Home About Subscribe Search Member Area

Humanist Discussion Group

< Back to Volume 34

Humanist Archives: July 25, 2020, 6:52 a.m. Humanist 34.185 - on surprise

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 34, No. 185.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                   Hosted by King's Digital Lab
                Submit to: humanist@dhhumanist.org

        Date: 2020-07-24 17:51:26+00:00
        From: Tim Smithers 
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 34.182: strata of abstraction & the genesis of surprise

Dear Willard,

You ask, where do lasting surprises come from?  I suggest a
response by coming together from two different starting

First.  Surprises are not found, they occur, I would say.
They may occur my chance, as in a stunning Sun set, and they
may occur in some doing, some human doing, recognising the
double helix form of DNA, for example -- some modelling doing
in this case.

Second.  A tool is something that makes possible, or makes
easier, some purposeful doing [*].  Tools are rendered from
technologies.  (Tools and technologies are not the same thing,
but are, of course, related.)  A tool may be improved by
rendering it in a new (better) technology or technologies.
This is what we have been doing with computers; building them
from new and better digital technologies, and, as Jim Keller
also explains in the video Bill Benson pointed us to (see HDG
Vol 34, No 173: 2020.07.18), by building better machine to
make the parts we make computers from.

Computers are an unusual kind of tool, unlike most other kinds
of tools.  Computers are tools we can turn into the tools we
want and need, by programming them.  Nobody uses an
unprogrammed computer (except to hold a door ajar, perhaps),
but a well programmed computer is a particular tool, and,
presumably, the tool that makes possible the purposeful doing
we wish to, or need to, engage in.

As computers have been built to be better, so the tools we
turn them into have become more and more powerful, sometimes
stunningly so.  This almost magical power means that the
purposeful doings we use our computer-based tools to engage
in, can, and often do, surprise us, and I mean us collectively
here, to connect with your quest for the origins of 'lasting

We attribute the magic to the wand: if the wand be not a magic
wand, there be no magic, irrespective of the skills of the,
wizard who waves it.  The (seemingly) magical qualities of the
programmed computers we use in our purposeful doings thus
seem, all too easily, to be what is responsible for the
surprises that occur; be they happy and unhappy.  Just as the
magic wand is, in the hand of the Wizard.  But this is not the
reality.  There is no magic.  Programmed computers know
nothing of surprises.  (Not yet, at least.)  The (lasting)
surprises that occur in our doings don't originate from the
computer-based tools we use.  Nor any other tools we use.  Any
surprises are due to our (human) doing.  Yes, using a well
programmed powerful computer to do something difficult and
interesting can make it feel like the doing is no longer in
our hands, but I think the better way to understand this is
that by taking up well made powerful tools our hands are made
bigger, and the surprises occur from our new, programmed
computer made possible, doing.

Lasting surprises come from our doing.  They always have done,
I think.  As we extend what we can do, by devising, making,
and taking up new tools, new lasting surprises occur in our
new doings.  Not surprisingly, I think.

Surprises are latent in our 'hands', but they don't show up
until we do things with our 'hands'.  Digital machines --
programmed computers -- make our hands bigger in certain ways,
allowing us to do certain things not possible before.  These
new doings afford the occurrence of new and different
surprises, some of them lasting surprises.  You do, of course,
have to notice these surprises.  So it does take careful
reflective doing.

Now I'll just magic this off to you, and hope it doesn't
surprise you.

Best regards,


[*] A tool is something that makes possible some
    purposeful doing.  A _good_ tool makes possible some
    purposeful doing _without_ getting in the way of the

> On 23 Jul 2020, at 08:08, Humanist  wrote:
>                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 34, No. 182.
>            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                   Hosted by King's Digital Lab
>                       www.dhhumanist.org
>                Submit to: humanist@dhhumanist.org
>        Date: 2020-07-23 05:48:29+00:00
>        From: Willard McCarty 
>        Subject: strata of abstraction & the genesis of surprise
> I refer back to earlier this month, when I was floundering around for
> ideas about what might escape those layers of abstraction, i.e. the
> mechanisms in our digital machines constructed to make programming
> complex systems feasible and to hide information that we really
> don't need to see, such as all that the machine does to identify
> errors, correct them, ensure the machine's reliability.
> I'd be foolish to speak against reliability, since I do want to get
> things done -- things that to get done require nothing more or less than
> the ability to 'attend from' whatever devices are involved with very
> little or no need to 'attend to' them. (You will recognise Michael
> Polanyi's terms, from his Tacit Knowledge.) The engineer of bridges
> wants his or her structures to stay put, as do we all when travelling on
> them. But there are other things, like computers and musical
> instruments, for which reliability, though required as a base condition,
> isn't enough.
> Ok, I put analogies aside. What I want to know more about is where
> surprises come from, the kind of genuine surprises that survive into our
> research and (as Turing remarked in his 1950 paper) are not due to our
> surprising ourselves. One way of going at this question is to ask it of
> other, less apparently complex devices and situations. Having done that,
> we can then ask what's special about digital machines in this regard.
> Any ideas?
> Yours,
> WM
> --
> 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)

Unsubscribe at: http://dhhumanist.org/Restricted
List posts to: humanist@dhhumanist.org
List info and archives at at: http://dhhumanist.org
Listmember interface at: http://dhhumanist.org/Restricted/
Subscribe at: http://dhhumanist.org/membership_form.php

Editor: Willard McCarty (King's College London, U.K.; Western Sydney University, Australia)
Software designer: Malgosia Askanas (Mind-Crafts)

This site is maintained under a service level agreement by King's Digital Lab.