[Humanist] 26.13 a taxonomy, with a question (or so)

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Fri May 11 20:56:35 CEST 2012

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 26, No. 13.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sat, 12 May 2012 04:51:57 +1000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: a taxonomy, with a question

Allow me, if you will, to run by you a rough taxonomy of work in the 
digital humanities and ask for your comments.

By this taxonomy there are three kinds of work for which we as a 
whole bear responsibility:

1. Development of computational tools and techniques to assist 
scholarship in the humanities and interpretative social sciences;

2. Study of the effects and implications coming from the use of these 
tools and techniques;

3. Imagining and insofar as possible articulating new computings from 
kinds of research not yet possible.

The first of these is the bread-and-butter activity of many of us. We 
make things from developers' tools or figure out ingenious ways of using 
off-the-shelf software and then either apply these things and techniques 
to our own research or hand them over to colleagues less capable or 
inclined to do the technical work. Basic, fundamental stuff, but nothing 
really new here. This activity is to the digital humanities as almost 
all engineering is to the industries that keep civilisations running.

The second is social-scientific, historical and/or philosophical in 
character. It is also basic and easily understood, though doing it well 
is not easy, of course. Built into so much of it, however, is the 
deterministic assumption that Technology, like some great force of 
nature demanding to be anthropomorphised, comes at our lives with 
benefits, requirements and threats it would be utterly foolish to 
ignore. We had better learn to deal with it -- and fast -- lest we be 
overcome or left in the dust etc etc. (I realise that I am caricaturing 
an attitude somewhat, but I do so in order to call to the surface a 
state of mind that historically keeps surfacing at moments of stress or 
superabundance of techno-scientific triumphalism.)

The third is, as a colleague remarked recently, the frontier. It goes 
back to the plasticity of Turing's scheme, before hardware was 
structured by von Neumann's architecture (based in turn on 
neurophysiological ideas of the early 1940s) and in due course turned 
into the machines we now have. Bravo, well done and so on, but not far 
enough to keep pace with restless imagination! It asks, as few (but 
some) have done, what would a computing be like that was suitable to 
what we imagine actually happens, e.g. when we read, or write, or look 
at a painting, or paint one, or listen to music, or play it, or compose 
it? For if we had such a computing, or computings, would they not serve 
scholarship better?

In other words, almost all of what we do is like what most automotive 
engineers do -- take a given (four wheels, engine, drive-train, steering 
wheel on the right or left-hand side etc) and do it one slightly better. 
But what about the engineering that rethinks the whole idea of a 
vehicle, that goes beyond even what now could be done if only 
conservative management and the even more conservative public would pay 
attention and consider it? (I know a brilliant automotive engineer who 
has the wildest and most interesting ideas, which we consider as we are 
driving along in a car that "knows" so much about what's going on, and 
does so much about what it knows, that I am amazed even at the now 
quietly commonplace.)



Willard McCarty, FRAI / Professor of Humanities Computing & Director of
the Doctoral Programme, Department of Digital Humanities, King's College
London; Professor, 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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