[Humanist] 26.20 taxonomy: Milic's article

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon May 14 00:49:03 CEST 2012

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 26, No. 20.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Mon, 14 May 2012 08:43:34 +1000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: taxonomy: Milic's article

Apologies to all: the posted message in Humanist 26.17 contained a link 
not to Louis Milic's "The Next Step" but to the message itself. Apparently
I do not understand the mechanism. So rather than spend time with it, I am 
simply pasting in the text below.


The Next Step
By Louis T. Milic
Computers and the Humanities 1.1 (1966)

With the inauguration of Computers and the Humanities, the time has
perhaps arrived for a more serious look at the position of the humanistic
scholar in the world of data processing. There have been a dozen conferences
on the subject, the proceedings of two of which have been published,
with another in the press. Courses in programming for humanists
are being talked about, and perhaps given, in several institutions. A book
devoted exclusively to matters of literary style treated with computers--a
kind of manual of the subject--has just seen the light in Ohio. And
finally, this Newsletter has been established to bring together the humanists
who may be interested in the use of data-processing machines. It may
not be premature to say that we are past the first phase, when to admit
that you were working on a literary problem with the help of a computer
was equivalent to saying that you were an eccentric, at the very least, and
possibly an underminer of the liberal tradition.

We are now moving into the phase of consolidation. As students of
the mystique of technology have pointed out, technological innovations
and new inventions always begin out of step. Motion pictures at first
were merely photographed plays and early television was based on a
blending of the techniques of radio and film. The first printed books tried
closely to imitate the appearance of hand-copied books. Most of the
books printed long after the invention of the printing press were not
contemporary literature but classics and medieval works. It was as if it had
been realized that now the old texts could be made available. But no one
thought of the press as providing the writers of the day with a means of
reaching an audience. That came much later. The rationale of such a
process is a compound of caution and innocence. The consumers of the
new product are less likely to be alarmed if the appearance of the new
does not jar with the familiar. And inevitably the possibilities of the new
medium have not been fully grasped by those who employ it.

The process of consolidation is the beginning of a realization of the
advantages of the new technology. Similarly, the consolidation phase of
computer-aided study in the humanities is beginning to provide us with
all the good things we have been lacking for so long. Concordances of
the poets are rolling off the presses, huge collation jobs are resulting in
variorum editions of incredible complexity, bibliographies and indexes
of abstracts are becoming available in satisfactory numbers, though perhaps
not fast enough to keep up with the information explosion. I have
heard that even publishers of dictionaries, the conservatives in a conservative
field, have turned to the machines. Moreover we have been
promised much more in the same line, editions of everything, concord-
ances and indices verborum of everyone, computerized bibliographies,
auto-indexing, automated libraries--the automatic world, in short. These
will be good things and scholars look forward to them, but satisfaction
with such limited objectives denotes a real shortage of imagination among
us. We are still not thinking of the computer as anything but a myriad
of clerks or assistants in one convenient console. Most of the results I
have just described could have been accomplished with the available
means of half a century ago. We do not yet understand the true nature of
the computer. And we have not yet begun to think in ways appropriate
to the nature of this machine.

In a manner of speaking, the existence of computers has already had
some influence on the thinking of humanistic scholars. They have perceived,
as already noted, how easily a computer can perform the brute
labor of scholarship: the leg work, the look-up time, tke collation, the
entering, the endless replication of much of the scholar's task. Consequently,
the scholar's interest has begun to shift in the direction of this
type of work, partly because of the availability of programs for it and
partly because of the huge increase in the amount of material the scholar
must handle, which puts a high premium on simple labor-saving.

Beyond this, the manner of thinking of scholars who have been affected
by computers has also been modified. The demands of the machine
have forced scholars in the direction of more explicit statement, because
programs cannot be vague and tentative; of more modular statement,
because programming, debugging and revising can be done more economically
if a problem is sectioned into modules; of more pragmatic
statement, because existing models of computer research in the humanities
derive from the obiective and quantitative paradigms of the sciences.
In addition, the dependence of the scholar on the programmer has worked
to simplify and perhaps denature his research. The programmer is not a
mholar; he is the attendant of the machine. Essentially, he reduces any
project for research in humanistic fields to the mechanistic level which is
most congenial to him. As long as the scholar is dependent on the
programmer, he will be held to projects which do not begin to take account
of the real complexity and the potential beauty of the instrument.

Our fear that the study of literature may become mechanical if it is
processed by a computer has kept us from trying to understand its rich
and genuine possibilities. Unless we try to understand it in the way in
which as scholars we try to comprehend any of our tools, we shall not
only be incapable of exploiting its resources properly, but we shall be in
danger of becoming its victims. Control comes from understanding, from
a fusion of the user and the instrument, like the arm and the saber, the
rider and his mount.

The true nature of the machine is unknown to us, but it is neither a
human brain nor a mechanical clerk. The computer has a logic of its
own, one which the scholar must master if he is to benefit from his relations
with it. Its intelligence and ours must be made complementary, not
antagonistic or subservient to each other. For example, understanding in
the arts and letters is based on the perception, identification and recognition
of patterns. But the patterns must be small and traditional enough to
be perceived by the human apparatus. Thus we have no trouble with
certain musical progressions and rhythms, prosodic features in poetry, or
color and form patterning in graphic or plastic art. Architecture, because
of the dimensions of the object, begins to inhibit our perception of the
relations. Perhaps for that reason Aristotle questioned whether a large
object could be beautiful. In literature, we sense this when we read a long
novel. Unlike the human perceiver, however, the computer can be made
to detect the longest and best-concealed pattern, no matter how random
an appearance it presents to the human eye. Thus, we must learn to ask it
larger questions than we can answer and to detect what escapes our unaided
senses. This may involve not only proposing old questions in new
ways but even thinking up new questions. The computer can be made
an extension of man only if it opens avenues we have not suspected the
existence of.

Thinking in a new way is not an easy accomplishment. It means reorientation
of all the coordinates of our existence. Necessarily, therefore,
our first motions in that direction are likely to be tentative and fumbling.
The most interesting direction, to my mind, for this new work to take is
in the imitation of the process of literary composition. For a long time,
we have asked ourselves how the mind worked when it tried to articulate
its experience with linguistic symbols. Many kinds of analysis (grammatical,
3tatistical, psychological) nave provided us with only a fractional
insight into this mystery. The notable failure of machine
translation has been paradoxically a very instructive development. Computers
were instructed to behave like human translators, and ~hey could
not. What was learned about the complexity of linguistic structure, however,
far exceeds what might have been gained from translating Chinese
or Russian political speeches or scientific papers. That use of the computer
was constructive, if not creative. It moved in the direction of synthesis
rather than analysis.

Interesting synthetic beginnings have been made. The music people
have been the most imaginative, possibly because of the formal nature of
their field, which makes the generation of artificial music less affected by
cognitive aspects than the generation of poetry, for example. The musicians
have the advantage that they are not bound, as literary scholars are, to
literary modes of creation or investigation. Electronic music, synthesis of
classical models, new sounds--these all represent departures from a concept
of the computer as a mechanical clerk.

Despite the odium which is likely to greet such an attempt, I should
like to see the next step in literary computation to be truly imaginative.
Attempts have been made to program computers to write poetry but always
it seems to me with a sense of shame. A more serious effort ought
perhaps to be made involving a genuine willingness to put the creative
powers of the computer to the test. The generation of poetry or of music
is obviously not an end in itself. The creation of graphic designs by
means of random number sequences is not intended to surpass human
performance. These and other creative uses of the computer are trials of
strength, estimates of capability. As scholars involved primarily and
ultimately with the mystery of the creative act, we are always responsive
to what we can learn about the creative process. Making simple models
which can produce music, language, design is only a primitive stage of
this investigation. Far more complex models with considerable autonomy,
self-correction and even introspection can be visualized.

Such speculations are not fantastic; they are at the border of reality.
By abandoning our conception of the computer as merely a mechanical
clerk suited mostly to repetitive routine operations, by learning to know
its features, uses, limitations and possibilities--its nature, in short--we
shall be properly re-organizing our thinking for the new age. What the
computer will enable us to do in our humanistic tasks has hardly been
imagined yet. Even immoderate speculation tends to fall behind the
new reality.

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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