[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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