19.391 contemplation and computing

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Wed, 2 Nov 2005 07:08:51 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 19, No. 391.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Wed, 02 Nov 2005 07:04:28 +0000
         From: Emmanuel Okyere II <chief_at_okyere.org>
         Subject: Re: 19.374 contemplation and computing

Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty
<willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>) wrote:
> Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 19, No. 374.
> Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
> www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/humanist/
> www.princeton.edu/humanist/
> Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu
> Date: Sat, 29 Oct 2005 08:26:41 +0100
> From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
> >
> 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?

The text that readily comes to mind is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's
Flow:The Psychology of Optimal Experience;

"You have heard about how a musician loses herself in her music, how a
painter becomes one with the process of painting. In work, sport,
conversation or hobby, you have experienced, yourself, the suspension of
time, the freedom of complete absorption in activity. This is "flow," an
experience that is at once demanding and rewarding..."


The computer, a general purpose tool, by definition finds different uses
across differnt users/situations. Our psychology allows us to learn
certain parts of the system, such that (through repetition) they become
automatic--it is the reason we effortlessly/automatically equate the
idea of moving the pointer on the screen to picking up the mouse. To be
able to do useful work with the computer (and to communicate with it
efficiently), we combine bits and pieces of allowed activities like that
mentioned above. As with most things, there isn't always one sure way...
meaning while you might take 10 steps to produce a required result, it
might also be possible to do it in two ... sometimes, you can "lose
yourself" and experience "flow"; when you've done this, it is likely
you'll find alternative solutions/insights that you would not otherwise
think about

> 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?

I agree with you here too; an example I can recount from my own
experience, is how I feel sort of 'bulked' up when my (computer) desktop
has too many files/folders on even when my email Inbox starts to bulk
up; this might not be 'actual' work left to be done, but rather
temporary folders/files that I create as I work from day to day, or in
the case of email, mailing lists I subscribe to (such as this) that I
haven't found time to read/contribute to. I certainly feel a lot
'healthier' when I've been able to clear these... I think part of this
is a function of how long/often you stay with your computer, and you
could probably relate this with even human relations--the more you know
and like somebody, the more you are likely to stay with them--so that
the more you discover, in a way, the more you want to know, and so the
more you turn to depend on the machine.


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Received on Wed Nov 02 2005 - 02:20:14 EST

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