[Humanist] 26.716 enthusiasm for anxiety?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat Jan 26 11:07:23 CET 2013

                         Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 26, No. 716.
                Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                    Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

     Date: Fri, 25 Jan 2013 10:32:45 +0000
     From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
     Subject: enthusiasm, relief, anxiety

I have a question which needs a fair bit of context. But I hope the context
will at least prove interesting in itself.

Douwe Draaisma notes in the Epilogue to Metaphors of Memory (Cambridge 2000)
that for what we now consider psychological phenomena, metaphors have over
time, since Plato, acquired "an increasingly technical character". He notes
that from Robert Hooke (1635-1703) onward what has remained constant
throughout their metamorphosis "is the enthusiasm with which these
artificial memories were presented", each promising proof that the relevant
material agency was plausibly involved. Thus for Plato's wax tablet and
other like metaphors the proof was that memories were inscribed in the mind;
for Locke's storehouse metaphor, that they were permanently stored away
somewhere, like objects in a storehouse. 

Throughout the long historical parade of potential explanations by analogy
what has been meant by "memory" has changed with the conceptual means
provided. One's immediate impression, then, is of great variety in how
memory has been conceived. But, Draaisma cautions, this impression is in
part deceptive. "The general conclusion must be", he says, "that the
continual variation of terms and metaphors suggests more change than there
actually is. Our conceptions of memory are always mixed with the
technologies used as metaphors and appear to change completely with each new
successive image. But after a while, the familiar features show through
again, and the similarities are recognized" (222-3). To paraphrase what the
AI folks say about their goal but reverse its polarity, there is no evidence
whatever that the computational metaphor is the one finally to cap this
history with a final answer.

Draaisma suggests that what's new with computing is the emphasis on the
*transformation* of that which we witness and then remember -- on the
process of remembering (though this was before-his-time F. C. Bartlett's
main thing in the early 20C). He asks us to compare the static engram of the
photographic and phonographic metaphors, for example. The fact that we're
still acting largely as if our state-of-the-art external, artificial memory
were a photo album only shows how little of computing's potential we're
prepared to recognize.

But what I am interested in here is the recurrent enthusiasm -- enthusiasm
for a final answer, which burns brightly in the future-tensed expressions of
discovery and promotion, then gradually fades into present-tensed
inadequacy. My question is, *what are we being enthusiastic for* in this
habitual promotion of a technological final answer?

Who has written well about this -- about, to put the matter more bluntly,
the relationship between enthusiasm and anxiety?


Willard McCarty, FRAI / Professor of Humanities Computing & Director of
the Doctoral Programme, Department of Digital Humanities, King's College
London; Professor, School of Humanities and Communication Arts,
University of Western Sydney; Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews
(www.isr-journal.org); Editor, Humanist (dhhumanist.org);

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