16.204 doing and talking

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty (w.mccarty@btinternet.com)
Date: Fri Sep 13 2002 - 11:05:23 EDT

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 16, No. 204.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

             Date: Fri, 13 Sep 2002 07:49:49 -0700
             From: Willard McCarty <w.mccarty@btinternet.com>
             Subject: our agenda

    It would be good, I think, to collect stories about the beginnings of now
    recognized fields of study. These will not only help us in our strategic
    planning but (as in the case of computer science) also prove encouraging.
    For example, the historian of computing Michael S Mahoney, in "Software as
    Science -- Science as Software", discusses the beginnings of computer
    science in terms of its agenda. "The agenda of a field," he says,

    >consists of what its practitioners agree ought to be done, a consensus
    >concerning the problems of the field, their order of importance or
    >priority, the means of solving them, and perhaps most importantly, what
    >constitutes a solution. Becoming a recognized practitioner means learning
    >the agenda and then helping to carry it out. Knowing what questions to ask
    >is the mark of a full-fledged practitioner, as is the capacity to
    >distinguish between trivial and profound problems; "profound" means moving
    >the agenda forward. One acquires standing in the field by solving the
    >problems with high priority, and especially by doing so in a way that
    >extends or reshapes the agenda, or by posing profound problems. The
    >standing of the field may be measured by its capacity to set its own
    >agenda. New disciplines emerge by acquiring that autonomy. Conflicts
    >within a discipline often come down to disagreements over the agenda: what
    >are the really important problems?
    >As the shared Latin root indicates, agendas are about action: what is to
    >be done? By emphasizing action, the notion of agendas refocuses attention
    >from a body of knowledge to a complex of practices. Since what
    >practitioners do is all but indistinguishable from the way they go about
    >doing it, it follows that the tools and techniques of a field embody its
    >agenda. When those tools are employed outside the field, either by a
    >practitioner or by an outsider borrowing them, they bring the agenda of
    >the field with them. Using those tools to address another agenda means
    >reshaping the latter to fit the tools, even if it may also lead to a
    >redesign of the tools, with resulting feedback when the tool is brought
    >home. What gets reshaped and to what extent depends on the relative
    >strengths of the agendas of borrower and borrowed.
    [In History of Computing: Software Issues, ed. Ulf Hashagen, Reinhard
    Keil-Slawik and Arthur Norberg (Berlin: Springer, 2002): 28;

    What is to be done? Perhaps not surprisingly :-), I would put on the list
    of "those things that are to be done" such debating as we can and sometimes
    do carry forward here. For scholars, as Northrop Frye used to say, talking
    IS doing. Later on in his article, Mahoney quotes from Richard W Hamming's
    Turing Prize lecture, "One Man's View of Computer Science", as follows:

    >In the face of this difficulty [of defining "computer science"] many
    >people, including myself at times, feel that we should ignore the
    >discussion and get on with doing it. But as George Forsythe points out so
    >well in a recent article, it does matter what people in Washington D.C.
    >think computer science is. According to him, they tend to feel that it is
    >a part of applied mathematics and therefore turn to the mathematicians for
    >advice in the granting of funds. And it is not greatly different
    >elsewhere; in both industry and the universities you can often still see
    >traces of where computing first started, whether in electrical
    >engineering, physics, mathematics, or even business. Evidently the picture
    >which people have of a subject can significantly affect its subsequent
    >development. Therefore, although we cannot hope to settle the question
    >definitively, we need frequently to examine and to air our views on what
    >our subject is and should become.
    [Mahoney 2002: 28f]

    Now we may not care what people in Washington DC think -- the ones he's
    referring to probably don't know we exist nor would care if they did -- but
    we do need to be concerned about those with the power to create new
    positions and appoint people to them. I (again perhaps not surprisingly) am
    tempted to say for that and other reasons, the conversation is all. Of
    course it isn't, and especially in a field in which skilled people make
    things. But especially in such a field, as ours, those who make things
    must, if we are to go forward, be among the most vocal of the talkers.

    Inevitably, I suppose, this leads to heat. Someone who has built something
    very fine, which has in fact advanced the field enormously, will hardly
    wish to be told that the primary value of his or her creation is to
    establish the limitations of the approach it embodies. (Pride in
    craftsmanship is one of life's great rewards, no?) In a field that has and
    needs to develop the goals of both the builder and the pure-researcher (the
    engineer and the scientist, if you will), there is always a danger of
    imbalance and misunderstanding. The builder can forget that knowing always
    stretches beyond what has been built, whose purpose is precisely to
    stimulate that stretching. The pure-researcher can forget that without the
    firm basis there is no stretching, and stretching is toward something to be
    Both can get into a huff, walk off and so the whole effort collapses. On
    our agenda, I would think, is not merely loads of talking but learning how
    to talk, and first to each other, and that we must. The potential for
    strength in such collaboration promises an even greater reward.



    Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
    Humanities | King's College London | Strand | London WC2R 2LS || +44 (0)20
    7848-2784 fax: -2980 || willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk |
    w.mccarty@btinternet.com | www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/wlm/

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