[Humanist] 24.111 why all the old stuff?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Jun 14 08:01:39 CEST 2010

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 111.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Mon, 14 Jun 2010 07:01:06 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: why all this old stuff?

I suspect a certain degree of puzzlement over all the old stuff I've 
been dishing up in messages over the last several months. Or perhaps 
not. Perhaps a sense of irrelevance is closer to the mark. In any case 
while being fascinated at such dazzling imaginative activity in the 
early years of computing, I also remain puzzled. I have a conceptual 
file into which I put all the historiographical points made, from 
wherever they come, and one day soon, like a crow, will dig up all the 
shiny things I've nicked, spread them all out and at least admire them.

The basic notion is historia magistra vitae, history (as) teacher of 
life, to the living -- conditions are not absolutely perfect, so we look 
to the past for lessons, advice, exemplars. I take to heart Geoffrey 
Lloyd's examination of the discipline of history in Disciplines in the 
Making (Oxford, 2009): 58-75. The interests the historian brings to the 
past -- in my case a very recent past, within living memory and so 
subject to its distortions -- make the reader more suspicious the more 
they are manifest. But having no such interests means no history at all, 
just data that could be historical. More serious yet is the question of 
what one hopes to gain, really. There is, Lloyd says, "an obvious risk 
of making the general's mistake if entering the next war brilliantly 
equipped for the last one, but quite at a loss in the face of the new 
enemy. You learn from the past about the past: and that is not 
necessarily a good guide to the future, however fascinating it may be to 
ponder the reasons why the past turned out the way it did. To be sure, 
history provides a rich, almost inexhaustible source of examples, 
precedents, and potential analogies. But that does not get round the 
problem of determining which are the ones that are relevant to the case 
in hand.... Selection is inevitable and there is no algorithm for 
success" (63).

In other words, he concludes, we cannot escape using our own judgement 
-- and so examining our own motivations. Mine (I think) come from (but 
are not entirely determined by) two senses: one, that research in 
humanities computing has become industrialised (and cash-cow'd), and so 
is research no longer; two, that back when literary computing got 
started, it took a wrong turn that has led us to industrialisation. If, 
I am thinking, historia is magistra vitae for us, it will help us by 
showing us other possibilities. Why, I wonder, no doubt selectively, 
were things so exciting then, especially in the arts, and so dull now? 
Or is the beam in the eye of this beholder?

There -- cards on the table, inviting other readings of them, other moves.


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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