[Humanist] 24.910 in denial

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Apr 28 07:10:12 CEST 2011


                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 910.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org



        Date: Wed, 27 Apr 2011 19:52:45 +0100
        From: "Stokes, Peter" <peter.stokes at kcl.ac.uk>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 24.905 in denial?
        In-Reply-To: <20110425052356.BC4CF135E01 at woodward.joyent.us>


Dear Willard,

I regularly assert that the computer is 'just a tool'. This is what I mean by it:

a. The computer is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The biggest, flashiest computer in the world is no use if it can't do the things that are required of it (leaving aside issues of personal status and showing off).
b. Getting to that 'end' will always be limited by the computer. There are certain functions for which a computer is designed and suited, and others for which it is not. If one tries to use it for the latter then it will be a difficult job at best. Similarly, it is always limited by the (fallible) people who designed and built it.
c. Getting to that end will always be limited by the user. A computer will not do anything on its own and requires some skill and understanding to use. If misused then will produce nothing at best, and can be very misleading at worst. (Of course it may run while unattended, but someone, somewhere must have set it up to do this.)

I tend to assert this in a few different contexts, partly to be provocative, but also as a way of arguing against a few points that come up surprisingly often:

1. The computer is not 'magic', and does not give 'answers'. It can only give data that must be interpreted. That data may also be simply incorrect, if the person or people who programmed it made a mistake, or if misused, and so the data must always be questioned and not simply accepted.
2. The (use of a) computer is not objective. The computer itself is usually deterministic, but its results must always be interpreted by a human being, and this interpretation is, by definition, subjective. Similarly, its input data must be selected by a human being, as must the algorithms that are run on it. Once again, these are decisions and interpretations that must always be questioned and not simply accepted.
3. Points 1 and 2 imply in turn that *all* data should be made public: not only all the output but also all the input, the source code of all software used, and a full description of the process followed, so that they can be interrogated fully.
4. There is (I think) no point in producing hardware or software without properly considering the needs of its users.

Best,

Peter

--
Dr Peter Stokes
Research Fellow
Department of Digital Humanities
King's College London
Room 210, 2nd Floor
26-29 Drury Lane
London, WC2B 5RL
Tel: +44 (0)20 7848 2813
peter.stokes at kcl.ac.uk

On 25 Apr 2011, at 06:23, Humanist Discussion Group wrote:

> 
>                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 905.
>         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
>                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
> 
> 
> 
>        Date: Mon, 25 Apr 2011 06:22:09 +0100
>        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
>        Subject: in denial
> 
> I'd be interested to know if you have recently heard anyone assert
> that the computer is "just a tool" and what you think may have 
> been meant by that phrase.
> 
> Many thanks.
> 
> Yours,
> WM
> -- 
> Professor Willard McCarty, Department of Digital Humanities, King's
> College London; Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western
> Sydney; Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews (www.isr-journal.org);
> Editor, Humanist (www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist/); www.mccarty.org.uk/




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