research" (p. 81), while others
    thought that it will be changed e.g. by virtual reality software -- a
    "cinematic experience of the past", perhaps, with a dramatic increase of

    When asked about the "greatest potential of the electronic revolution" the
    common ground was "a noteworthy emotional charge" to the responses. Fears
    and warnings prevailed. Oi veh!

    The conclusion? "No conclusion" is the last section heading in the article.
    But Luethy does end with words that sound not so silly to me: "As it
    happens in most cases," Paul Richard Blum notes, "this revolution turns out
    to be one with hindsight only. This had certainly not been designed as a
    revolution. [...] In my view things develop first as a tool, then as a way
    of looking at things with that tool in mind, then as a reflection on this
    change, and finally as a transformation into history...." (p. 91).

    My conclusion? That we can do better than the above, MUCH better, simply by
    watching with open eyes and minds what is happening right now under our
    hands. Not to predict the future but to see the present more clearly and so
    to inform desire that we may make a better world for ourselves.



    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
    Dr. Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer, King's College London
    voice: +44 (0)20 7848 2784 fax: +44 (0)20 7848 5081
    <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk> <http://ilex.cc.kcl.ac.uk/wlm/>
    maui gratias agere

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