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Humanist Archives: March 9, 2019, 7:16 a.m. Humanist 32.532 - the illusion of 'progress' and transfer of knowledge

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 32, No. 532.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
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        Date: 2019-03-08 09:52:55+00:00
        From: Joris van Zundert 
        Subject: The illusion of 'progress' and transfer of knowledge

Dear Willard,

Something has been bothering me ever since Michael Sperberg-McQueen
first questioned the value and validity of hares.
(https://dhhumanist.org/volume/32/173/ [7])

You were quick to identify part of what was bugging me:

"Once upon a time I thought that I could blame the Web's great deluge
for obliterating nearly everyone's memory of what was going on for the
ca 35 years prior to its impact, to say nothing of the two decades
between von Neumann's architectural sketch and Joe Raben's founding of
Computers and the Humanities in 1966. But the Web's not the real
problem, as the current debate indicates. The real problem is the
thoughtless and thought-depriving hype of continual progress -- even
when we think we're 'progressing' toward something we'd rather not think
about." (https://dhhumanist.org/volume/32/436/ [1])

I wholeheartedly agree with Domenico Fiormonte:

"I've been following this and the previous McGann et al thread and I
feel like this was a gigantic *déjà vu*... People I've been knowing for
a long time, and for whom I've the greatest respect and affection, were
rehearsing the same ideas and arguments I've been listening to for...
may be thirty years?" (https://dhhumanist.org/volume/32/510/ [3])

And it is good to see that Jan Christoph Meister points to Dino's 2002
brilliant but much neglected article:

"And there's more to this approach than merely being able to handle
nested / overlapping / discontinuous structures (which imho is really a
problem of the past, as is the Renear-McGann debate which, as far as I'm
concerned, Buzzetti 2002 "Digital Representation and the Text Model",
NewLiterary History, Vol. 33, No. 1 had already pretty much superseded).
(https://dhhumanist.org/volume/32/520/ [2])

For all that matters Dino Buzzetti's argument might have ended the
debate already in 2003 so we would have moved on to more interesting
challenges. But it didn't. Domenico points out some detrimental
mechanisms that may have caused the persistence of hierarchical
perspectives on text. You blame the hype of continual progress. I think
you are too easily discarding the influence of technical hype (XML was,
oh boy). It is all of these things of course. The deeply inherent social
fabrication of who's anyone in our community, the technological fads,
and the institutional hypes.

I am not sure whether either the hierarchical perspective or the
multidimensional understanding of text signifies any progress at all. I
have no use for hierarchies or XML, but so far the multidimensional
approach has not produced much of anything either. I'll advocate the
latter because it at least made me think about text instead of
structure. But in general we seem not to be able to transcend a debate
that looks suspiciously like a  boring format war to me.

However, all that really looks like an aside to me. The major worry
remains and no one seems really to have addressed it. Why are we (as a
community? as individuals?) so excruciatingly terrible at transferring
the knowledge of the field's past? And why are we so bad at skilling
scholars to choose a technology, data structure, or algorithm based on
reasoning its applicability for purpose instead of community based or
individual dogma? Wasn't ours supposed to be a historically informed and
critical field of investigation?

All best

Drs. Joris J. van Zundert
Researcher & Developer in Humanities Computing

Dept. of Literary Studies
Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands
Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences



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