[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
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.
More information about the Humanist