[Humanist] 28.291 answering the recurrent question?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Aug 26 07:41:31 CEST 2014

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 28, No. 291.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 26 Aug 2014 06:32:15 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: the recurrent question

Since the 1960s, it would seem, each new advance in computing tends to 
provoke the existential question. The most recent outbreak, laid at the 
feet of Big Data, is to be found on the BBC News (Technology) website 
for 22 August in an article by Rory Cellan-Jones, "Can computers replace 
historians?" (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-28895098),

> All kinds of big claims have been made about the potential of Big
> Data. It seems it can predict the course of an election, map the
> spread of flu, even help police to solve crimes.
> But here is the biggest claim so far - crunching through the big data
> of history can help us spot patterns and work out where the world is
> heading next.
> That is what Kalev Leetaru, a data scientist at Washington's
> Georgetown University, believes may be possible. Using a tool called
> Google Big Query, designed for interrogating vast collections of
> data, he has been sifting through a database of events stretching
> back to 1979....

Recent experience suggests that this existential fear (the dark side of 
hype) cannot simply be attributed to those who know little to nothing 
about computers, as Stephen Parrish commented dismissively in the mid 
1960s, but gnaws at our colleagues as well. Those who have studied 
automation and industrialization will know this to be a reaction much 
older than computing. But the "smart machine", about which Shoshana 
Zuboff wrote brilliantly in her 1988 book, stirs it up for us, now.  It 
can get serious for us whenever a committee of colleagues makes a 
decision about this or that appointment or department in digital 

Dismissal clearly doesn't work, nor does more information, nor 
demonstration of utility, benefit etc. The technology gets better and 
better (in its own terms), with no end in sight. So how do we deal with 
the fear of a life's companion that takes command?


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

More information about the Humanist mailing list