[Humanist] 23.413 devices prior to uses

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Nov 5 08:36:44 CET 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 413.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Stan Ruecker <sruecker at ualberta.ca>                       (54)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.412 devices prior to uses

  [2]   From:    Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>          (35)
        Subject: inventions and uses

        Date: Wed, 04 Nov 2009 00:17:39 -0700
        From: Stan Ruecker <sruecker at ualberta.ca>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.412 devices prior to uses
        In-Reply-To: <20091104070118.E36823E63F at woodward.joyent.us>

In episode 6, part 4 of his Connections series, James Burke describes 
how Volta's "malaria pistol" was invented in 1776 to test for bad air. 
The user would draw a sample of air into the glass cylinder, and if it 
could be electrically ignited to expel a cork in a small explosion, then 
the air contained methane. Elsewhere, people were learning about 
bacteria, so the bad air theory was on the way out. But the malaria 
pistol, according to Burke, became an inspiration for the internal 
combustion engine.


        Date: Wed, 04 Nov 2009 08:17:35 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: inventions and uses
        In-Reply-To: <20091104070118.E36823E63F at woodward.joyent.us>

Perhaps it's clear why I asked the questions about devices before uses. In
the still dominant model of how computing fits into the institutional
humanities, it's for use dictated by pre-conceived application in the
particular discipline of origin. Is that correct? Of course there are
surprises along the way -- the initiator finds he or she can do
unanticipated things which turn out to be useful for whatever scholarly
problem. But the conceptual flowchart of authority, from which authority is
kept as is, looks usually to be one-way.

Evidence has been offered, and much more could be, to the effect that the
intellectual spark that ignites the fire doesn't have a single, stable place
in that flowchart. Indeed, the flowchart lies. Is it a necessary lie? Must
fire always be stolen from Old Nobodaddy?

What bothers me about this flowcharted actuality is the position of
passivity in which it places what we do. In a collaborative enterprise such
as we are engaged in, is it possible for each party to be the initiator, as
a norm to get his or her own research done?

In the physical sciences (for which the Manhattan Project is a fine example)
is it more the case that one can find something of interest in a larger
collaborative enterprise? Perhaps. But even so, physicists in large projects
do complain about the social-organizational overhead. Always what one needs
is uninterrupted time, or rather the ability to time interruptions oneself.
Again, a matter of authority.

The circumstances for this would seem historically to demand prosperity.
That surely is beyond our control. But in addition there's the understanding
that what we value most requires a certain generosity of mind, an
imagination in part administrative, to come into being. That we can
certainly do something about.


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 mailing list