14.0600 allergy to hypertext & recovery of the old

From: by way of Willard McCarty (willard@lists.village.Virginia.EDU)
Date: Fri Jan 19 2001 - 16:43:12 EST

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 14, No. 600.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

             Date: Thu, 18 Jan 2001 06:51:10 +0000
             From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
             Subject: a socio-intellectual problem

    Recently, at a learned gathering of senior European scholars, I made a
    statement about the centrality of hypertext to our thinking about how to
    build scholarly resources and forms. The reaction to the word "hypertext"
    was startlingly negative. There were various other cultural and linguistic
    differences that impeded communication, but this negative reaction to the
    idea by people well aware of the importance of computing to their
    traditional studies is what seems to me worth contemplating -- by those of
    us who care about communicating beyond our native (and so intellectually
    provincial) circumstances.

    Perhaps it is the case that among those for whom apocalyptic rhetoric is
    uncommon, reception of an idea so often clothed in it naturally provokes
    suspicion and distrust. I was reminded that newness traditionally is not
    always, perhaps even seldom, a good thing. (Humanists familiar with
    classical Gk and Latin literature, for example, will think of many examples
    where that which is "made or brought into existence for the first time" is
    not just "strange" or "uncommon" but viewed as quite threatening.) We all
    get set in our ways, some more than others, and so can understand the
    annoyance of being disturbed by something new. We can understand how
    newness might appear in a deeply conservative tradition, which given the
    speed of apparent change in most of the industrialised world is apt to view
    the new with bewilderment. So much of unarguable value appears to be
    passing away to be replaced by a noisy, disposable lifestyle. Be that as it
    may, for those of us in the lands of the constantly new does it not become
    quite difficult to see change as change and not necessarily as improvement?
    In otherwords, is it not easy for us to lose our critical abilities when
    thinking about possible environments and means of scholarly work that
    networked computing appears to promise?

    What do we lose, for example, if we toss out the old-fashioned edition or
    commentary? Please, let's not admit to our discussion the smell of leather
    or feel of turning pages, or the impossibility of taking the valuable
    volume into the bath or to the beach. How in the current circumstance can
    we know responsibly what we're doing unless we make conscious and explicit
    exactly what it is that the old-fashioned form actually does? So much of
    this is buried as tacit knowledge. In reviewing hypertext scholarship I've
    been looking especially for analyses of inherited forms and found precious
    few. Clearly we don't want to waste our time trying to imitate inherited
    forms, but neither can we afford mentally to bin them. If we can succeed in
    awakening to them, so that they become NEW in our sight, then perhaps we
    have a chance of constructing something that our more conservative
    colleagues (and we as conservators of the past) will recognise as worthy.

    I'd be most grateful for notice of any analyses of existing scholarly forms
    as "machines to think with", as I.A. Richards said (approximately) about
    the book.


    Dr Willard McCarty / Senior Lecturer /
    Centre for Computing in the Humanities / King's College London /
    Strand / London WC2R 2LS / U.K. /
    +44 (0)20 7848-2784 / ilex.cc.kcl.ac.uk/wlm/

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