[Humanist] 24.638 paradigm shifting

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Jan 10 09:55:15 CET 2011

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 638.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Charles Ess <cmess at drury.edu>                            (153)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 24.637 paradigm shifting?

  [2]   From:    Jascha Kessler <urim1 at verizon.net>                        (31)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 24.637 paradigm shifting?

  [3]   From:    Jascha Kessler <urim1 at verizon.net>                        (69)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 24.637 paradigm shifting?

        Date: Fri, 7 Jan 2011 09:14:33 +0100
        From: Charles Ess <cmess at drury.edu>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 24.637 paradigm shifting?
        In-Reply-To: <20110107065702.36B43CC487 at woodward.joyent.us>

Thanks for this, Willard.

Offhand, I find this persuasive and salutary - not simply based on what I
know about history and philosophy of science, the dominance of physics as a
paradigm for what counts as "science" (i.e., real knowledge), etc., but also
as it resonates more broadly with a now long-term discomfort with the trope
of "revolution" as applied to computing in general and specific forms of
computer-mediated communication (e.g., "the blog revolution," etcetera ad

It may be helpful here to remember that the term itself fundamentally
changed its meaning in early modernity - i.e., "revolution" in Copernicus'
time referred primarily to the revolution of the planets, a circling about
in the same place, _not_ some sort of radical shift towards a New requiring
the liquidation of the Old, as became the commonplace meaning at least by
the time of the political revolutions of the 1700s onward.

With more focus on computation: the longer I stare at it, however remarkable
the technological advances we can document since Norbert Wiener and the
first electronic computers in the 1940s - the more it seems to me that
continuity prevails over "revolutionary" change.

To borrow from Luciano Floridi: it depends in good measure on what level of
abstraction we take up.  At a very deep level, for example, as Katherine
Hayles made clear (1999), Wiener's cybernetics draws on dualistic
assumptions at least as old as Descartes; indeed, in the foundational novel
_Neuromancer_, William Gibson speaks in language directly echoing St.
Augustine's doctrine of original sin and what Nietzsche identified as
_contemptus mundi_ - a contempt for the body as "Meat" (echoed by John Perry
Barlow in the 1990s in his contempt for "Meatspace" vs. cyberspace, for

Similarly, as few people seem to recognize (which thereby feeds the trope of
revolution), the very term "cybernetics" derives from _cybernetes_ - a Greek
word for pilot or steersman that serves in Plato (e.g., the Republic) as a
primary exemplar of _phronesis_ or ethical judgment that is distinctive in
part for its capacity for _ethical_ self-correction, not simply
informational self-correction as cybernetics in the 20th ct. rather

Read against these humanistic backgrounds, then, much of the prevailing
conceptual frameworks and underlying assumptions (presumptions) guiding our
thought and discourse regarding a putative computationally-based revolution
seem rather to rest on and thereby demonstrate strong continuity with some
ancient foundations indeed.

The same point might be made from a different direction - i.e., going back
to what philosopher-mathematicians such as Leibniz and early computer
pioneers envisioned as the primary usages of mechanized and then electronic
calculation.  At least for Leibniz, the goal was to eliminate as much as
possible of the time and labor of calculation itself, for the sake of moving
towards "the Big Picture" (my term), i.e., a mathematical account and
understanding of the universe as such.  And this, not for the sake of a
Cartesian "mastery and possession of nature" (a modernist and indeed
genuinely revolutionary theme), but for the sake of a philosophical, if not
frankly religious understanding of the universe that would bring the mind of
the thereby enlightened human being closer to the mind of the Creator.

I think of this direction of computing when I open up "Observatory" on my
iPad to see the current time - in the context of the whole complex of the
solar system; or using "Kstars," a very nice Open Source program that
provides precisely the sort of account of the celestial universe that Plato
and Pythagoras could only long for - and that Kepler, perhaps, literally
killed for (i.e., as a suspect in what may have been the murder of Tyco
Brahe).  What would they - and their philosophical/religious adherents -
have given for such knowledge and computational power?

On the other hand: it seems to go unnoticed these days, but anyone who is
carrying around a smartphone holds in his or her hand the equivalent of a
1970s' supercomputer - again, the sort of time/labor-saving
device/miracle-worker that Leibniz could only dream of and that only a few
corporations and well-funded science agencies could afford in the 1970s.
And what do we do with these marvelous instruments?  Without intending to
sound curmudgeonly or elitist: we check the weather and maybe some email,
play games, and communicate in various ways.  Without checking, I suspect
that while the number of people who use the very cool iPhone/iPad app
"Starwalk" are significant - their numbers are vastly outweighed by the
consumption of other apps, whether geared towards productivity,
entertainment, communication, etc.

This is not meant to sound like a condemnation.  Rather, it suggests that
putting an instrument that fulfills the computational dreams of ancient and
modern philosophers into the hands of contemporary consumers does not seem
to transform us, at least not in very great numbers, into philosophers and
mystics who seek first and foremost to contemplate the mathematical elegance
of our universe and our humble place therein.  What this suggests more
fundamentally, I think: however "revolutionary" contemporary computational
devices may be - with a few exceptions, their overwhelmingly prevailing use
seems to be in service of the concerns, interests, and desires (including
the perfectly legitimate desire to just play) that appear to have dominated
most human beings for most of our history.

From both sides then - i.e., in terms of the conceptual backgrounds and
assumptions that shape much of our thinking and discourse about computation,
and in terms of how most of us actually use these devices much of the time -
it seems to me that there is far more continuity with earlier generations to
be discerned than something like "revolution."

That said, and before any readers who have gotten this far start to fire up
angry replies - to be sure, revolution in a strong sense may also be
discerned, though I'm not always confident it's salutary.  But I'll save
those glimmers of thought for another day.  The point of this little missive
was rather to highlight continuity amidst any such revolution(s).

thanks and all best wishes for the new year -
charles ess
Institut for Informations- og Medievidenskab
Helsingforsgade 14
8200 Århus N.
mail: <imvce at hum.au.dk>
tel: (+45) 8942 9250

Professor, Philosophy and Religion
Drury University, Springfield, Missouri 65802 USA

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

On 1/7/11 7:57 AM, "Humanist Discussion Group"
<willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:

>                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 637.
>          Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
>                        www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                 Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>         Date: Fri, 07 Jan 2011 06:54:49 +0000
>         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
>         Subject: paradigm shifting?
> One of the frequent expressions we use to denote the sort of radical
> change we think computing has made, a "paradigm shift", comes from
> Thomas Kuhn's enormously influential book, The Structure of Scientific
> Revolutions (1962). This is without doubt the most influential book ever
> published in the history and philosophy of science. Riding on the
> prestige of physics at the time, it was hugely influential throughout
> all the disciplines and beyond. I'd suppose the phrase still commonly to
> be found in the popular media. But does it tie us users of it covertly,
> to a far greater extent than we realise, to the idea that "science" --
> i.e. the reductive notion that we have of the sciences -- is made in the
> image of physics, hence that truly reliable knowledge is obtained by
> adopting the epistemology and the epistemological rhythm of physics as
> Kuhn described them?
> One of the benefits of reading Ernst Mayr's accounts of how biology
> works is the realisation of the extent to which one's ideas of "science"
> shift if one takes biology as the model. Mayr argues (in This is Biology
> and in "Do Thomas Kuhn's Scientific Revolutions Take Place", What Makes
> Biology Unique?, pp. 159-69) that the Kuhnian epistemological rhythm, of
> normal science radically changed by revolutionary shift from old to new
> paradigm, simply doesn't work for biology. There are no such revolutions
> in biology in Kuhn's sense, he says: from one way of thinking suddenly
> to another that is incommensurable with that which it replaces.
> The more I look at the early history of computing in the humanities, the
> more it seems to me that computing, as it forms within the humanities,
> answers to something else and resonates with other developments, e.g. in
> critical theorizing. In other words, that we're not witnessing a
> sudden-break revolution in the humanities but something far more gradual
> and far more indebted to other developments.
> Change, yes, but what kind, related to what other changes?
> Comments?
> Yours,
> WM

        Date: Fri, 7 Jan 2011 12:17:20 -0800
        From: Jascha Kessler <urim1 at verizon.net>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 24.637 paradigm shifting?
        In-Reply-To: <20110107065702.36B43CC487 at woodward.joyent.us>

Perhaps, for a sense of the kind of hyperbolic, even maniacally fugal, sort
of talk commencing with the Cloud Crowd, one might check a big announcement
or ad in today's Wall Street Journal, written up by Deloitte, in Silicon
Valley.  Listing the utter transformations ahead, after announcing that:

 "All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born." as in the Easter 1916 poem by W.B.Yeats, who
"Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born."

the big announcement commences with a world all occupied by gaming, powerful
as never before imagined, before all other uses!

One's prompt thought, in my case, was to recall Thoreau, whose father
invented the means of putting graphite into a wooden tube to create the
pencil! and who wrote in WALDEN that one ought to Simplify! and keep one's
accounts written on one's thumbnail.  [That is a sardonic, or satirical,
poetical way of saying something.] And then one thought of TS Eliot's line
in 1922, "Distracted from distraction by distraction."  Gaming! Tweeting!
Granted that the Cloud [an ominous name!] will make advances in massive
computing research probably sooner than imagined, what will it do for the
Humanities, about which most folks think believe the bringing of instant
information to writing is the same as knowledge and thinking per se.
It is really a vast strange dervish dance in a maelstrom that we may be
approaching, apart from matters of vulnerability and security for the 0s and
the 1s.

Jascha Kessler

Jascha Kessler
Professor of English & Modern Literature, UCLA
Telephone/Facsimile: 310.393.4648

        Date: Fri, 7 Jan 2011 12:26:29 -0800
        From: Jascha Kessler <urim1 at verizon.net>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 24.637 paradigm shifting?
        In-Reply-To: <20110107065702.36B43CC487 at woodward.joyent.us>

I cant locate online today's big adannouncement, but here is yesterday's biz

I will go back and look at the paper itself...

Jascha Kessler
Professor of English & Modern Literature, UCLA
Telephone/Facsimile: 310.393.4648

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