[Humanist] 27.986 the computational idea

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Apr 21 09:52:00 CEST 2014


                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 27, No. 986.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Patrick Durusau <patrick at durusau.net>                    (198)
        Subject: Re:  27.984 the computational idea

  [2]   From:    "Robert A. Amsler" <amsler at cs.utexas.edu>                 (95)
        Subject: Re:  27.984 the computational idea

  [3]   From:    Charles Ess <cmess at drury.edu>                            (106)
        Subject: Re:  27.983 the computational idea


--[1]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Sun, 20 Apr 2014 14:22:33 -0400
        From: Patrick Durusau <patrick at durusau.net>
        Subject: Re:  27.984 the computational idea
        In-Reply-To: <20140420071636.440AB3A4D at digitalhumanities.org>


Helle,

Hoping that readers will check the fuller posts for context, but
Willard writes in part:

> If I'm right, that this *is* the standard account, then not only
> can we not ignore it, we also need it crucially to illumine what
> we're about.

I completely agree with the sterility of the "standard account" but I
would ask of Willard, who is the target of this illumination?

In part because of your response:

> Is there a way, I wonder, in which it is possible to work from
> inside the digital humanities to defend the human in human being in
> a more PC way?

If the targets of illumination are digital humanists or even humanists
in general, then I don't think we are going to carry the day. In part
because I see the issue as one of estrangement of the humanities in
general and digital humanities in particular from society at large.

Unlike the sciences, which has many "popular" magazines and journals,
Scientific American and Popular Science, just to pick two obvious
ones, where are the equivalent publications in the humanities?

It isn't that anyone has excluded humanists from the public spaces but
the humanities have withdrawn from the public spaces.

Apologies for a discipline specific example but where are the Reinhold
Niebuhr's of the day? Instead of thoughtful discussions of theology
the airwaves are full of less thoughtful material.

Need another example? Ask yourself why the Society of Biblical
Literature and the Evangelical Theological Society have meetings at
the same location but on consecutive days? Not that I would
self-classify myself as an evangelical but isn't it odd that some
perspectives are more acceptable in one forum than another? Noting
that evangelicals are responsible for a large portion of the
digitization of biblical manuscript and other computer related projects.

It is perhaps more obvious in biblical studies that elsewhere but the
"professional" societies have created a zone of exclusion around
themselves and have exited the common marketplace. Is there any wonder
the general populace has little regard for them?

Science or rather a sterile view of science rules the marketplace by
default, due to a self-imposed absence of the humanities.

Don't want to appear as a Luddite? Don't fight the caricature of
science on its own grounds. Market to the public the myriad positive
things the humanities have to offer and let people reach their own
conclusions.

But that case has to be made in the public marketplace. Not to each
other, not to humanists, but in unsafe places where the rules of
academic ritual don't prevail. The humanities needs to regain its
rightful place in the marketplace of ideas but it can't do that while
in self-imposed isolation.

Hope you are having a great day!

Patrick

On 04/20/2014 03:16 AM, Humanist Discussion Group wrote:
> Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 27, No. 984. Department of Digital
> Humanities, King's College London 
> www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist Submit to:
> humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
> 
> 
> 
> Date: Sat, 19 Apr 2014 16:45:04 +0000 From: Helle Porsdam
> <porsdam at hum.ku.dk> Subject: AW:  27.983 the computational idea 
> In-Reply-To: <20140419084927.260E83C0E at digitalhumanities.org>
> 
> 
> Dear Willard,
> 
> In your mail you point to what seems to me to be the most important
> issue of all at the moment: The way in which many (or at least
> some) computer scientists see the computer as the ultimate human
> enhancement. It is not always said as straightforwardly as
> McCulloch does here, but it can often be read between the lines -
> that the human being needs reinforcement, and that the computer can
> make man/woman better.
> 
> The same way of thinking is there in parts of neuroscience. Human
> beings have made a mess of it on this earth, and something needs to
> be done in order that we don't end up blowing each other up. There
> are some who would give us pills or other kinds of human
> enhancement so that we can become more empathetic, for example. In
> terms of empathy, it is unfortunate that most human beings seem to
> care only (or at least mostly) about their own immediate family -
> as the world becomes more global, we need to extend this sort of
> empathy to people around the world who need our help. This is true
> - but does it mean that we need to take pills or other kinds of
> enhancement?
> 
> In my opinion it is this way of thinking that makes many humanities
> scholars scared of the digital humanities and turns them into
> luddites. Andrew Prescott gave a wonderful talk a couple of weeks
> ago in Copenhagen where he put the digital humanities and the two
> cultures debate into perspective by going back to the fear and
> loathing of the Romantic thinkers of all things having to do with
> machines and the Industrial Revolution. It is this man-machine
> 'thing' that is so scary to many of us. Who wants to live in a
> world of machines - and is this where we're heading with computer
> man/woman?
> 
> In my own work, I have found a feminist angle productive. Some of
> this computer thinking which wants us to become machines in the end
> is very male-oriented, I think - there's a certain gadget
> excitement involved which is more often associated with men than
> with women. The work of someone like Sherry Turkle is very
> interesting in this respect (as in many others too). I also think
> that we - both men and women - have to, if not directly be on the
> defensive, then at least to work toward making it quite clear that
> the humanities are about human beings and their human output!
> 
> The problem is that one ends up looking like the worst kind of
> conservative and scared luddite when one defends the humanities by
> fighting the tendency toward seeing the computer as the ultimate
> human enhancement. Is there a way, I wonder, in which it is
> possible to work from inside the digital humanities to defend the
> human in human being in a more PC way?
> 
> All the best, Helle 
> Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 27, No. 983. Department of Digital
> Humanities, King's College London 
> www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist Submit to:
> humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
> 
> 
> 
> Date: Sat, 19 Apr 2014 09:32:16 +0100 From: Willard McCarty
> <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> Subject: envisioning the brain
> through a computational lens
> 
> It is instructive, I think, to consider what the natural object
> behind all our efforts (i.e. the human brain) looks like in
> sharpest focus when viewed not just from the perspective of
> computing but as or in comparison to digital hardware. One way to
> get to this is via John von Neumann's The Computer and the Brain
> (1958). But an even more vivid picture is painted by the
> philosophical neurophysiologist Warren McCulloch in his description
> of the brain at the opening of the "Symposium: The Design of
> Machines to Simulate the Behavior of the Human Brain" (IRE
> Transactions on Electronic Computers (December 1956):
> 
>> Since nature has given us the working model, we need not ask, 
>> theoretically, whether machines can be built to do what brains
>> can do with information. But it will be a long time before we can
>> match this three-pint, three-pound, twenty-five watt computer,
>> with its memory storing 10**13 or 10**15 bits with a mean
>> half-life of half a day and successful regeneration of 5 per cent
>> of its traces for sixty years, operating continuously with its
>> 10**10 dynamically stable and unreplaceable relays to preserve
>> itself by governing its own activity and stabilizing the state of
>> the whole body and its relation to its world by reflexive and
>> appetitive negative feedback.
> 
> I'd think it fair to say that although few use such vivid language
> in discussing the subject, McCulloch's conception of the great
> project in which so many are now involved -- and into which some,
> perhaps many, are likely to fit what we do -- is essentially the
> standard account.
> 
> McCulloch says "it will be a long time before...". I don't think
> he means, as some do when using such a phrase, "never"; thus
> framed, by implication, it becomes "only a matter of time
> before..." That is, it seems to me that by adopting those terms one
> closes down and cuts off the limitless fields in which the
> humanities play. If I'm right, that this *is* the standard account,
> then not only can we not ignore it, we also need it crucially to
> illumine what we're about.
> 
> Comments?
> 
> The whole Symposium, by the way, is extensively discussed by
> Roberto Cordeschi in his valuable book The Discovery of the
> Artificial: Behavior, Mind and Machines Before and Beyond
> Cybernetics (Springer 2002). The Symposium itself may be found at
> http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/.
> 
> Yours, WM
> 
> -- 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


- -- 
Patrick Durusau
patrick at durusau.net
Technical Advisory Board, OASIS (TAB)
Co-Chair, OpenDocument Format TC (OASIS)
Editor, OpenDocument Format TC, Project Editor ISO/IEC 26300
Former Chair, V1 - US TAG to JTC 1/SC 34
Convener, JTC 1/SC 34/WG 3 (Topic Maps)
Co-Editor, ISO 13250-5 (Topic Maps)

Another Word For It (blog): http://tm.durusau.net
Homepage: http://www.durusau.net
Twitter: patrickDurusau



--[2]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Sun, 20 Apr 2014 16:40:49 -0500
        From: "Robert A. Amsler" <amsler at cs.utexas.edu>
        Subject: Re:  27.984 the computational idea
        In-Reply-To: <20140420071636.440AB3A4D at digitalhumanities.org>

But most of the modern evidence is that isn't where computing is heading.

The current environment of computer gadgetry, phones, tablets, etc. is
rapidly evolving to make the presence of the "machine" portion of
computing less and less visible. Look alone at how the size of computers
has changed over time. They keep getting smaller, from taking up a room,
to taking up a desktop, to being on a laptop, to now being on a hand-held
tablet. Soon they will be on our wrists, woven into clothing or part of
eyeglasses. In a few years they will almost be invisible.

Furthermore, computers are taking up a position clearly between human
beings and the machines of the industrial revolution. So, they are acting
to remove us from having to deal with the machines directly. Our aircraft
fly themselves, our cars maintain speed and park themselves, brake
themselves and deploy airbags and notify emergency services when there is
an accident. Soon cars will drive themselves.

I think where we're heading is toward a world in which computers will
interface between us and machine such that we won't interact with machines
or computers as much as we do today. Clothing will sense whether we're
warm or cold and change the properties of the smart fabric from which it
is made. Homes will turn on/off lights and heat and ventilation by having
computers sense our presence or movement. The computer interface will be
almost invisible, reading our expressions, where our eyes are looking, how
we're breathing, as well as what we say and how we react.

This isn't a world of computer-modified people. It's a world modified so
that people don't have to interact with machines and don't even have to
learn how to type or swipe fingers to interact with the computers who do
actually interact with the machines.

Now it still has unsettling changes from the past and new dangers, but it
isn't a world in which human beings are made into machines or modified to
become more like computers. It's a world in which the computer finally
disappears from view and the machines just do what is needed without us
telling them what should be done.

From what I see of how humans use technology these days, the sooner we get
out of the business of driving cars, buses and trucks and piloting
aircraft and ships, the better.



--[3]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Mon, 21 Apr 2014 06:07:02 +0000
        From: Charles Ess <cmess at drury.edu>
        Subject: Re:  27.983 the computational idea
        In-Reply-To: <20140419084927.260E83C0E at digitalhumanities.org>


Hi Willard, and to you only as I am writing in haste.

As always, much appreciate your offerings here.

But also wonder if there¹s another dimension / tradition to be taken on
board - namely, what I understand the original impulses of computation
(meaning, minimally, mechanized calculation) beginning with the ancient
Greeks.  Roughly, the impulse since at least the Pythagoreans, but perhaps
with one or two earlier Pre-Socratics, was that by our human rational
understanding of the mathematical proportions (and later, we would add,
laws) that defined ³the way nature goes² we would come closer to
understanding - and, on some readings of Aristotle, becoming identical
with - the mind of God in at least an impersonal Greek sense.  Computation
was simply to help speed up this process of understanding - never to
somehow replace it.

Ditto for the Medievals and through at least Leibniz.
Traces of this might be discerned in some contemporary computational
approaches to mathematics and physics -

All of which strikes me as the inverse of the AI enterprise, namely, to
develop computational approaches that replicate human cognition,
decision-making, etc.

The two don¹t have to be in conflict, but it seems to me clear that the
latter rests on Cartesian and modernist impulses, in sharp contrast with
ancient and Medieval ones.

Don¹t know if this is worth much noting, and perhaps already well explored
in some area of DH that I¹m just not aware of - if the latter, nods
towards useful resources would be appreciated.

But if you have time for a comment or two, would be appreciated, as always.

Very best from a sunny Oslo (and when it gets sunny up here, it is _sunny_)
- charles

(now:
Professor in Media Studies
Department of Media and Communication
Director, Centre for Research on Media Innovations
 http://www.hf.uio.no/imk/english/research/center/media-innovations/
Editor, The Journal of Media Innovations
<https://www.journals.uio.no/index.php/TJMI/>

My latest book, Digital Media Ethics, is now available from Polity:
http://www.politybooks.com/book.asp?ref=0745656056

University of Oslo 
P.O. Box 1093 Blindern
NO-0317 
Oslo Norway
email: charles.ess at media.uio.no



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