[Humanist] 23.442 process/product & critical thinking

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Nov 18 07:29:18 CET 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 442.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Craig Bellamy <txt at craigbellamy.net>                      (69)
        Subject: being critical of critical thinking

  [2]   From:    Wendell Piez <wapiez at mulberrytech.com>                    (46)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.432 process/product? models for tenure &

        Date: Tue, 17 Nov 2009 15:13:09 +0000
        From: Craig Bellamy <txt at craigbellamy.net>
        Subject: being critical of critical thinking
        In-Reply-To: <20091114072802.523DD42D0F at woodward.joyent.us>

> From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
> Subject: critical thinking
> What I think all this has to do with computing is in our understanding
> better what computing has to do with the culture in which it has surfaced.
> The utilitarian argument ("the computer is useful") is so trite, so dull, so
> incapable of supporting for long the professional activity we would like to
> see given a better place in the sun. The principle of reprocity that governs
> human relations says we need to be useful for sure, but to attract the sort
> of students we want as well as keep ourselves alive intellectually I'd think
> we need to offer something with a real bite to it. What has that bite? Not a
> totally paranoid vision, though the thrill of the threat of it is a start.
Dear Willard and Humanist,

This is an interesting arguments and given the institutional 
arrangements of the Digital Humanities, they aren't going to be resolved 
quickly. I think where we find ourselves in the Digital Humanities is 
wedged somewhere between a contemporary version of CP Snow's Two 
Cultures argument. But rather than wedged between 'Science' and 
'Humanities' we find ourselves stuck somewhere between highly skilled 
technical  labour and academic labour. They are both two very valuable 
and different cultures with divergent approaches to work, merit, 
aspiration, and research significance. This division is especially 
problematic in the UK context given the history of the class system 
where working class kids went to technical school and middle class kids 
were given the opportunity to become academics. This of course changed 
significantly with mass tertiary education and the rise of the Polytechnics.

And in recent years, 'pragmatism' (or even utilitarianism) in the UK has 
taken a decisively hegemonic and political role in the middle classes 
spurred on by excessive London 'City' culture and a somewhat pragmatic 
anti-intellectual elite. The Banking sector in that country was after 
all merely there to perform a service function, but somehow managed 
through 'service innovation' to create a bloated self-serving industry 
that not only rewarded itself for its own mediocrity, but subsumed the 
more productive and innovative components of the British economy.

I know that I am making a polemical leap here (and it is on purpose), 
but I am worried that we in our own small way are making the same 
mistakes in the Digital Humanities. We are for instance, allowing 
simplistic understandings of concepts such as 'infrastructure' to 
distract us away from perhaps more significant research endeavors. For 
example one of the recent posts on Humanist announced yet another layer 
on the Infrastructure spaghetti-portfolio called CHAIN (Collation of 
Humanities and Arts Infrastructure Networks). 

If networks such as this are to attract and sustain academic attention, 
they must also be only be open to academic critique so that they may be 
embedded within real academic research culture and critical concerns 
(beyond the 'practical' debates) . Although good infrastructure is not 
entirely without merit, I worry that in this instance the group is 
crudely undifferentiated and lacks clear theoretical and technical 
underpinnings and achievable goals. At least one of the 'infrastructure' 
projects listed is an otherwise pedestrian off-the-shelf installation of 
Drupal but is placed beside a massive iterative design project that 
consists of 60 universities worldwide! One of the networks I am not sure 
actually exists, and another doesn't deal with technical standards at 
all as far as I am aware. The vision of this group is far too grandiose 
and nebulous and although dialogue is always good, at these times of 
diminished resources, we also need to concentrate all our academic 
energies on deeper and more significant understanding of the human 
condition so that we may find more achievable ways to understand it.

all the best,


Independent Scholar

        Date: Tue, 17 Nov 2009 11:28:57 -0500
        From: Wendell Piez <wapiez at mulberrytech.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.432 process/product? models for tenure & promotion?
        In-Reply-To: <20091113104651.EA45B4197B at woodward.joyent.us>

Dear Willard,

At 05:46 AM 11/13/2009, you wrote:
>Do we associate what we do with things like bridges or processes 
>like dance or musical performance? For a number of reasons, I'd 
>suppose, doing the former is easier: things stick around, have a 
>prominent "thud factor" (the sound that the book makes when hitting 
>the dean's desk). I'd also suppose that associating our work with 
>the latter, though risky, would push it in all manner of interesting 
>new-to-us (or perhaps just to me) directions. It would also draw 
>more attention than is often given to the psychological moment, to 
>the dynamics of what we clumsily call "interaction".
>If I may detain you for a moment longer -- I'd think that 
>programming as choreography or more generally as performance would 
>be primarily associated with making research tools like legos rather 
>than research products like whole applications. Which, of course, 
>gets us back to John Unsworth's "primitives".

As so often, I find your questions refreshing partly because they 
provoke me to contrast (I hope usefully) what academics do with what 
other intellectual  laborers do.

In the world where I spend most of my professional time, there is a 
necessary focus on products, because that's what people are paying 
for (the thud of the book on the desk). And yet at the same time, the 
closer we get to the work, the more principals on all sides 
(designers, builders, contractors, clients) understand that any 
product is also a process, and indeed that any product of value is in 
its way a *living* process, involving its creators, developers and 
users in a dynamic and evolving set of relationships. Hence the 
importance in my business of education, training, and development 
approaches that have one foot in inquiry and (dare I say) skepticism 
even while the other is firmly planted in standards and methods.

So, certainly, yes, programming as choreography and performance, and 
research tools like legos.

Yet, the best way to show off your legos is also to show how you 
build skyscrapers and spaceships and robots with them.


Wendell Piez                            mailto:wapiez at mulberrytech.com
Mulberry Technologies, Inc.                http://www.mulberrytech.com
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Rockville, MD  20850                                 Fax: 301/315-8285
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