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Humanist Archives: June 12, 2019, 8:34 a.m. Humanist 33.80 - how the new becomes intelligible

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 33, No. 80.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                   Hosted by King's Digital Lab
                Submit to: humanist@dhhumanist.org

        Date: 2019-06-10 07:02:59+00:00
        From: William Pascoe 
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 33.75: how the new becomes intelligible?

Hi Willard and humanists,

Zeami says that Noh theatre, which has been performed the same for hundreds of
years, must remain fresh through innovation, in the same way that flowers are
always fresh every year.

I've always thought one of the most important tensions in DH is that between
cybernetics and ostranenie (defamiliarisation). The purpose of cybernetics is
the opposite of ostranenie - to automate things to the point where we don't need
to think about them, becoming cyborgs. I don't think about getting light at
night anymore - I just flick the light switch unthinkingly. It's only when it
doesn't come on, there's a black out, or the bulb has blown, that it is
defamiliarised and I might think of all the functioning behind it, from the
science of electricity to the global economy and my place in it, noticing that
I'm a) dependent on it as much as my ability is enhanced by it and b) as much
'used by' this supercyborg, or macrocyborg, as I use it. There is a tendency to
assume cybernetics is about empowering me to expand my abilities - to see
further, go faster, etc, but we are as much used by and fused into this larger
cybernetic system.

There is plenty to learn from Heidegger about how broken things compel us to
notice their 'being', and on existence-as-use. 'Off The Beaten Track' I think in
particular has some good stuff. There's a bit of it in Dada, the Situationists,
and through de Certeau to Latour too, and you can trace it back to Kantian
aesthetics where 'beauty' is necessarily not *useful* in the sense that it's
something valued in itself beyond my specific use for some other purpose, and in
so far as we each have in common a capacity to appreciate beauty (hence it's not
a value peculiar to my own self interested purpose). But that's a thought train
too long for an email...

More specific to your question - one of the main values of IT has, of course,
always also not been novelty but repetition of things that are already well
known. It's in Lovelace's notes from the first. We have a good structure for a
thousand similar things so we can automate that with our computers - perhaps to
free up time for speculating on 'novelties'. The basic ongoing cybernetic
process can be thought of as automating routine tasks so we can devote our
thought and energy to how to automate everything that's left. Plenty of
philosophers, Nietzsche and Heidegger again, etc, warn about what a totalitarian
tendency of technology might do to humanity and the world. Indeed we are
regularly reduced to nothing more than our usefulness rather than being a
Kantian 'end in itself'.

In any case, I suggest our actual practice in DH is more of a play of
repetition, age and novelty, rather than fetishising new tech like a car ad or
the valorisation of tech entrepreneurs (though it might be spun that way to get
the grant or as a sign of capitulation to the commercial imperatives of our
patrons). Normally, when wondering why the West and modernity is obsessed with
novelty, we look to Modernism and its roots in Romantic genius. In DH we might
think about Ezra Pound's 'make it new' - there's a good New Yorker article
explaining the importance of the word 'it' in the phrase - unlike fascistic
futurism that says the old must be destroyed to make way for the new, the 'it'
is what is old - hence Pound, because he is a modernist, rather than despite
being a modernist, is always citing old english, old mandarin etc etc.

Since usefulness has such a relation to aesthetics I'm reminded of a question
that came up on this list a couple of years back around something like 'What is
beautiful code?' and there were some responses asking to define 'beauty' first
etc. Lately, looking back at sources on the sublime, I'm suspecting what we tend
to call 'beautiful' in coding is in the sense contrasted with 'sublime' in texts
like Burke - intricate, a clear understanding of parts, balancing comprehensible
complexity and simplicity, part of a coherent whole in good proportion etc - in
contrast to what colleagues have sometimes called 'funky' code or 'dark arts',
but could be called 'sublime' - where code doesn't make sense, achieves outcomes
incoherently, is needlessly verbose, inconsistent, repetitious, not human
readable, which uses 3 lines of code when it could have been a 1 liner, or which
uses a 1 liner, when 3 lines would have been intelligible, which makes you
wonder what the hell the dev was thinking when they wrote "$myvar
=~s/^.*$//msgi;" etc. Although code might function the same as a black box, we
can appreciate differences in it's 'beauty'. In futurism, as in consumer
culture's love of shiny trinkets, newness itself is an aesthetic value -
something we value in itself. And it's fetishisation because it is valued rather
than what it is meant to be an improvement upon, or to attain (but you can use
that fallacy to get the grant and do something actually valuable).

Good UI design relies on establishing a familiar context to automate actions,
and to draw attention to unfamiliar things, and so is closely related to
information theory. The 'entropy' or unexpectedness is the part that changes
within the unfamiliar form. So, for example, websites usually have a navigation
menu horizontally under the header, and or vertically at the left. With this
convention users know already they can click there to make something happen.
More recently with small screens we also expect a 'hamburger' - the three
horizontal lines which mean we will get a menu when we click it. Because we want
users to not be confused and leave we adhere to this convention. Usability
depends on things not being 'new' but on being automatic or to have the
familiarity of old things which through interaction have become predictable to
use in their behavior. When making a conventional website we only want things we
want to say, or the *information* the user seeks, to be changing and different.

Newness also relates to the old form and content structure of so much IT. To put
changing and 'new' data in a database it needs to be in a stable unchanging
database. An algorithm is an unchanging process with new and *variable* input.
There is also the paradox of flexibility - Humanists are often frustrated by the
'inflexible' constraints of IT systems, but it is those constraints that make
code and content, in open standard format, so re-usable in new and interesting

One alternative to the rhetoric of 'novelty' that is hard not to regurgitate
after so many years of habituation to it in our media environment is the
metaphor of 'translation'. Cybernetics 'translates' things unintelligible into
our limited capacities. Telescopes take things too far to see, and translate
them into an image visible to us. We can't run as fast as a car, so we
'translate' the operation of a car into motions we are capable of - foot on the
pedal, hands on the steering wheel, etc. Statistics and graphs translate vast
amounts of noisy data into something mentally digestible.

Strictly speaking the purpose of ostranenie is to deautomate what has already
been automated, rather than provide 'new' information. Translating languages is
a prime example of ostranenie - of deautomating the act of communication. Trying
to translate another language makes us aware of all the functioning involved in
understanding another person - all those functionings that happen in any
communication, but we aren't normally aware of because we seldom run into errors
through practice among people familiar to us, speaking the same language.
Usually we communicate automatically - trying to translate a poem makes us aware
of what we are doing whenever we communicate. When translating something is lost
and something is gained - but just because it isn't absolute doesn't mean
translation is impossible - it's just more or less or in some ways not others.
The act of doing DH, as a cybernetic 'translation', can help de-automate what we
are trying to study.

Also, academia, universities etc, have as their focus the conservation of all
and ancient wisdom alongside the cutting edge of critique - they are at the
extreme ends of old and new. In the ethics of Levinas we see that one of the
advantages of death is that falling in love for the first time remains eternal.
Without readers books are no more than food for worms. Without readers digital
storage becomes a 'brick'. So we all might be moved for the first time by a song
or a sonnet, generation after generation, so we are moved with nuances ever new
as we read and reread in ever changing ways. DH is many things but just as Zeami
speaks of the flower of Noh, fresh year after year, so we can speak of the
flower of digital humanities.

Kind regards,

Dr Bill Pascoe
System Architect
Time Layered Cultural Map Of Australia
C21CH Digital Humanities Lab

T: 0435 374 677
E: bill.pascoe@newcastle.edu.au

The University of Newcastle (UON)
University Drive
Callaghan NSW 2308

From: Humanist 
Sent: Sunday, 9 June 2019 3:38 PM
To: publish-liv@humanist.kdl.kcl.ac.uk
Subject: [Humanist] 33.75: how the new becomes intelligible?

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 33, No. 75.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                   Hosted by King's Digital Lab
                Submit to: humanist@dhhumanist.org

        Date: 2019-06-09 05:32:21+00:00
        From: Willard McCarty 
        Subject: how to restrain the new?

In a recent workshop a fellow participant objected to my notion of value
in computing derived from finding the new. He noted that we are
bombarded with novelty constantly. Indeed, something going wrong with
your brain can lead to a massive deluge of raw data that renders you
helpless. Some people, for example, lack the ability to limit their
empathy with others and so are overcome by feeling what they feel -- to
a degree that challenges theories of perception. (Forgive me for
forgetting the name of this condition.) The point is that mere novelty
gets us nowhere. My response was to revise my statement by shifting the
focus to the creative function of constraints or filters, if you will.
In terms of Viktor Shklovsky's 'defamiliarisation', that which jolts us
out of habitualisation is not merely the opening of a door but something
else. Intelligibility requires more.

Where might I go to learn more about this selective liberation?

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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