[Humanist] 24.627 on digital reading

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sun Jan 2 10:37:17 CET 2011

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 627.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    "Martin Mueller" <martinmueller at northwestern.edu>         (72)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 24.623 on digital reading

  [2]   From:    Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>          (36)
        Subject: the Devil has a use

        Date: Fri, 31 Dec 2010 12:07:50 -0600 (CST)
        From: "Martin Mueller" <martinmueller at northwestern.edu>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 24.623 on digital reading
        In-Reply-To: <20101231061119.00624C85EC at woodward.joyent.us>

Roman Bucheli's article about "faster reading" in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung is a very
thoughtful Jeremiad about the discontents of the humanities in a digital age, but is
nonetheless a Jeremiad and can be countered from within its own argument.

Bucheli begins with Umberto Eco who in "Lector in fabula" distinguishes between
"reading" and "using" a text.The closer you look at this distinction the more
questionable it becomes. But if you accept it for a moment,  the former seeks an
engagement with the text in terms of its own intentionality, while the latter
extracts evidence from  a text for this or that purpose. The former is a finer thing
than the latter. In Bucheli's view, computers tempt us to do more of the latter and
forget the former. Google's Ngramviewer is the latest and greatest manifestation of
this temptation.

There is something here, as I can testify from repeated and frustrating encounters
with eager text miners who remind me of the doctors in Moliere's Imaginary Invalid:
without taking a look at the patient, they perform the diagnosis and prescribe the
cure, which involves bleeding and purging the patient. Poor patients! Poor texts!

On the other hand, if the  mechanical application of text mining reminds me of
Moliere, it appears that the practice that I find distasteful is pretty old and has
little to do with computers per se, although it may be encouraged by them in ways
that need watching.

Bucheli quotes from an article by Moritz Bassler and  Rainer Karczewski at the
University of Muenster who wrote two years ago  that "the most important research
tool would be a a system for managing queries and result lists" (my translation).
They also coined the slogan "search first, read later."  For Bucheli, this is the
devil speaking, but while I have not read the entire essay, I can offer a more
benign interpretation of what Bassler and Kaczewski offer. Current search tools in
the humanities are on the whole pretty wretched. Their equivalent in the business
world would be a sales rep who answers a question about sales by giving his manager
a random list of invoices. So a tool for managing queries and result lists can be
seen positively as a tool for a more intelligent and nuanced interpretation of
results.  Something along the lines of John Tukey's advocacy of "exploratory data
analysis." Or think of Ellen Ullman's "Closer to the machine" with its almost
lyrical celebration of the spreadsheet as a tool for thinking.

As for "search first, read later," that surely has been the procedure of scholars
for generations -- witness the search tools of an earlier age, whether concordances,
thesauri, special dictionaries, or book wheels. Bucheli is right to point to the
"chimaeara of a ubiquitous disposability, of total accessibility" and an "unimpeded
filtering" that supports a "citation fetishism."  So is the Germanist Peter Utz when
he argues that you must put yourself "under the yoke of interpretation." But neither
the dangers nor the advice are new. Goethe's Faust speaks with disgust of his
"famulus" Wagner, a kind of 18th century postdoc "who is always digging for
treasures and happy when he finds earth worms." German also has the word
"Verzettelung" for getting lost in your index cards. Computers have created
wonderful new tools for yielding to the old temptation of trying to solve a question
by throwing more data at it rather than thinking hard about it.  From that
perspective, older lessons have a special timeliness.  On the other hand, computers
are also powerful tools for analyzing data that it previously was not possible to
gather or analyze. That is as true of the traditional humanities as of the natural
and life sciences.

Computers are a double-edged sword. In thinking of them we might think of this
paragraph from Sir Philip Sidney's Apology for Poetry:

Doe wee not see the skill of Phisick, (the best rampire to our often-assaulted
bodies,) beeing abused, teach poyson the most violent destroyer? Dooth not knowledge
of Law, whose end is, to euen and right all things being abused, grow the crooked
fosterer of horrible iniuries? Doth not (to goe to the highest) Gods word abused,
breed heresie? and his Name abused, become blasphemie? Truely, a needle cannot doe
much hurt, and as truely, (with leaue of Ladies be it spoken) it cannot doe much
good. VVith a sword, thou maist kill thy Father, & with a sword thou maist defende
thy Prince and Country. So that, as in their calling Poets the Fathers of lyes, they
say nothing: so in this theyr argument of abuse, they prooue the commendation.

Did I read this passage? Or did I just use it?

        Date: Sun, 02 Jan 2011 09:32:44 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: the Devil has a use
        In-Reply-To: <20101231061119.00624C85EC at woodward.joyent.us>

If (as I believe) a novel is created anew when it is read, by a complex 
process to which we have so far little access, then processing that text 
algorithmically, mechano-devilishly if you will, gives us another view 
of it, which (I agree) is a demonic parody if taken as wholly 
satisfactory substitute for the reading. But if it is taken simply as a 
model of reading, then it can do us good service, as we all know, or 
should know.

We can then hypothesise that a given algorithmic process -- say, one 
which implements a statistical test -- models part of what happens when 
we read. Then the results allow us provisional access to what which we 
cannot otherwise know. By continuing to work in this way, eventually we 
have a model of reading. Of course this model is only as good as the 
texts on which it is based. Would a model built on the 18C novel hold up 
when fed Joyce's Ulysses?

Not the Devil's work in the outcome, I think. Temptation still lurks 
(the Devil never sleeps) in a tendency to dismiss whatever is not 
modelled, such as the quality of light and the sounds of the house 
settling at night while one reads. And then there's a problem so huge 
and so well rationalised that we cannot begin to see around it: that 
which is breezily called "context".

The greatest temptation of all, however, is I think to attempt to shut 
down our human desire to learn and know by denouncing a powerful means 
of doing both as being the Devil's work. The Devil is clever enough to 
denounce him- (or, to be fair, her-) self. Its close companion is, 
again, the substitution of one way of knowing for another, as if there 
were only one. How difficult it is to take in that which is new!



Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Professor, Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney,
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

More information about the Humanist mailing list