18.001 HAPPY 17th BIRTHDAY

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Date: Mon May 10 2004 - 16:15:36 EDT

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 18, No. 001.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                         Submit to: humanist@princeton.edu

             Date: Fri, 07 May 2004 08:31:53 +0100
             From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
             Subject: happy 17th birthday!

    In Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
    (Vintage, 2004), the protagonist and narrator, a brilliant teenage boy with
    Asperger’s Syndrome, observes that “Prime numbers are what is left when you
    have taken all the patterns away. I think prime numbers are like life”, he
    says. “They are very logical but you could never work out the rules, even
    if you spent all of your time thinking about them.” (p. 15) Today the prime
    number in question is 17 ­ the number of years Humanist has been in
    existence. I do not mean to imply anything magical about the ambiguous fact
    of Humanist’s age ­ 17 years old but in its 18th year, and in its 17th year
    last year. But the idea of patterns beyond our ability to specify them is
    central to what we do, and a prime-numbered birthday is as good an occasion
    as any to notice the fact.

    Making the question of what might be central to our practice mathematical
    is also a good way to mark another step in a coming of age. As a science of
    pure form without content ­ was it Russell who said that mathematics is not
    *about* anything at all? ­ mathematics requires an extraordinary ability to
    think in the abstract that I, for one, do not possess. But mathematics is
    (as mathematicans are wont to say) “beautiful”, and more importantly for
    us, computation is deeply rooted in mathematical questions. So, sooner or
    later a computing humanist wanting to stand on solid granite needs to look
    into the matter, or so recently I have been telling myself. This is not to
    advocate a mystical foundationalism, rather to respect and discover one of
    the two main strands of computation’s history. It is to strive for a better
    answer to the question, where are we from, and what is it like there?

    But the mathematical, arithmetic reality that Humanist faces on this
    birthday is the brutal fact of the daily number of unwanted, polluting
    messages in the data-stream where it swims. Throughout its history members
    of Humanist have from time to time complained of infoglut, beginning
    approximately 1 month after the first message was sent out, when the medium
    was so new we all took it as imperative that each message be meaningful. On
    each occasion the rising tide provoked an innovation (Humanist's digesting
    was one of these) or exhortations to adjust. This time the (mis)infoglut
    is, obviously, beyond our ability to control, at least not satisfactorily.
    I have to assure people repeatedly that if a message goes astray, if they
    don't hear from me, it's highly unlikely to be because I've decided to
    ignore them, most likely that their messages have bee dragged down by
    obscene offers and promises from people I would never care to meet. Be that
    as it may, the problem for Humanist is the problem of carrying on a
    conversation against such a cacaphony.

    Permit me the perhaps unwarranted conclusion that our 17 years together
    attests to the value we place in this long conversation, which is as far as
    I am concerned what humanities computing in the end amounts to. The term
    "lone scholar" is these days almost a term of contempt, just as
    "collaboration" is so often held up as an unquestioned (and opposite)
    virtue, so often without the virtue-holder-upper having much of an idea
    what collaboration is about, when it is *really* collaboration and not just
    getting other people to do what you don't want to do yourself. Humanists
    have seldom if ever been unengaged in a slow, stately conversation that is
    in fact collaborative. The sociological history of knowledge teaches us
    that. Everything we do is for and with others, even if we hardly ever see
    them. But, yes, there are aspects of this normal working together that the
    digital medium gives us the chance to do better. Central to that is
    conversation -- saying things so that we may come to know, true things if
    we can, of course, but more importantly, truth-tending things. That's what
    Humanist has always been about, if I am not badly mistaken. About learning
    by taking risks, like how to ride a bicycle.

    We're always worrying ourselves about whether humanities computing has made
    its mark in the world and on the world. It seems to me, however, that quiet
    change, though harder to detect, is sometimes much better and more powerful
    in its effects than the noisy, obviously mark-making, position-taking kind.
    If during these 17 years Humanist has contributed to the world, it has done
    so very quietly by nature, like conversation, leaving hardly a trace. It's
    like teaching, whose real effects are impossible to measure and which
    requires considerable faith to continue doing, and so must be done for the
    love of it if the effects are to be good. "Do what you do only out of
    love." Just so.


    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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