[Humanist] 24.263 getting involved, but how?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Aug 19 22:35:33 CEST 2010

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 263.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Fri, 20 Aug 2010 06:34:10 +1000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: getting involved

At one time a number of us spent time arguing that computer-using 
scholars should become computer-programming scholars, and a few of us 
wrote books on programming languages designed to make that easier. The 
thinking was, as I recall, that if only "algorithmic thinking" were to 
become habitual, great strides could be made in humanities computing. 
This argument was related to the ongoing attempt to devise better, more 
humanly expressive programming languages -- better than FORTRAN and 
COBOL, higher-level than C++. Once upon a time I thought that assembler 
language was about as high as one should go, that to twiddle bits was 
not just thrilling but also was to understand what computing was all 
about. But then I never got much done, following yards of printout, 
spread out on the floor, trying to reconstruct the intricate path of a 
flawed micro-algorithmic thought I once had (but had lost) in order to 
find the flaw.

Economics and technological improvements made that sort of indulgence a 
thing of the past, I would suppose, except in very specialised 
applications. But where now do we say that the ideal hybrid scholar's 
mind should be?

In the circumstances I observe many scholars, though persuaded that 
digital methods and tools are Good, have only the vaguest notion of what 
they *are* -- in the way that a painter understands his or her 
paintbrush. I think this is a problem, the sort of one we should be 
trying to solve.

The argument that you don't have to understand the workings of an 
internal combustion engine in order to drive, and all arguments I know 
of that take this form, really don't apply. Computing isn't mechanical 
in the same sense that an internal combustion engine is mechanical, and 
our objectives in using it aren't limited by getting from A to B. We 
want both the "B" and the "getting" to be dynamical, evolving processes. 
But many of our colleagues are still thinking of a simple drive from one 
place they know to another place they know in a vehicle they can trust 
to remain the same.

The solution to the problem seems to be to involve educating the 
imaginations of these colleagues. And it seems to me that the way to do 
this is somehow to involve them in hands-on making of digital things. I 
see far too much standing back and talking about static results 
engineered by someone else, too little engagement, too little scholarly 

Comments? Suggestions?


Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Professor, Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney,
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

More information about the Humanist mailing list