[Humanist] Re: 22.639 looking back

Willard McCarty willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sun Mar 22 10:19:13 CET 2009

About Martin Mueller's comment on James Rovira's "just differences in 
speed of access",

> Ranganathan's fourth law of library science usefully states "Save the  
> time of the reader." When the time cost of an activity rises or falls  
> by orders of magnitude, the calculus of the possible changes. You do  
> things you previously couldn't do or you no longer do things you once  
> did becase it is quite literally not 'worthwhile.' We are in the world  
> of changes in degree turning into changes of kind.
> The transformational changes brought about by digital technology are  
> for the most part 'just' a matter of speeding up conceptually very  
> simple operations, such as sorting lists, moving stuff from here to  
> there, etc. Doug Engelbart's famous essay on Augmenting the Human  
> Intellect is very clear on this. It's just a lot of little stuff, but  
> it adds up.

a highly significant point comes back again to remind us that we are 
beings in time and space, for whom scale matters. The world is 
quantized, yes, though not in any simple sense. We now know (and have 
known before) that at certain levels of complexity, new things are 
manifested, new processes start happening. Since people like us first 
started agonizing about what we might do with computers, we have looked 
for definitive criteria of value, we have looked for work that "could 
clearly not have been done without a computer" (Kennny, "Computers and 
the humanities", British Library Research Lecture, 1992, p. 4). We have 
faced audiences, colleagues and ourselves in moments of self-doubt 
objecting that whatever it is we exhibit as evidence of value clearly 
*could* have been done without a computer. The point is, as Martin 
Mueller says, we in fact do what is worthwhile, what we can, what is 
practical, what is convenient. Increasing the convenience of access to 
scholarly resources doesn't sound terribly grand, but in fact JSTOR, 
Project Muse, the Internet Archive and their kind have changed the world 
in which scholars operate -- now a world in which an article in a 
journal of theoretical biology pops up beside an article in a journal of 
literary criticism and tempts the curious scholar to ask about the 
possible relations of one to the other.

Size matters, speed matters. When in 1945 Frank Aydelotte, then Director 
of the Institute for Advanced Study, put the case to his Board of 
Trustees for supporting John von Neumann's proposal to build a computer 
there -- in an Institute that was founded for theoretical rather than 
practical work -- he described "an electronic computer which could 
operate roughly one thousand times as fast as the best devices now in 
existence and which could consequently undertake problems which are at 
the present moment entirely out of the reach of any scholar" (Minutes 
for 19 October 1945, pp. 9-10). The Board voted in favour of Aydelotte's 
proposal, to give the project $100,000, and the rest, as we say, is history.

In the fields of computing, knowing what will make a difference and 
seeing what has and is making a difference are normally matters of 
attending to the small things, as Martin says.



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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