21.529 crying "wolf!" -- or running with the wolves?

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Thu, 7 Feb 2008 08:43:31 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 21, No. 529.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Thu, 07 Feb 2008 08:37:48 +0000
         From: "Grover Zinn (imap)" <Grover.Zinn_at_oberlin.edu>
         Subject: Re: 21.524 wolf! wolf!

Dear Willard and All,

I hesitate to write (particularly at this time of the night) about
things I read years ago at Rice U. in philosophy/religion (although I
was engaged in a Physics B.A. then; only after that would I pursue
Religion) and in discussions at noon over computing possibilities (how
will we know "it" is truly intelligent; some things never
change :-) )

But--from those conversations about knowledge and more and more of it,
I recall Michael Polanyi's idea that we don't master all the fields;
we overlap with each other so that through the overlaps we manage to
extend our 'grasp' of the material(s). Connectedness??? I recently
was reading a book by and then conversing with one of my colleagues
in art history about Dominican education (which it would have taken me
a long time to scour out what I was seeking) and finding that we, in
our rather "separate" fields, were interested in the same text: a
twelfth century text by an author I studied---a text cited in c13 and
later Dominican educational programs. So, with a pedestrian example
we must all have experienced, I venture to say that the "overlap"
method of extension of "grasp" may well be a rather unsophisticated
way of saying that there are ways we will survive the flood (so to
speak). But then there is the marvelous ability to trace (to which
you allude Willard), through the volumes scanned by Google, for
specific citations in books you may never have come across in ordinary
life. Is this 'short circuiting' research or producing new 'paths'
for finding and connecting the pieces that we all work on? Where does
it end? Or does it end? Indeed, I think you are right: the question
is not to lament overload, but realize that we have more information,
more ways to "question" it, and a vast "grasp". But how do we do this
best? How to we do it responsibly? AND HOW do those of us who pursue
serious research at institutions that cannot afford the (medieval)
databases at hand in the large research universities continue on our
way?? Trips to the "big locations" (like Princeton, ND, or, ideally
London or Paris for a medievalist) or what? Some things can be gotten
through consortia (OhioLink for library book loans is fabulous---and
fast). But databases cost money. On the other hand, manuscripts are
more accessible (so to speak) through some web pages, through rapid
Xerox copies of microfilm (much easier to read), etc. Of course, you
need at some point to see the mss, but other times you just need the
"data'! Well, I could ramble even more, but need to shut this down
and go read some Stephen Jay Gould for few minutes.

Well, so much for Ohio musings in the middle of the night (as a brief
conclusion to an evening of translating Gregory the Great; from the
sublime earlier to the mundane now.)

best to all


Grover A. Zinn
William H. Danforth Professor of Religion (emeritus)
former Associate Dean, College of Arts and Sciences
Oberlin College
Oberlin, OH 44074
440-775-8866 (department)

On Feb 5, 2008, at 1:57 AM, Humanist Discussion Group (by way of
Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>) wrote:

> Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 21, No. 524.
> Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
> www.princeton.edu/humanist/
> Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu
> Date: Sun, 03 Feb 2008 23:06:41 +0000
> From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
> >
>Lubomir Dolezel begins his article "Possible Worlds of Fiction and
>History", (New Literary History 29.4, 1998), as follows:
> >The contemporary researcher is engaged in a losing struggle with the
> >information explosion. The struggle is especially desperate in
> >interdisciplinary research, where no one can master all the
> >published literature in all the special fields. As interdisciplinary
> >investigations become more and more necessary, they become more and
> >more difficult. (p. 785)
>Except perhaps for the threat to interdisciplinarity, Dolezel's
>statement must remind nearly everyone here of some other occasion
>when someone has declared an imminent Information Deluge. Vannevar
>Bush said more or less the same thing in his famous piece in Atlantic
>Monthly, "As We May Think" (July 1945), in which he imagined
>information technology not as the cause of the problem but as its
> >There is a growing mountain of research. But there is increased
> >evidence that we are being bogged down today as specialization
> >extends. The investigator is staggered by the findings and
> >conclusions of thousands of other workers -- conclusions which he
> >cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear.
> >Yet specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and
> >the effort to bridge between disciplines is, correspondingly,
> >superficial. Professionally our methods of transmitting and reviewing
> >the results of research are generations old and by now are totally
> >inadequate for their purpose.... The summation of human experience
> >is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for
> >threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important
> >item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships.
>A few days ago I listened to a lecture by a noted researcher
>specializing in mobile telephony, who did not construct a Deluge from
>an unquestioned surfeit of information (whatever that is) but spoke
>of our radically increasing connectedness as a similar Force
>threatening all sorts of things, such as peace of mind. I am using
>capitalization here, signifying personification, because mingled with
>the facts of the matter and propelling them along, like the water of
>a torrent carrying along rocks, tree branches and detrius of all
>kinds, I hear the panic of a decline-and-fall, hell-in-a-handbasket
>myth, which requires some god or superhuman force of destiny. I
>suspect that there are facts to be got at, though every attempt I've
>heard to calculate how much information there is and to predict how
>much there will be never gets beyond measurable quanta (now commonly
>reckoned in petabytes) to human perception and the psychology of
>attention. It never questions *what information is*. I also find
>myself wondering about a possible relationship between the supposed
>decline-and-fall of the world and the certain biological
>decline-and-fall of the doom-sayer.
>Be that as it may, I wonder if a better response to Dolazel (and
>mutatis mutandis to the others) is to point out that the real problem
>in his formulation of the threat to interdisciplinarity is his
>assumption that one should "master all the published literature in
>all the special fields", as if the knowledge worth having were the
>linear product of a cumulative process. Isn't it wiser to respond by
>revising our idea of what knowledge is and to rethink our strategies
>for getting it? Isn't it better to observe what we are in fact doing
>e.g. with Google's 20 petabytes of data per day
>and figure out how to do it well?
>Willard McCarty | Professor of Humanities Computing | Centre for
>Computing in the Humanities | King's College London |
>http://staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/. Et sic in infinitum (Fludd
>1617, p. 26).
Received on Thu Feb 07 2008 - 04:15:05 EST

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