[Humanist] 23.1 Happy 22nd birthday!

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu May 7 10:38:14 CEST 2009

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 1.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Thu, 07 May 2009 09:35:42 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: Happy 22nd Birthday!

If a dog seems to live 7 times faster than a human, how fast does an 
online seminar like Humanist age in our sight? How old do we Humanists 
feel? Like the 22 year-old clinging to the belief that he or she can do 
anything but beginning to suspect otherwise? Like the 154 year-old (22 * 
7 = 154) who cannot behave properly? Like an ageless sage?

A marvellous, wonderful celebration of Humanist's 21st birthday was 
staged by Lisa Lena Opas-Hänninen at DH2008 almost a year ago, at which 
not a few digital grandees were to be seen drinking liberally to its 
health. (See the post-sauna 
http://www.ekl.oulu.fi/dh2008/gallery/pages/IMG_4445.html and its 
unsteady sequels.) A few years back I recall making some claim or other 
about Humanist coming of age at 18, by which time few of its original 
members remained, many having grown too old or too busy with heavy 
matters of state to remain in this playpen of ideas and, as we say, 
information. Now we're 22. I sit here in my 109 year-old Victorian 
London house with the latest building project underway (a conservatory, 
and beautiful it will be once it is done...) marvelling at the dizzying 
speed with which Humanist's 22nd continuous year of existence has 
passed. Although it may be said that the handbasket headed for Hell 
continues its lamentable journey filled with most things we value, there 
are moments when the view (I am imagining, unaccountably, the view from 
a ski-lift or mountain-top) gives back blessings all out of proportion 
to the efforts invested in getting here. This ritual occasion, on 7 May 
every year when I send out a birthday message, allows me publically to 
notice them, or at least to notice that blessings are bestowed and then 
to let you fill in the details for yourself. And to all those (if there 
be any) who grumble objections at blessedness such as it is among 
digital humanists, I recommend Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru (1952), in which 
the perfect bureaucrat (spitting image of the one Turing used to help 
him think his way through the Entscheidungsproblem) gets up from his 
desk, shows us what's what and dies in a state of grace.

This 7th May is special for Humanist because it marks the nearly 
seamless move to digitalhumanities.org and completely successful trial 
of the new automatic mechanisms designed for it by Malgosia Askanas 
(good job indeed) and funded by the Alliance of Digital Humanities 
Organizations (to which, to whom many thanks). As one member remarked, 
the move has been unremarkable because almost completely invisible; my 
reply was, that’s true craftsmanship. If all the gears are perfectly 
meshed, the changeover from messages numbered 22.xxx to 23.xxx today 
will have been automatic too. Previously this had to be done by hand. 
But the major improvements are those that make my life easier as editor 
in the day-to-day task of scooping up postings and posting them. What 
you observe (if that's the right word and I remain mindful of the gift) 
is a happier editor.

This 7th May is special for me professionally as being in the midst of 
my efforts to unearth the wherewithal from which, I hope, a genuine 
history of literary computing will emerge. Those who have spent much 
time in archives will know what it means to be turning up loads of 
mundane stuff, which is all to the purpose, but from time to time 
unearthing a gem. My latest gems, for example, are Edmund Callis 
Berkeley's Giant Brains, or Machines that Think (New York, John Wiley & 
Sons, 1949); Martin Mann, "Want to Buy a Brain?", Popular Science 
Monthly, May 1949: 148-52; a warning against such use of language for 
computers, G. R. Stibitz, "A Note on 'Is' and 'Might Be' in Computers", 
Mathematical Tables and Other Aids to Computation 4.31 (July): 168-9; 
and a doctoral dissertation covering the ground, David P. Julyk, "'The 
Trouble with Machines is People.' The Computer as Icon in Post-War 
America: 1946-1970" (Michigan, 2008). Then there's Rich Didday, Finite 
State Fantasies (Matrix, 1976), a comic book with a story, "Escape", 
about a teenage boy who retreats into his room, constructs a VR machine 
from a kit, hooks it to his television, builds a virtual world (an Eden, 
presumably, including a naked woman), then strips off his clothes, dives 
through the screen and flies off with her in a manner familiar to us 
from Second Life. And on the other side of the street is Walter M. 
Mathews and Kaye Reifers, "The Computer in Cartoons: A Retrospective 
from the Saturday Review", Communications of the ACM 27.11 (1984): 1114-9.

These are gems because they help make a history from a catalogue of 
activities and achievements. All the stuff turned up serves as a 
reminder of how much we have forgotten. The gems (yes, including the 
comic books, wacko rants, hype and techno-enthusiasms some now would 
wish permanently forgotten) are gems because they speak to the rounded 
humanity of computing humanists now old, very old or dead who did more 
than prepare concordances for print or whatever else. They’re gems 
because they give us clues as to why certain things happened and others 
did not. They speak to the silences in the historical record. They 
illumine certain odd statements here and there. And they eventually, I 
hope, will amount to a “history of the present”, as Foucault said, i.e. 
a history that speaks to and helps us out with our current predicaments.

Marvin Minsky said somewhere that science doesn’t need history – it just 
forges ahead. He’s a mischievous imp, and a very bright one. But Thomas 
Kuhn is, I think, more important for us at this point, esp in showing us 
what a difference an historical view of progressive disciplines can do 
for them.

Before blowing out the candles, make a wish!

Yours, with best wishes,

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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