16.654 consumptive humanities

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Date: Fri May 02 2003 - 02:19:18 EDT

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 16, No. 654.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                         Submit to: humanist@princeton.edu

             Date: Fri, 02 May 2003 07:15:47 +0100
             From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
             Subject: an essential tension

    My original posting of a question raised in debate with Manfred Thaller, on
    what has usefully become known as "the consumptive humanities" -- one
    thinks of a weakened tubercular patient coughing his life out -- has
    stirred a fair bit of further debate here. Let me restate and comment a bit.

    One the one hand we have (Thaller argues) the intellectually degenerative
    effect of pre-packaged, user-seductive applications, designed for other
    purposes than ours, to which we adapt our problems and thereby corrupt them
    and ourselves. The solution is to get involved in designing our own tools,
    and to teach the requisite skills to our students. Programming skills, to
    be specific.

    On the other hand (which occasion demanded that I play) devotion to the
    training and practice of such skills, to the degree of competency required,
    is so demanding and enthralling that the practitioner hardly has time left
    to pursue research problems in the humanities, with consequences I hardly
    need to spell out. Furthermore, a programme in such matters will simply not
    attract the sorts of students I see. The result? Perhaps better tools, but
    not humanities computing for humanists of the mainstream sort.

    The middle ground, where the humanities and computing interpenetrate, is
    clearly the most interesting turf to be exploring, and there is clearly no
    reason why our programmes need to follow the same curriculum. Let a hundred
    flowers bloom, as Chairman Mao used to say -- with, I fear, an entirely
    different purpose in mind.

    I'd certainly never argue that becoming technically adept necessarily leads
    to abandonment of the humanities, though becoming absorbed by the technical
    problems may leave little or no time for scholarship, and so a gradual loss
    of concern for or understanding of it as one's form of life. Nor would I
    deny, ever, that a consumerist attitude to software, as a problem-solving
    product, is at minimum intellectually dangerous, and very likely fatal. I
    certainly would argue with all my heart for the proposition that deep,
    technically competent engagement with computing tools in intelligent
    application to cultural artifacts is one of the very best ways we now have
    of thinking about those artifacts. That's exactly what humanities computing
    is all about.

    Someone -- perhaps it was Joseph Campbell in one of his writings about the
    myth of the hero -- observed that in many traditional stories the ultimate
    test of the hero is whether he can remain awake or properly alert. The
    danger that Manfred points to is of this sort, and it is very real. The
    promotional rhetoric of those pre-packaged "solutions" not only lies
    directly -- our problems are often ill-matched by what's on offer -- but
    also misleads with the assumption that solutions are what research strives for.

    The computer scientist Meurig Beynon (Warwick), in a recent article
    "Liberating the Computer Arts", argues that, "The power of the computer to
    transform our interactions with our environment and each other through the
    digitisation and symbolic representation of observables is patent. These
    developments have enhanced the intellectual influence of a theoretical
    framework endorsed by classical computer science, yet -- at the same time
    -- they disguise from the user and expose to the designer the limitations
    of that very framework itself. In the process, received computer science
    and its associated technologies have helped to legitimise and promote an
    incomplete view of science, and detracted from the real and potential role
    of the arts and humanities in shaping our lives." So, the problem is not
    simply in the humanities, it is with a whole culture of computing across
    all the disciplines. In sketching out an alternative software culture,
    Beynon argues for software as resource rather than as product, place of
    interactions rather than object for the consumer, unfinished rather than
    polished. See his "Empirical Modelling" research project, at
    http://www.dcs.warwick.ac.uk/research/modelling/, which embodies an idea of
    computer science that greatly strengthens our case.


    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

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