19.198 writing history of what's happening

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Thu, 11 Aug 2005 09:37:23 +0100

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 19, No. 198.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Thu, 11 Aug 2005 07:01:10 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: writing history of what's happening

Evidence of the ability to write genuine histories of computing
rather than simply annotated chronologies is a very good sign for
humanities computing. Historians, like philosophers, can make
anything that happens their own, but when they do, and do this well,
those concerned with such happenings are given something worth
celebrating -- the wherewithal to become, I'd say, more self-aware.
Hence my delight in finding, in Critical Inquiry 31.4 (2005), Thomas
Streeter's "The Moment of Wired" (pp. 755-79), which gives us a
genuine history of the 1990s internet enthusiasms.

The atmosphere of the time, Streeter writes at the end of this
article, "was precisely a fusion of the desire for wealth with
romantic dreams of freedom, self-expression, and the dramatic
overthrow of the powers-that-be. Without the romantic visions of
freedom and revolution, there would have been nothing to get excited
about; there was no gold in this gold rush, no valuable raw material,
just castles in the air made of projections onto immaterial digital
bits; something had to make those projections seem valuable. Yet
without the hope of getting rich, the enthusiasm would never have had
the energy it needed to spread. Change the world, overthrow
hierarchy, express yourself, and get rich; it was precisely the heady
mix of all of these hopes that had such a galvanizing effect."

What makes this article particularly valuable is Streeter's
consideration of the relationship between this romanticism and the
technology giving it substance. Citing Friedrich Kittler's book
Discourse Networks, he comments that "Kittler is on the right track
when... he suggests that one should understand romanticism, not as a
collection of texts or a historical period, but as a way of
organizing discourse through practices of writing, reading, and
relating.... Kittler's Foucaultian use of the term 'technology' to
describe pedagogical manuals, child-rearing practices, and the like
has a useful othering effect, displacing the romantic expressive
tautologies of originary nature and genius onto a materialist
analysis of their conditions of possibility."

This shift, with which computing has had much to do, we've seen
expressed in several works on the history of the book, for example --
more generally, in the re-surfacing of awareness that common
technologies *are* technologies. Indeed, it is responsible for a much
increased interest in the material culture of computing. "But the
shift from expression to technology", Streeter comments, "has its own
risks. The problem with McCluhanism is not that it's wrong to
attribute causal power to technologies; it is that technology is
imagined singularly, as the secret key that unlocks complexity, as
the cause of cultural change. The move in Kittler from Discourse
Networks to Gramophone, Film, Typewriter -- one title suggesting an
inquiry into concrete practices, the other a list of gadgets -- risks
too neatly reducing behaviors and differences into generalizable
epistemes that can be tidily separated into distinct, technologically
caused epochs. This can be particularly troubling when, by a
millennial logic of succession (from 1800/1900 to 2000), the
suggestion becomes that, as computers replace previous technologies
of communication, consciousness is once again being transformed in
one fell swoop."

He concludes: "In the case of the 1990s internet enthusiasms, it
could be said that computers did not so much shape culture as the
other way around. Computer networks did not create the rhetorical
constructions of originary genius, of spontaneous
creation-from-nowhere that functioned to promote both individuals...
and the internet itself as Promethean sources of wealth and
knowledge, outside of history and social determination. The images
made available by Mosaic and Netscape clearly were inspirational to
many, not so much because they departed from conventional forms of
representation, but to a large degree because they created a sense of
anticipatory projection. The role of the web browser at first was
more like that of a Rorschach-like object with which to explore
fantasy. And for that fantasy to take wing, conventional, written
romantic tropes were required, like the studied use of informal
everyday language to construct authenticity, the dissemination of
narratives that constructed the internet as a place for thrilling
exploration, and the crafting of rebel-artist person.... These tropes
were often as not disseminated in conventional print, like Wired and
Neuromancer. And that which was disseminated online was still largely
made of traditional letters and words; what was important about the
technology at first may not have been that it was digital but that it
was narrowly accessible to the particular communities of those who
did a lot of their own word processing. It was this historical
accident of a shared sense of secret access, of being in the know by
virtue of being fluent with a computer modem, that allowed the early
online users to experience in the internet a sense of something
radically new, of a break with the past. And that experience, in
turn, helped distract from the sober economic and global realities
that American culture spent the 1990s so energetically avoiding."



[NB: If you do not receive a reply within 24 hours please resend]
Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
Humanities | King's College London | Kay House, 7 Arundel Street |
London WC2R 3DX | U.K. | +44 (0)20 7848-2784 fax: -2980 ||
willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/wlm/
Received on Thu Aug 11 2005 - 04:51:05 EDT

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.2.0 : Thu Aug 11 2005 - 04:51:12 EDT