[Humanist] 24.46 how quaint the revolution

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat May 22 09:02:56 CEST 2010

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 46.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sat, 22 May 2010 07:28:39 +0200
        From: Charles Ess <cmess at drury.edu>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 24.44 how quaint the revolution
        In-Reply-To: <20100521063211.E509D590C5 at woodward.joyent.us>

Hi Willard et co.

On 5/21/10 8:32 AM, "Humanist Discussion Group"
<willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:

> I wonder, what are we doing to ensure that amidst all the shouting
> of revolution and the rearguard action against change we clear a space in
> which the changes may be contemplated and the choices we must make are well
> informed? What are we doing to observe rather than merely assert? To train
> the next generation of scholars to be able to *see* what is happening? To be
> able to recognize the new?

Funny you should mention ...
I've just completed a bit of a review of the following, then "revolutionary"
promises and developments in computing, humanities computing and
computer-mediated communication:

"hard" AI, 1960s-1980s (give or take);

hypertext and hypermedia (1980s-1990s, represented, e.g., in the views of
Jay David Bolter and George Landow);

virtual communities as instantiations of a broader-based affirmation of
"liberation in cyberspace," as expressed popularly in a 1995 MCI commercial
declaring that there are only minds in cyberspace, no gender, race, age
(then there's John Perry Barlow's famous Declaration of Independence of
Cyberspace, 1996, that also solemnly declares that there are no bodies or
matter in cyberspace ...) Somewhat better informed, but still driven by what
appears to have been a prevailing dualism in the then-dominant imaginations
regarding these new possibilities, of course, was the work of Howard
Rheingold (1993);

distance education (along with online shopping) as promising to replace
"bricks-and-mortar" universities (and stores) - perhaps most memorably
captured by Negroponte's declaration of the death of the book (1995)

From the perspective of the end the first decade of this century, however -
if by "revolution" was meant the complete replacement of embodied
identities/modernity [broadly construed]/literacy/print, and all the
institutions that went with it (including law regarding privacy and
property) - what rather seemed to happen was what Walter Ong predicted (only
to be largely ignored at the time, it seems) - i.e., the new media and their
affiliated practices are gradually assuming a place alongside existing media
and their affiliated practices, e.g.

"hard" AI disappeared, to be replaced by other approaches that gave up on
old ideas of the mind as a cognitive machine that worked by manipulating
representations and symbols (a turn also decisively reinforced by
contemporary neuroscience that stress instead the non-cognitive and
pre-reflective role of multiple systems in our bodies for our knowing and
navigating the world);

the Web is the primary instantiation of hypertext/hypermedia for most people
these days, however wonderful and amazing some of the elaborate contemporary
projects we can point to, especially in the humanities, that continue to
exploit the best possibilities of hypertext/hypermedia.  Perhaps with
declining ability and certainly in declining amounts, however, we still seem
to think that people are helped along by learning how to read books ...
i.e., most of us are satisfied (for better and for worse) with a very thin
version of hypertext/hypermedia (however extensive the content the web can
deliver), and the book (and print) are not dead yet (though newspapers, of
course, are in very serious trouble);

as early as 1995 - and acknowledged by Rheingold in 2002 (and Bolter in
2001) - and dramatically demonstrated by an extensive body of research in
computer-mediated communication on everything from virtual communities to
how people control their avatars in games: um, the "virtual" / "real" -
online / offline distinction has more or less evaporated into what Luciano
Floridi calls our "on/life" (in the developed world). Virtual communities,
specifically, only work when they are clearly grounded and reinforced
through "real"-world identities;

and however important "pure" distance education can be for specific
populations in specific ways - we seem to have come to a strong consensus
that the ideal approach is "the blended classroom," i.e., one that conjoins
the best of both "traditional" education between embodied, co-present
students and instructor with specific affordances of online communication.

None of this is to say, of course, that computing, humanities computing, and
computer-mediated communication have not resulted in extraordinary shifts
and changes, much of which, of course, we can be very glad for indeed.  It
is to say that, with these examples, at least, what started out as (hyped)
revolution gradually transformed into reformation.

For what it's worth.

So maybe a quick answer to your question is: a little historical sensibility
as a counterpart to especially 1980s' and 1990s' post-modern enthusiasms for
discarding the past as no longer relevant?

All best,charles ess
Institut for Informations- og Medievidenskab
Helsingforsgade 14
8200 Århus N.
mail: <imvce at hum.au.dk>
tel: (+45) 8942 9250

Distinguished Research Professor, Interdisciplinary Studies
Drury University, Springfield, Missouri 65802 USA

Exemplary persons seek harmony, not sameness. -- Analects 13.23

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