16.387 thinking with tools

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Date: Thu Dec 26 2002 - 04:48:27 EST

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 16, No. 387.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                         Submit to: humanist@princeton.edu

       [1] From: Patrick Durusau <pdurusau@emory.edu> (76)
             Subject: Re: 16.380 thinking with the technologies

       [2] From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk> (32)
             Subject: thinking with tools

             Date: Sat, 14 Dec 2002 06:06:55 +0000
             From: Patrick Durusau <pdurusau@emory.edu>
             Subject: Re: 16.380 thinking with the technologies


    >Surely there is considerable wisdom in Patrick Durusau's remark in Humanist
    >16.377 that
    > >At least in the early stages, I think projects should be formulated without
    > >regard to available technology (either locally or read about) so that
    > >researchers can state fully what they would like to do, without regard to
    > >whether that is actually possible with current technology. A very precise
    > >formulation of the research problem and goals of the project would provide
    > >a basis for evaluating available technologies for the one that most closely
    > >meets the needs of the project.
    >I think, however, that the problem we face is much harder than that would
    >suggest. Are not these technologies (text-encoding, relational database
    >&al.) imaginative forms that give you a way of thinking not available
    >otherwise? Do they not tend to lead the mind in directions it would not
    >otherwise go? How, in fact, can one formulate a research problem completely
    >independently of the tool?

    I did not suggest the problem was easy and noted that what is required at
    the "early stages" is a precise statement of the problem. Once a problem
    has been articulated without tools, then examining various tools and their
    limitations in addressing the problem may indeed lead to greater insight
    into the problem.

    Actually I would say that technologies are limitations on thinking rather
    than imaginative forms, but then I suppose that depends on the imagination
    of the researcher. Robin Cover gave me the best advice on markup projects
    (and I think technology in general) when he advised: "Decide what you want
    to do and then look for markup to do it." It was following that advice that
    lead to the research Matt O'Donnell and I have been pursuing over the last
    couple of years on overlapping markup. The notion of words (PCDATA to you
    markup folks) having membership in a hierarchy of markup was something I
    happended upon while sketching the overlap problem while riding public
    transportation to the airport. I was sans my laptop, various markup
    volumes, the lastest 1-unambiguous grammar research, etc. It was the
    absence of all those tools and references that forced me to consider what I
    wanted to do as opposed to what my tools said could be done.

    That is not to say that any problem can be formulated completely separate
    from the tools we habitually use, just as we can't formulate a problem
    without using a particular written or spoken language, which carries its
    own set of limitations. To some degree, however, we can exercise a choice
    to formulate a problem with a particular tool. An awareness of a large
    range of tools and their limitations can illuminate particular problems but
    the original choice of relational database vs. markup is far too crude to
    lead very far.

    >Winograd and Flores, in Computers and Cognition,
    >observe that the commonplace assumption of so-called expert systems -- that
    >one can extract knowledge from experts then code it into computing systems
    >-- makes no sense at all because the experts themselves do not work (or at
    >least not entirely) in a way that can be extracted from them (pp. 98f).
    >Knowledge, they note, isn't captured in building an expert system, rather
    >what happens is that people work together to create a systematic domain
    >(pp. 175f). They *imagine* their research problems and strategies anew.

    I appreciate the supporting quote for not viewing a problem through a
    particular technology but was there some other reference you meant to
    insert here? There are cases where expert systems work quite well,
    screening of cancer tests for example, where a very precise formulation of
    the problem is posssible in a tightly controlled domain.

    >So how do we not get trapped within the scope defined by any particular
    >tool? I think this must be *very* difficult. A kind of controlled two-(or
    >more-)mindedness, a detached engagement, seems the only answer.

    I did not mean to suggest the we can escape the trap of our tools
    altogether any more than we can escape using language to formulate
    problems. I do think focusing on a precise formulation of the problem,
    deliberately ignoring tools to the extent possible is a promising
    beginning. Another positive step is to have a fairly aggressive reading
    list that includes sites like sourceforge.org or freshmeat.org, research
    publications of the ACM and other computing research journals. It is
    cultivation of a broad knowledge of what is possible that will help prevent
    beating textual research problems into a form where tired and familiar
    approaches can be used.


    Patrick Durusau
    Director of Research and Development
    Society of Biblical Literature

    --[2]------------------------------------------------------------------ Date: Sat, 14 Dec 2002 06:23:43 +0000 From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk> Subject: thinking with tools

    I agree with Michael Sperberg-McQueen in Humanist 16.384 that having as large a toolkit as possible helps to avoid single-tool mentality. His first answer:

    >By formulating the research problem in terms of the entities in the >research domain, and without reference to the entities of the tool >domain.

    I think the metaphor of "domains" here is (though conventional in discussing such things) seriously misleading. Thought about something is sometimes usefully conceptualized as a space, but not in this case. It seems to me that the "entities" of research cannot always (often? ever?) be defined independently of the tools one has to deal with them. Tools, even chisels, aren't free from designed intentionality and perceptual effect; one "sees" wood differently, treats it differently depending on the tools one has and knows about.

    >Another is to cultivate the ability to ignore, in formulating >the problem you really want to solve, anything you know about how it >might be solved; this would help ensure that we are not unduly biased >toward the soluble. The fact that technologies give us ways of >thinking which otherwise would not be available seems to suggest that >our tendency to focus on the soluble is not a function of our tools >but is somewhat more deeply rooted.

    The first sentence speaks to a powerful discipline; I'm just not at all sure it can ever be completely successfully practiced, or that if it can, that one really wants to. Perhaps "our tendency to focus on the soluble" (which I agree is deeply rooted) is part of the problem.

    A mystery remains, I think.

    Yours, WM

    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 www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/wlm/

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