[Humanist] 25.691 waiting on table?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Fri Feb 3 07:30:44 CET 2012

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 691.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Thu, 02 Feb 2012 15:55:59 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: waiting on table

In Cybernation: The Silent Conquest (Santa Barbara CA: Center for the 
Study of Democratic Institutions, 1962), Donald N. Michael coins the 
word of his title, "cybernation", so that he can talk about the whole of 
the continuum from the automatic manufacture and assembly of material 
objects to the analysis and processing of data. Viewing the state of 
these arts as they had developed by the early 1960s, he writes that,

> Cybernated systems perform with a precision and a rapidity unmatched
> in humans. They also perform in ways that would be impractical or
> impossible for humans to duplicate. They can be built to detect and
> correct errors in their own performance and to indicate to men which
> of their components are producing the error. They can make judgments
> on the basis of instructions programmed into them. They can remember
> and search their memories for appropriate data, which either has been
> programmed into them along with their instructions or has been
> acquired in the process of manipulating new data. Thus, they can
> learn on the basis of past experience with their environment. They
> can receive information in more codes and sensory modes than men can.
> They are beginning to perceive and to recognize.

Note the verbs and verbal compounds here: perform; detect; correct... in 
their own performance; indicate... which of their components; make 
judgments; remember and search their memories; learn on the 
basis of past experience; beginning to perceive and to recognize.

It is easy to note and then tut-tut over the anthropomorphisms. How 
silly etc. But, Roy Harris points out in his brilliant The Language 
Machine (London: Duckworth, 1987), the important error is exactly the 
opposite of what we tend first to notice:

> When a few years ago a computer scientist asked 'What is it about the
> computer that has brought the view of man to a new level of
> plausibility?' he was putting the question the wrong way round. It
> should have been 'What is it about the view of man as a machine that
> has brought the computer to a new level of plausibility?' (p. 95)

This leads me to wonder so very often these days about our own 
self-congratulatory mood. What is it about our view of scholarship and 
scholars that has brought our inventions to their current level of 

I recall from years back a certain restaurant in London, now long gone, 
alas, and a curious waiter who worked there. Whatever topic one was 
discussing with one's academic mates while waiting to order, however 
learned the topic might be, this waiter would begin speaking to it, 
highly intelligently, after a few moments of listening in. Changing what 
needs to be changed, would we provoke the admiration he did?



Professor Willard McCarty, Department of Digital Humanities, King's
College London; Professor (fractional), 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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