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Humanist Archives: May 7, 2020, 9:15 a.m. Humanist 34.6 - an unremarkable birthday?

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 34, No. 6.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
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        Date: 2020-05-07 07:56:34+00:00
        From: Willard McCarty 
        Subject: an unremarkable birthday?

Those here who have been fellow travellers of Humanist for long enough
will know that today marks its birthday, that today is the first day of 
its 34th year. I admit that I almost didn't notice. Like an alarm clock, 
the automated changeover in the numbering of Humanist 'editions' (as 
they are now called) woke me up. I suspect the current pandemic, whose 
hot breath urges us to keep still, is in part responsible for the mental 
haze that I suspect is the cause of my dulness of mind. But the alarm 
worked, the haze is blown away, the morning is bright and cool, so I 

Recently an old friend, a member of this group from the beginning, wrote
to celebrate the qualities he sees manifested in the creature we have
created and sustained since 7 May 1987. I was delighted not only to hear
from him but also to know that what has been manifested in Humanist 
(though seldom if ever actually declared) was clear to him, namely the 
passion to communicate amidst all the noise that would shut communication 
down. We can now all see, I think, that the Internet has not so much 
improved human communication rather diversified it and made it more

We have seen it all before. Early in the last century, as use of
the telephone was being vigorously promoted, John J. Carty,[1] Chief 
Engineer of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company from 1907, 
forecast that the telephone would bring peace on earth:

> Some day we will build up a world telephone system making necessary
> to all peoples, the use of a common language, or common
> understanding of languages, which will join all the people of the
> earth into one brotherhood... When, by the aid of science and
> philosophy and religion, man has prepared himself to receive the
> message, we can all believe there will be heard, throughout the
> earth, a great voice coming out of the ether, which will proclaim,
> 'Peace on earth, good will towards men.' [2]

A momentary pause to let that wash over you! 

The longing, deep in humankind for millennia, simply overcame his 
engineer's mind, as it did to some of us (who shall remain anonymous) 
not all that long ago. See Eco's The Search for the Perfect Language 
(1995) for the history of it.

But that doesn't mean the engineer's vision was all a lie, just that 
the morally neutral device was misused, is misused some or most of the 
time. The potential for a partial, brought-down-to-earth, intellectually
redemptive realisation lives on. That's what this birthday is all about.

All the best.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_J._Carty
[2] Marion May Dilts, The Telephone in a Changing World (New York:
Longmans, Green and Company, 1941), pp. 188-9; quoted in Ithiel de Sola
Pool et al, "Foresight and Hindsight: The Case of the Telephone", in de
Sola Pool, ed., The Social Impact of the Telephone  (Cambridge MA: MIT
Press, 1977): pp. 128-9.

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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