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Humanist Archives: Dec. 21, 2019, 9:14 p.m. Humanist 33.515 - Solstice greetings 2019

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 33, No. 515.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                   Hosted by King's Digital Lab
                Submit to: humanist@dhhumanist.org

        Date: 2019-12-21 20:54:45+00:00
        From: Willard McCarty 
        Subject: Solstice greetings

Dear colleagues,

Humanist will as always at this time of year shut down for a few days
over the Christmas holidays, this year perhaps for longer than in the
last few years. The cause is a visiting parent for whom 'the computer'
is a strange and formidable object made less ordinary than might be by
all the apocalyptic clamour over artificial intelligence. Devotion to 
the machine, even with the best intentions, would require ingoring an 
important guest and so will not happen.

AI is on my mind these days (as well as frequently in the news). I 
struggle to make from such well-informed discussion as I can find the
kind of sense on which a scholarly discussion might be based. The
task of filtering out the noise is rather more challenging than usual.
I'm reminded of Ovid's description of the dwelling place of Rumour
(Fama) in Book 12 of the Metamorphoses (39-63), from which I extract
these few lines:

... veniunt, leve vulgus, euntque
mixtaque cum veris passim commenta vagantur
milia rumorum confusaque verba volutant ;
e quibus hi vacuas inplent sermonibus aures,
hi narrata ferunt alio, mensuraque ficti
crescit, et auditis aliquid novus adicit auctor.
illic Credulitas, illic temerarius Error
vanaque Laetitia est consternatique Timores
Seditioque recens dubioque auctore Susurri...

everywhere wander thousands of rumours,
falsehoods mingled with the truth, and confused reports
flit about. Some of these fill their idle ears with talk,
and others go and tell elsewhere what they have heard;
while the story grows in size, and each new teller
makes contribution to what he has heard. Here is
Credulity, here is heedless Error, unfounded Joy and
panic Fear; here sudden Sedition and unauthentic

Pray that none of us turns out to be one of those 'new tellers'!

But, on this winter solstice eve I turn away from the clamour to the
othermindedness of the occasion, in this part of the world, in this
particular household: to the habit I have formed of reflecting each year
on something or other as reminder and celebration of Humanist's original
communal thoughtful purpose. Yesterday one of us, Francois Lachance,
offered a helping hand by sending me the result of his "mulling over
what could be the differences between utility and instrumentality". He 
came up with the suggestion that "In the mode of utility an object 
carries a story; in the mode of instrumentality, objects are stripped 
of stories."

Undoubtedly philosophers have worked on these differences extensively.
I am embarrassed to say I cannot put my finger on any learned discussion 
at the moment. But Francois in his musing points to what could be the 
defining (or better, illumining) feature of a digital humanities worth 
celebrating: always tirelessly asking of each new bit of computational 
research or engineering 'what's the story?', in putting this or that 
gizmo to work, in devising it in the first place, in looking to the 
consequences of its use -- or, to borrow sociologist Erving Goffman's 
persistent question, "What is it that's going on here?" In the case of 
the digital machine, taking up this question requires not only all the 
disciplines of the human sciences to do justice to it but also the 
tricky matter of making a chorus out of that highly diverse mob (in the 
Australian Aboriginal sense, a loosely extended family or group, but 
with a tincture of the OED's first definition, "a disorderly or riotous 

You likely know Isaiah Berlin's The Hedgehog and the Fox: An essay on
Tolstoy’s view of history (1963), in which he begins with a quotation
from the ancient Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but
the hedgehog knows one big thing”. I've come to the conclusion that the
digital humanist needs to be both creatures simultaneously so as properly 
to take advantage of all that mob has to offer without blurring the 
crucial differences.

As I write the sun has hours ago crept tentatively along the horizon to
leave us here in the dark, the windows spattered with rain. Downunder
"the heat of Christmas" (Kate Grenville) and raging fires are how it is.
Wherever you are, and however inclined to celebrate whatever, allow me to 
wish you the best Solstice-tide ever!


Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/),
Professor emeritus, Department of Digital Humanities, King's College
London; Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews
(www.tandfonline.com/loi/yisr20) and Humanist (www.dhhumanist.org)

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