[Humanist] 27.638 pubs: mechanizing thoughts; looking for Mr Goodbar once more

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Dec 19 12:24:34 CET 2013

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 27, No. 638.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>          (26)
        Subject: Mechanization of Thought Processes

  [2]   From:    Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>         (122)
        Subject: looking for Mr Goodbar once more

        Date: Wed, 18 Dec 2013 16:47:50 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: Mechanization of Thought Processes

Occasionally I run across an unexpected treasure. Such happened a few 
minutes ago when searching for the meaning of an "Uttley Machine". The 
treasure in question is the 2-volume proceedings of the conference on 
"Mechanization of Thought Processes" held at the National Physical 
Laboratory, Teddington, 24-27 November 1958 -- the very year that 
Herbert Simon and Alan Newell published their rather optimistic (if 
that's the right word) predictions.

These volumes may be downloaded in pdf format from

Volume 1:


Volume 2:

The aitopics.org site contains many treasures -- but no obvious way to 
find this one from the top-level site as far as I was able to tell after 
ca 5 minutes of trying.

I attach the title page and table of contents.


*** Attachments:

Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Research Group in Digital
Humanities, University of Western Sydney

        Date: Thu, 19 Dec 2013 10:35:44 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: looking for Mr Goodbar once more

Allow me to draw your attention to "An Overview of the Digital Humanities"
by Don Waters, published in Research Library Issues: A Report from ARL, CNI,
and SPARC 284 (2013), downloadable from http://publications.arl.org/rli284/.
As many here will know Waters is Program Officer, Scholarly Communications
and Information Technology, at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which has
funded much of the work in digital humanities in the U.S. and some
elsewhere. As a result he is in a very good position to cast eyes over the
scene and report on what he sees. His status as a concerned outsider is an
important qualification.

In particular Waters holds up to the light the well broadcast claims made
these days for digital humanities, finds them mostly, shall we say,
insubstantial, but also finds promise for better in a distinction between
fundamental kinds of questions we ask, how something is possible and why it
is possible. The distinction he draws from medievalist Stephen Nichols, who
gets it from John McDowell's Kantian philosophy in his John Locke lectures
1990-91 at Oxford, published later as Mind and World (Harvard 1994, 1996).
As should be expected, other philosophers argue with McDowell, but his is
good philosophical territory for us as it centres on Quine's "tribunal of
experience" and the agonies that follow from standing before that tribunal
to answer for one's scholarly deeds. But Stephen Nichols' article, "The
anxiety of irrelevance: Digital humanities and contemporary critical theory"
(downloadable from academia.edu), establishes the basic intellectual ground
and genre for Waters' essay and so is more immediately to the point.

For digital humanities this genre began in print, as far as I know, with
Cambridge philosopher and linguist Margaret Masterman's 1962 article, "The
Intellect's New Eye", in the Times Literary Supplement. I've written many
times about the long history of this anxious genre, whose embarrassing
questions were muffled for a time by the onset of the Web but which, as
Walters demonstrates, is back with us in full force. Unfortunately, like
many these days, he prefers to relegate our antediluvian history to the
supposedly irrelevant past denoted by the term "humanities computing". This
past does give considerable force to his whistle-blowing by alerting us to
the many, many times that particular whistle has been blown before -- and
heard by almost no one, it would seem. I am particularly fond of Rosanne
Potter's laconic sentence of 1989, that our thing had not been rejected,
rather neglected, and her sharp follow-up in a retrospective review of 1991.
But what Walters' whistle-blowing gains from the history that he fails to
mention gives it perhaps more force than his argument can sustain. Don't get
me wrong -- his Overview is very good medicine, but more thought, and more
scholarship, is needed.

Once the bogosity of the claims made from the current bandwagon has been
exposed, the Emperor duly jeered for his lack of clothing &c &c, we get down
to the historical question of why from the very beginning of commentary on
digital humanities / humanities computing in the early 1960s have scholars
again and again turned away from the collision of the humanities with our
techno-scientific instrument to focus on its domestication as a
labour-saving device for the pursuit of old questions, i.e. perpetually
relevant questions in old dress. The literature of the time makes it quite
clear scholars were afraid of what the machine would do to them and to
scholarship. Their fear is a rich and powerful clue that survives the
obvious explanations (mostly the Cold War and automation). This clue leads
us to the question of the human, which has only become more urgent esp with
progress in the biological sciences. But, then, those who pay no attention
to the sciences wouldn't know.

Precisely because this question is so urgent to everyone else, and for
everyone, it is profoundly disappointing to see (despite the powerful work
ongoing in the history, philosophy and sociology of the sciences) these
sciences cleaved yet again from the humanities -- I suspect to keep safe
that old dress -- by assigning questions of how something is possible to the
sciences, questions of why to the humanities.

Do we not constantly, as a matter of course, wonder in these humanities how
it is that we know what we know? Do we not propose formulations, then test
them, then reformulate, on and on? At first blush one might say this is
nothing other than modelling, a well known style of reasoning from the
sciences that computing necessarily involves. But, should we not be asking,
what difference does the use of a techno-scientific instrument make? At
first blush one might think (as the proverbial person from Mars might
observe) that we have also taken on experiment as a style of reasoning. Ok,
trying things out is human nature, doesn't require a computer. But when it
is done with a computing system, should we not be asking, what difference
does the machine make? Or, to venture into relatively untrodden ground,
though we create fictional worlds all the time -- some might say, we only do
that -- when we stage a simulation by means of computing (get it as
realistic as you wish) one must ask, what are we doing that is different?
And -- BIG QUESTION -- what sort of a difference are those differences

These days, as Walters notes, the difference mostly broadcast goes under the
name of "distant reading" for scholars of literature, more generally under
the name of "big data". In 1991 Anthony Kenny's criterion for success in
digital humanities was accomplishment of something otherwise impossible,
which is a favourite of the distant readers and big data miners. This sounds
good until you look carefully with Jon Agar at the claims on behalf of
computing made by the first generation of scientists to use them. In "What
difference did computers make?", Social Studies of Science 36.6 (2006):
869-907, he notes that "while the computer might have radically changed in
form over the last five decades, a recurring rhetoric can be heard
throughout -- assertions that certain developments in science would have
been impossible without computers" (870). Well, yes and no, it turns out.
Closely inspected, the justification argument leads us away from Kenny's
criterion to better questions. For the medium- to long-term, my big
question: how is scholarly enquiry changing? (I don't know that we have much
hope of answering this one, though we can speculate.) For the present: what
is happening in every move we make with our machines, in every encoding of a
text, in every algorithmic transformation? God (and/or the Devil) is in the
(cognitive) detail.

Already this note is too long. Let me summarize.

As Walters argues, it's time (as it has been for the last half-century) to
shed the hype and stress digital humanities seriously, intellectually, to
test its strength and to strengthen it. But I doubt we can get very far in
our latest iteration by continuing to ignore the past, to attempt to keep
the humanities and the sciences apart, to manacle digital humanities by
equating its value to the yield from instrumental, utilitarian service. We
would get further by not limiting the discussion to activities in the United
States, with a quick look over the border to Canada and a mention of the
great Italian Jesuit Roberto Busa. (As an American originally I am allowed
to say such things). IATH at Virginia is only one of many centres in an
historical progression of increasingly academic and scholarly institutional
forms around the world. We would get further by asking how disciplines grow
and prosper and by noticing the wrongheadedness if not illegitimacy of
defining disciplines. Who, for example, could answer that question on behalf
of English or computer science, both notoriously polymorphic? I was the one
whom Walters quotes anonymously, responding to the Day in the Life question,
"How do you define the digital humanities?" with "I try not to" -- because I
think defining a role / form of life / discipline doesn't get us very far.
The question I would ask is, what do you do when playing the role of a 
digital humanist? I suspect it was Geoffrey Rockwell's intention when (as I 
recall) he started that Day in the Life event.

And why are we so cursedly anxious about our responses to what it is that we


Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Research Group in Digital
Humanities, University of Western Sydney

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