19.374 contemplation and computing

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Sat, 29 Oct 2005 08:47:46 +0100

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 19, No. 374.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Sat, 29 Oct 2005 08:26:41 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: device-mediated contemplation

Unless I have missed something, no one in the recent discussion of
the topic "contemplation and computing" has talked about
contemplation. By implication the idea has been left entangled with
minding one's own business, but that's not the same thing -- at least
not unless "minding" and "business" are given rather special
meanings. But even then, contemplation is various. There are
different contemplative traditions, working in different ways, as is
reflected, for example, in two senses from the OED: 1. The action of
beholding, or looking at with attention and thought; 2b. Without
reference to a particular object: Continued thinking, meditation,
musing. (Or am I, in this second sense, reading the ideas of Soto Zen
into medieval Christian tradition?)

One question for us in particular, given this topic, might be: In
what sense can we say that working with a computer is like other
materially mediated contemplative practices? Roberto Busa has spoken
of "playing solitaire" with output from the computer, before the days
of interactive systems. Sir James Murray, nearly a century earlier,
described more or less the same practice, resulting in the
"emergence" of distinct senses of words, while manipulating readers'
slips with quotations on them. Both examples would suggest that yes,
the use of a computer can be a contemplative practice. Any thoughts
on how this might happen with the systems we now have?

Suggestive evidence for a connection between human and machine deep
enough to support contemplation might be, for example, the profound
disturbance at least some of us seem to experience when our machines
go awry. I for one cannot rest, or not very comfortably, until I have
fixed whatever has gone wrong. Similarly, when my machine is working
well (as this one is now), something like a sense of good health
pervades my working environment. Indeed, this feeling is almost
addictive. (I do experience moments now and again, all projects for
some reason or another out of reach, when I look for something to do
so that I can be using my machine, rather than the other way around.)
Now this compulsion to use particular artifacts is common enough when
the artifacts are new, but other than computers, it does not last.
That would suggest a different sort or degree of intimacy from that
with, say, a new spade. Are computers alone in the category of
receptive tools? How about mobile phones? Does the fact that the
mobile puts you in touch with other people make it a like device --
and so, in some sense, contemplative?


Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities Computing | 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 Sat Oct 29 2005 - 03:58:13 EDT

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