18.563 material-cultural computing

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Fri, 4 Feb 2005 08:05:05 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 18, No. 563.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Fri, 04 Feb 2005 07:57:40 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: material + cultural

I've been arguing that computing affords us a partial or qualified
detachment of means from ends, and that this is effected by a strong
tendency for us to attend to these means because they offer the opportunity
for unlimited constructions. In Humanist 18.545 Eric Rabkin points out that
"people in most behaviors, and even in computing, seek, even if only
unconsciously, a useful thoughtlessness, some so that their lives are felt
to be less complex and some so that they can build on the accepted
foundation to examine new concerns, but in all cases so that life feels
more manageable." True enough, and computing accommodates this tendency in
the numerous manifestations of computer-as-appliance, or "ubiquitous
computing", for which Donald Norman and others argue. But there are other
computings, and that is my point.

Let's accept the proposition that some of us all of the time, and all of us
some of the time, do not want to think about what we're doing, with
machines, with anything. People of this sort, and people in this mode, are
simply "users". Let's accept as normal Polanyi's phenomenological "see-saw"
of attending from something, such as a hammer, so that we can attend to
something else, such as a nail, until for some reason, such as missing the
nail, we attend to the hammer, make an adjustment (a different grip, choose
a lighter or heavier hammer) and go back to attending from it to the nail.
Utterly commonplace. Nothing special about computing in particular here.
But all things being equal, how we behave with respect to the tool is then
a question of its stability or fixity and of our conception of what we're

I'm arguing that computing, when this is realized as a scheme for
indefinitely many devices, or when its extraordinary capability for change
from one form of a device to another form is uppermost, is special among
tools. I'm arguing that its universal nature is not going to go away, so
that computing will not disappear into the background completely, become
only part of the furniture &c -- and that this is what's most important
about it for us as self-aware scholars (when we manage to be that).

In the same Humanist, Vika Zafrin concludes from some of what I was saying
that "'computing' seems to be equivalent to language". Since making
computers do things involves the writing and implementing of artificial
languages, this is an appealing analogy. But the crucial difference is that
computing acts directly on the world and has being in the world. Thus
Timothy Colburn, in Philosophy and Computer Science (2000), says that
computing is a machine made of language. This dual, mind/body-like aspect
of computing becomes important to consider when we're attempting to "read"
or assess or otherwise understand a computational object, such as a
particular database or other crafted piece of software. I said that the
qualified detachment of means from ends implies that for the first time, or
to an unprecedented degree, we can extract or abstract from the whole
object the method(s) that it implements, and that in collaborative work
this allows the technical practitioner not only to take credit for what he
or she has done but also to reflect on it and so to communicate explicitly
what may otherwise go unnoticed. I said or implied that it is very
important we do this sort of reflective work.

Consider as an analogy the building of a house, in which the architect,
plumber, carpenter, brick-layer, stone-mason, plasterer, electrician and
perhaps more collaborate. Let's say the house is experimental,
non-standard. Afterwards, for the better building of houses, the
interaction of these individuals needs to be known, to the degree it can
from being there at the time (when this is possible), and otherwise from
reading the result as an architectural historian would. It's very important
for the building to be credited to all who made it possible, but for the
better understanding of building, the recording and the reading must be done.

Vika says I am trying to predict the future because the meaning of the
object will change over time, and so what is read out will change. To some
degree this is true. We write histories of the kind we need for our own
purposes. But the writing of history as distinct from fiction happens out
of the attempt, which we continue to think partially successful, to
re-enact a past that we did not create. The software objects we collaborate
to make, like all objects, remain stubbornly themselves independently of
the theories we have about them.



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Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
Humanities | King's College London | Kay House, 7 Arundel Street | London
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Received on Fri Feb 04 2005 - 03:19:00 EST

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