[Humanist] 24.859 literature brought virtually to life

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Apr 7 08:30:25 CEST 2011


                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 859.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
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        Date: Wed, 06 Apr 2011 18:51:21 -0400
        From: Wendell Piez <wapiez at mulberrytech.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 24.856 literature brought virtually to life
        In-Reply-To: <20110406071158.71680129702 at woodward.joyent.us>


Dear Willard and HUMANIST,

On 4/6/2011 3:11 AM, Daniel Allington wrote:
> That's what I meant about my age. I'm just old enough to have grown
> up using a CLI - added to which, the first browser I used was Mosaic.
> So to me (and I guess, a lot of people on this list) graphics in
> computing have always seemed like an optional extra. I do wonder what
> today's undergrads would make of this sort of stuff.

We can definitely date ourselves by what we consider optional extras. 
For me I guess it would be the CRT, which has finally (full circle) 
become obsolete. But I guess I'm pretty old for someone as young as I am.

Yet this dating comes back to what Carlos Monroy just wrote about in 
24.845 "attracting students", and how even science and engineering are 
finding it difficult to communicate their interest to the young. It 
comes back to the old radio the old dean of engineering grew up with, 
the one that seemed so magical and led him into a passion and a career. 
To him, maybe, the illuminated dial or the amplified signal seemed 
optional extras, nice-to-haves on top of the wonder of it. It seems that 
to cultivate this sort of interest in fundamentals, one needs not only 
curiosity -- that essential emotion of the young, so easily extinguished 
when not fed its proper food of insight and wonder -- but also a sense 
that curiosity about the causes of things, with its delicious sense of 
hazard, is itself proper and right (for the young and for the old who 
wish to stay young in spirit), partly because it defies time. Curiosity 
about a poem, how static forms of ink on a page can manage to 
communicate their ripples of energy, the rise of hairs on your neck, 
isn't really very different from curiosity about how a crystal can pick 
up vibrations out of space and translate them into vibrations in the 
air. It's the same stuff, and it always has been.

So what do we do to encourage this, in ourselves and in those to whom we 
owe our own hopes for the future? Here, I think the demands of consumer 
culture for encapsulation and finish, despite the lure of their apparent 
achievement, work against us. As long as it's impossible to open one of 
these mobile devices -- or the source code of a downloaded app -- and 
see even how its parts fit together, much less their inner workings, our 
curiosity hits that wall of incomprehension, forcing us either to accept 
the subordinate role offered to us -- a "user" not a participant -- or 
to turn away entirely. (Being no longer so young, my choice is often the 
latter, and this makes me feel old.) One's role as a consumer is not to 
understand, lest one (with one's troublesome curiosity) become a point 
of instability, an anomaly to be contained. Fundamentally, I think this 
represents a crisis of relationship, not so much between people (who 
remain stubbornly curious about one another), or between people and the 
technologies with which we extend and express ourselves, but between 
people and the institutions that organize and seek to control all this 
activity, ostensibly for their and our own livelihoods and 
sustainability. A conflict of interest: the state does not need us to be 
curious and engaged, as long as we obey the law and pay our taxes. The 
corporation does not need us to be curious, but only to accept its 
services on its own terms, as repeat customers. It hardly needs to be 
added that these are ultimately self-defeating positions, as after all 
these institutions are no one but us, and like all living things, their 
choice and ours is only whether to renew ourselves or die.

This makes me wonder if I haven't been wrong to suppose how important it 
is to finish. Maybe the best thing I can leave to those who come after 
me is the project left undone, the pieces scattered around where they 
can pick them up, putting two and two together for themselves. If this 
is the case, maybe a curriculum should not be a "program" so much as a 
venue and an opportunity for passage, not from potential to realization 
as much as from one potential to another, greater one. And what we 
should have in common with our students is our work in progress.

Regards,
Wendell

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Wendell Piez                            mailto:wapiez at mulberrytech.com
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