[Humanist] 22.606 is this a liberation?
Humanist Discussion Group
willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Mar 10 10:45:29 CET 2009
Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 606.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
Date: Tue, 10 Mar 2009 09:40:45 +0000
From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
Subject: is this a liberation?
In 1951 two Canadian physicists, E. W. Leaver and J. J. Brown, wrote as
follows in "Electronics and Human Beings" (Harper's Magazine, August):
> The time is at hand for the electronic management not only of
> industrial production but of business and governmental communication,
> of financial movement, and of commercial distribution. This
> development can, if we chose to direct it so, eliminate the letters,
> memoranda, and other paper methods of communication--all filing cases,
> file clerks, libraries, all other equipment for the storage of
> information, and all the hordes of little clerks who scratch marks on
> paper to communicate with each other and with the outside world. And,
> if we so decide, it may carry off the sweepers and oilers, the
> diggers, the wipers, and all of the dogged human components of our
> present social machine.
For the moment please ignore the paperless-office vision and the
like, and the arrogance of someone who can speak of office-workers as
"little clerks". Indeed, as the authors go on to say, at that historical
moment the machines did not yet exist to accomplish the automation of
drudgery that they had in mind. But they could see that these machines
were imminent and were asking bigger questions,
> Whether these machines and those which will follow them and improve
> upon them are to robotize or humanize mankind is already an urgent
> question and one which the scientists who make them are not equipped
> to solve.... When the human element is removed entirely [from
> industrial mass-production], and replaced by electronic machines that
> control and collate, then we have the essential device around which
> the new social organization will be built.
As I read it, the essential argument here is that computers have the
potential of allowing us truly to humanize ourselves by allowing us to
subtract everything mechanical from ourselves and invest it in machines.
The utopia envisioned, then, is the opposite of the cybernetic. It is
closely related to (though significantly does not use the language of)
visions one finds articulated then, of computers as perfect slaves.
Typically for arguments of this sort, what human beings will do in the
state of leisure thus created gets little attention.
All this is quite relevant to the digital humanities then in formation,
since scholars at the time were asking themselves what computers were
for, and a large number of them who have left their opinions in the
historical record argued for or obviously favoured the computer as obedient
servant, carrier of scholarly water and sawer of scholarly wood, which
reasurringly would leave the creative and socially prestigious work to
scholar. Such remains what many now would say. But what say you? What
dangers, if any, lurk in conceiving of computing as in essence *for*
Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.
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