[Humanist] 27.646 Solstitial greetings from London

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat Dec 21 10:30:24 CET 2013

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 27, No. 646.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sat, 21 Dec 2013 09:09:22 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: solstitial greetings

By custom that began long ago -- back in the mists of time when digital 
humanities was known as computing in or, more tentatively, and the 
humanities, and soon then to become humanities computing -- I am this 
morning exercising editorial privilege to send out greetings on the 
northern hemispheric winter solstice, for me and for many others in 
anticipation of Christmas. Three years ago I began making a traditional 
English Christmas pudding (Delia's recipe), which, after some 
adjustments in the amount of suet, I seem to have done acceptably well. 
Last year I attempted a traditional Christmas cake, which during 
childhood I knew as fruit cake, and despite warnings of how difficult it 
would be to get right, managed to produce one better, my partner 
declared, than her Irish mother's. So, much encouraged, I am trying my 
luck again. Both pudding and cake have been faithfully watered with the 
proper liquids. Other preparations are well underway. This morning one 
of the London papers is promising snow for Christmas, the rest lament 
the coming of much rain, but whichever it turns out to be, I will enjoy 
a traditional cozy time in the warmth and very much hope the same, 
or equivalent pleasures, for everyone.

In the places in which I have lived, the news broadcasts of television 
and radio have always seemed to me to communicate a sense of community 
life, even in big cities where sometimes one's imagination needs to work 
assiduously to maintain that sense. Recently someone hoping to be a 
doctoral student here described a project to study the imagining of 
metaphorically diasporic communities created online -- like this one, I 
suppose. But yesterday a treasured friend wrote that recently he had 
begun to detect signs of strain in the often remarked collegiality of 
digital humanists, signs that this remarkable collegiality might be 
giving way to the competitiveness characteristic of older disciplines. 
He reported that a friend of his had taken this to be a sign of the 
discipline's maturation. Like my friend I hope for maturity but not for 
any attenuation of communal warmth.

I won't say that I began writing this note with the intention of stoking 
that particular fire, but the thought that I might be helping against an 
emotional chill does keep me from regarding all this as silly, and so 
deleting the note and starting over.

I cannot recall when it was that I noticed a shifting of the imbalance 
between notices of events on Humanist and adverts for jobs, but I think 
this occurred sometime during 2013. Perhaps it was in 2012. (Where is 
that much hoped-for doctoral candidate in sociology to study the almost 
3 decades of Humanist?) I also note that both of the first two holders 
of doctorates awarded by King's College London in digital humanities, 
Luke Blaxill and ؘyvind Eide, are gainfully employed (in more than one 
sense), the former as Drapers' Company Junior Research Fellow, Hertford 
College Oxford, the latter as Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter, Lehrstuhl 
für Digital Humanities, Universität Passau. There will be others to 
report on in the next year or so. Don Waters' essay, on which I recently 
commented, shows us that we have much work to do in clarifying the 
significance of the work we are doing, but unless we fulfill the dark 
fantasy played out in The Terminator (1984) or one of its many Cold War 
kin, the discipline will, I think, survive current distractions and 
actually begin to fulfil some of the promise -- this promise being, of 
course, like the leather purse in the folktale. It is good, is it not, 
to be a bit worried about whether we belong? Those Cold War fantasies 
point to an alienness, I like to argue, which both keeps us at the 
margins and guarantees that the practice we instantiate is a cornucopia 
for the humanities. What if perpetual youth means that digital 
humanities never gets to sit in one of the comfy chairs? It must, 
however, maintain its place at the table.

Yesterday two books popped through my postal slot: John G. Kemeny's Man 
and the Computer (1972), developed from his Man and Nature Lectures, The 
American Museum of Natural History, 1971; and Thomas P. Hughes' Rescuing 
Prometheus: Four Monumental Projects that Changed the Modern World 
(1998). Kemeny, who worked with John von Neumann, was a mathematician 
and philosopher, at that time President of Dartmouth College, argues in the 
former book that, as he says, "a new species is born... that within the 
last generation man has acquired an important symbiote... the high-speed 
computer" (p. 3). He's quite serious about blurring the distinction. In 
the latter book Hughes describes the work of the Air Defense Systems 
Engineering Committee (ADSEC, U.S.), also known as the Valley Committee 
after its prime mover, MIT professor George E. Valley. After WWII Valley 
became quite worried about the capability of the U.S. to defend itself 
against Soviet nuclear missile attack, hence the Committee. In its 
October 1950 report, from which Hughes quotes, Valley et al, persuaded 
that the idea of a "system" was generally unfamiliar, troubled 
themselves to describe exactly what they had in mind. The heavy 
influence of cybernetics will be obvious:

> The word [system] itself is very general. . . [as for instance] the "solar
> system" and the "nervous system," in which the word pertains to
> special arrangements of matter.... The Air Defense System, then, is an
> organism. . . . What then are organisms? They are of three kinds:
> animate organisms which comprise animals and groups of animals,
> including men; partly animate organisms which involve animals
> together with inanimate devices such as in the Air Defense System;
> and inanimate organisms such as vending machines. All these organisms
> possess in common: sensory components, communication facilities, data
> analysing devices, centers of judgement, directors of action, and
> effectors, or executing agencies.... It is the function of an
> organism... to achieve some defined purpose.  (pp. 21f)

By 1950 Roberto Busa was well on his way with the Index Thomisticus -- a 
component, one might say, of an organism with a rather different 
purpose. By 1970 the first journal in digital humanities, Computers and 
the Humanities, was four years old, reporting on other such organisms. 
About the same time Stafford Beer, who had set up a cybernetic system of 
government for Chilean President Salvador Allende, was advising 
corporations on how to structure themselves as organisms, e.g. in The 
Brain of the Firm (1972), whose title is quite literally meant. The book 
is complete with neurophysiological diagrams and descriptions. Easy to 
laugh at now, perhaps, but at the time such thoughts were quite 
seriously intended and persuasively argued by brilliant people. Andrew 
Pickering, author e.g. of The Cybernetic Brain (Chicago, 2010), calls 
this a vision of an alternative future. Ours, changing what needs to be 

Visions of sugarplums this is not, but how can any of us resist such 
thoughts dancing in our heads?

Happy holidays to all! And by the way, if anyone here can lay hands on 
that October 1950 ADSEC report, now declassified but *very* hard to find, 
please stuff a pdf of it into my virtual stocking.


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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