18.542 material culture of humanities computing

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Mon, 31 Jan 2005 07:59:31 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 18, No. 542.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Mon, 31 Jan 2005 07:43:42 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: material culture: self-awareness with respect to media

Eric Rabkin, in Humanist 18.540, comments that,

>Whenever the tool is subject to variation (either
>development of the tool [Flash version X, harpsichord --> piano] or of
>the skill in using the tool [writing in a second language] or in the
>applications that the tool allows [b&w or color photography?]), the
>practices that involve that tool potentially involve focus on the tool
>rather than only on what the tool is doing. The act of typing is more
>or less transparent; the act of datamining isn't. The question arises,
>are there aspects of humanities computing (like datamining) that may
>never achieve transparency and others (like relying on a readability
>score) that may? When should we strive to maintain some focus on the
>tool and when should we not? The answers are different for different
>audiences: learners, users, tool-makers.

These are good questions. Clearly the sudden self-conscious in the use of
tools, techniques, media and the like is and possibly always has been a
transitory phenomenon. For a brief time, one pays attention to the
qualities of the object. Then knowledge of it becomes tacit: you "attend
from" it to other things. Then it becomes part of the furniture. Until,
that is, something goes wrong or from some other cause (such as the
predeliction to take pleasure in the qualities of objects) the object again
comes into focus as itself. My bicycle, now defunct, was like that -- once
a fine instrument for riding, at times almost alive. Frequently I noticed
and took pleasure in its qualities. My sofa is like that too -- beautifully
designed and constructed (by someone I know).

Theorizing about the process described here is found in phenomenology, e.g.
Michael Polanyi's "tacit knowing". It also takes place in computing, e.g.
in my use of a whole bundle of technologies at this moment. But isn't it
the case that computing makes a genuine difference, that in this respect at
least it is genuinely new? The universality and plasticity of computing
mean that as an epistemic device it offers and so leads us into unlimited
making of things. Does it not thereby throw a light, hereafter difficult to
ignore, on knowing as a process of making and remaking? Is it not then the
case that means become a permanent question permanently in the forefront of
our awareness? Or at minimum an option of new urgency and stubborn persistence?


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Received on Mon Jan 31 2005 - 03:03:54 EST

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