18.332 recording angels

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Thu, 4 Nov 2004 08:26:26 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 18, No. 332.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Thu, 04 Nov 2004 08:09:55 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: recording angels

A few months ago I wrote to a very senior and now retired academic who was
the driving force behind one of the great electronic resources we have.
During his active professional life he was more than just friendly to the
sorts of things we do -- he actively promoted humanities computing and saw
to it that infrastructure for its support was built. I wrote to him wanting
to know where he had published on the construction of his resource,
concerning for example the high-level design, technical features he asked
for at the time, those that arose in the process of development and so on
-- the sorts of things that the principal investigator of a project in
earlier days could be expected to have his or her hands into. His reply was
in essence that he could not remember. All that didn't seem important to
record at the time. A common story, I fear.

Quite a loss to a potential history of the field. We've learned our lesson
since then, people are paying attention now, you may be thinking. I wonder.
More than that -- I can see that we are not paying attention at least some
of the time. That's a serious matter, because without an historical
awareness of what we are doing and have done, we can hardly be among the
humanities as one of them -- or, actually, do our job as well as it can be
done. We cannot really back up all the claims we make about the
revolutionary effects of computing in the humanities. We cannot go into
details. The orientation to success and achievement that is part of
technological culture has this seriously limiting side-effect: attention to
what is happening is deflected by what must be achieved, and so the
recording of the raw material for a history never happens.

Nose to the grindstone we are likely not to think much about all this, or
if asked, to reply not that the ends justify the means but that they make
the means irrelevant. Who cares about the fumblings, the mistakes that have
been made, the bugs that have crept in? What matters is that the thing,
whatever it is, gets made and finally works to the satisfaction of the
principal investigator. Who cares what happened when the non-technical
scholar first began to talk to the humanities computing practitioner about
the possibilities for research? Well, if no one does, and no one notices
systematically, we then find ourselves unable when asked to substantiate
claims that minds are changed, eyes opened in the process of doing what we
do. Is it not better to see where you are going, even if all you're really
interested in is getting there?

I am beginning to think that every project or every centre that develops
resources needs its resident ethnographer-historian.



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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_at_kcl.ac.uk
Received on Thu Nov 04 2004 - 03:45:35 EST

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