[Humanist] 24.917 in denial

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat Apr 30 08:35:50 CEST 2011

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 917.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Manfred Thaller <manfred.thaller at uni-koeln.de>            (55)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 24.914 in denial

  [2]   From:    Ales Vaupotic <eurolit at zrc-sazu.si>                      (132)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 24.914 in denial

  [3]   From:    Patrick Durusau <patrick at durusau.net>                     (33)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 24.914 in denial

        Date: Fri, 29 Apr 2011 08:40:22 +0200
        From: Manfred Thaller <manfred.thaller at uni-koeln.de>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 24.914 in denial
        In-Reply-To: <20110429054919.B75029AA07 at woodward.joyent.us>

Dear Willard,

A humble question: May not be the fact that Humanists have to discuss, 
whether the computer is "just a tool" be the at the heart of the still 
strained relationship between the Humanities and Computer Science?

Virtually nobody from the hard sciences - leave alone computer science - 
I meet in my muddled interdisciplinary waters, would understand, that 
there can be a question that the computer <emph>is</emph> just a tool, 
to be handled with confidence, as you are expected to learn how to wield 
it, because that is as the world is nowadays.

Is the implicit need to discuss whether there might not be some magic 
lurking in the background, a reflexion of the strained relationship many 
Humanists still have to information technology? "You do not have to 
learn how to use a computer, you just have to be able to talk to the 
technicians."; "Should you really teach your students how to set up a 
server at an arts faculty? Is that not part of the Computing Centre?" 
More generally, in endless discussions about what should be taught in 
interdisciplinary curricula, I always have the feeling, that many 
participants are often more concerned - and certainly have stronger 
opinions about - how to define very precisely, what a "Digital Humanist" 
has <emph>not</emph> necessarily to know about computers, and still can 
consider him- (or her-) self as a "Digital Humanist", than what 
constitutes the technical skills which <emph>must</emph> be mastered.

As a result, there is almost invariably the assumption, that somewhere 
between the Humanist and the machine a technician is required. On the 
surface, because it is beneath the dignity of a Humanist to know such 
technical trivia. In the nightmares, because there is the dark fear, 
that a Humanist might not be able to master those trivia. (At the very 
least, not without endangering his (or her) Humanist's soul.) So, just 
as in some religions you need a priest between you and god, in many 
brands of the Digital Humanities (and large parts of society, by the 
way) you need a technician between you and THE MACHINE.

If there has to be a priest, must a god not be assumed?

Hm. Could it possibly be, that the somewhat disturbing situation that 
the building of digital infrastructures for the Humanities seems to be 
shaping up somewhere separate from the Humanities, is connected to this? 
(At least within the funding institutions which I have occassionally the 
honor to advise, the most serious concern about Digital Humanities 
infrastructure projects is usually, that they are as admirable as 

If there has to be a priest, must a church not be created? (Well 
separated from the believers, as proper clergy should be, of course.)


Seriously, how can anybody doubt, that the computer is a tool? Albeit 
other tools - cars or nuclear reactors come to mind - have shown, that 
being a tool does not necessarily force one to consider it 
<emph>just</emph> a tool.

Kind regards,

Prof. Dr. Manfred Thaller
Historisch-Kulturwissenschaftliche Informationsverarbeitung, Universität
zu Köln
Postadresse: Albertus-Magnus-Platz, D 50923 Köln
Besuchsadresse: Kerpener Str. 30, Eingang Weyertal, II. Stock
Tel. +49 - 221 - 470 3022, FAX +49 - 221 - 470 7737

        Date: Fri, 29 Apr 2011 13:03:45 +0200
        From: Ales Vaupotic <eurolit at zrc-sazu.si>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 24.914 in denial
        In-Reply-To: <20110429054919.B75029AA07 at woodward.joyent.us>

The issue whether the computer is a mere tool or something more was
thoroughly examined by Vilém Flusser (in the time before the
widespread use of computers). It is not a mere tool because it
involves a split authorship of the so-called techno-image: the
constructor of the apparatus and the operator (eg. in his text Umbruch
der menschlichen Beziehungen? published in the book Kommunikologie).
This split is evident in the multidisciplinary approaches in digital
humanities. I agree with Flusser also regarding the fact that it is
not clear, whether we are currently - 20 years after his death - able
to decode the technical images (eg. computer generated output)

Aleš Vaupotič
REELC/ENCLS webmaster

        Date: Fri, 29 Apr 2011 09:43:19 -0400
        From: Patrick Durusau <patrick at durusau.net>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 24.914 in denial
        In-Reply-To: <20110429054919.B75029AA07 at woodward.joyent.us>


On 4/29/2011 1:49 AM, Desmond Schmidt wrote:

> I assumed that what Willard was referring to was the McLuhanesque principle that 'man shapes tool then tool shapes man'. Asserting that a computer simply automates a task that we would otherwise be forced to do manually, ignores the change in the task that the tool brings about. You can see this, for example, in the production of printed concordances. Once the previous manual task is automated it is suddenly not needed any more. Instead we can just search for words in a digital text and throw the printed concordance away. So in that sense the computer is much more than 'just a tool'.

But it is a mistake to consider the making of a concordance a "manual 

Consider for example "The Harvard Concordance to Shakespeare" by Michael 
Spevack, which lists over 700 homographs in Appendix II.

That isn't an automatic feature of searching a digital text.

I think we are poorer for accepting the lower quality results of your 
"...search for words in a digital text...."

Not to mention hypocritical since many would complain of students using 
Wikipedia or the WWW for "easy" research and at the same time consider 
full text searching of the literature to be "research." I suppose it is 
of a sort but it isn't the same thing as running down footnotes and 
bibliographic entries, whether they are online or no.

In the sense that computers have lowered our expectations of each other 
and made us dumber, your point that:

> the computer is much more than 'just a tool'.

is well taken.

Hope you are looking forward to a great weekend!


Patrick Durusau
patrick at durusau.net
Chair, V1 - US TAG to JTC 1/SC 34
Convener, JTC 1/SC 34/WG 3 (Topic Maps)
Editor, OpenDocument Format TC (OASIS), Project Editor ISO/IEC 26300
Co-Editor, ISO/IEC 13250-1, 13250-5 (Topic Maps)

Another Word For It (blog): http://tm.durusau.net
Homepage: http://www.durusau.net
Twitter: patrickDurusau

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