[Humanist] 28.8 social structures and experience

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu May 8 22:39:06 CEST 2014


                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 28, No. 8.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    John Laudun <johnlaudun at gmail.com>                        (64)
        Subject: social structures & experience?

  [2]   From:    Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>          (59)
        Subject: at the speed of glaciers


--[1]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Wed, 7 May 2014 15:37:18 -0500
        From: John Laudun <johnlaudun at gmail.com>
        Subject: social structures & experience?
        In-Reply-To: <20140506191032.93A0660F7 at digitalhumanities.org>


Dear All:

As some of you may already know, Bethany Nowviskie and the good folks at the UVa Scholars Lab organized a conference that examined this apparent division of labor back in November: [Speaking in Code](http://codespeak.scholarslab.org). 

The conference's very topic was the assumptions we make about the very nature of disciplinarity and the practices that create and maintain it. Some of the practitioners present at the conference were programmers who worked on digital humanities projects; some were faculty, or prospective faculty (i.e., graduate students), members who also coded. But even this line, as Willard notes, was blurred, as a good percentage of the programmers held PhDs in humanities disciplines but had found coding / building a more satisfying way of doing humanistic work. And most of the faculty present were really interested in their code being a publication. (If anything, the faculty seemed more handicapped in this regard than anyone else in the room.)

I know that Nowviskie and company were working on a white paper to follow up the conference, and so I hope perhaps someone with more knowledge will write in to update us.

john

--
John Laudun
Department of English
University of Louisiana – Lafayette
Lafayette, LA 70504-4691
337-482-5493
laudun at louisiana.edu
http://johnlaudun.org/

On May 6, 2014, at 2:10 PM, Humanist Discussion Group <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:

>                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 27, No. 1026.
>            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
> 
> 
> 
>        Date: Wed, 07 May 2014 04:55:51 +1000
>        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
>        Subject: social structures & experience
> 
> In "The early progress of scientific simulation", in Gabriele 
> Gramelsberger, ed., From Science to Computational Sciences (2011), David 
> Alan Grier argues for a mid 18C beginning to the mathematical simulation 
> of physical phenomena. By the end of the 18C, he writes, the social 
> structure of "any large computing group" comprised three levels: the 
> scientist/mathematician at the top; then the planner, who translated the 
> scientist's mathematical analysis into a computational plan; and finally 
> the human computers, who carried out the actual computations. The 
> digital machine has eliminated the last of these jobs for humans to do, 
> but we still have the division between the first and second levels. As a 
> matter of curiosity I wonder what is happening to this division as DIY 
> computing becomes easier to take on and so more important -- if it is, 
> that is. Text encoders, for example, know that scholarship happens in 
> the act of implementation, in essentially the same struggle that Grier's 
> planner enacted at the end of the 18C.
> 
> Those who actually build the great resources we have now and will have 
> more of may sputter at the thought of DIY. They may want to expand that 
> acronym (as chippies and other builders sometimes do) as "Destroy It 
> Yourself". But I suspect that the boundary between scholar and technical 
> builder is moving. Collaborative groups that are truly collaborative 
> must blur that boundary all the time -- and that sort of blurring also 
> is not new. While I would not want to deny the value of the person, like 
> me, for whom being a digital humanist means sitting alone, reading, 
> thinking, writing, corresponding with others and publishing, it seems to 
> me that much of the noise and nonsense which comes with popularity would 
> diminish if more of those who make such noise actually had some hands-on 
> experience with computing -- including what Adafruit (www.adafruit.com) 
> calls "physical computing".
> 
> Comments?
> 
> 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




--[2]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Thu, 08 May 2014 19:22:26 +1000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: at the speed of glaciers
        In-Reply-To: <20140506191032.93A0660F7 at digitalhumanities.org>


Joris van Zundert has just recounted in Humanist 28.1 -- the irony of this
as a beginning to the 29th year does not escape me -- a saddening story of
social discrimination, shocking but not surprising. Someone (here?) has said
that trying to establish a discipline is like trying to insert a new brick
in an old wall. We'd be foolish (as I have been) to believe resistance has
vanished with the popularity of claims to or identification with digital
humanities. All's well as long as the digital humanist knows his or her
place and keeps to it. That place can be high or low.

Nor does the problem does go away if he or she is a social equal, because
the problem, or most of it, lies with the one somehow threatened. Presenting
digital advantages to a practitioner of a traditionally conceived older
discipline is usually safe, I've found. What could be easier, require less
craft? "Here is something that will help you do whatever you want to do
better, faster, more comprehensively than you could do otherwise." A
suggestive demo then follows. But, as Joris wrote, try presenting a digital
object itself as scholarship and the reaction is likely to be very
different.

To be fair I'd think that the burden of proof rests with the innovator.
Historian Michael Mahoney never tired of pointing out that we do not know
how to read our machines; this comes, as he said, not by reading a printout
of the code but by reading the code in action, running on a machine. As the
amount of code grows software becomes a black box, somewhat like a person,
unpredictable, full of surprises or intimations of personality. (Think of
the difference in feel of a Mac from a Windows machine or a Linux box, for
example.) Can a black box be trusted? Can the "thing knowledge" in it be
understood critically? Not just like that. Trust has to be built up from
experience, knowledge drawn out and explained, almost always in a carefully
reasoned fashion, in writing. Perhaps the builder of a machine has an
advantage here, but claims have to be backed up by explanations,
explications.

What is dangerous, even now, to do is to show a practitioner in another
discipline how digital analytics renders a treasured object of his or her
disciplinary study problematic. "Who are you to tell me, who is a real
[disciplinary label here], how my [text, image, artefact] might be
interpreted?" I'm drawing on a very recent experience -- an attack
delivered, almost before I had a chance to finish my sentence, with such
hostile energy that I'm certain (verified by later, friendlier conversation
with the fellow) that my interrogator had not had time to consider a
reasoned counter-argument. He responded out of fear worthy of a Luddite
scholar during the Cold War. He even spoke, in an agitated state, of the
computer taking his job away.

Another, somewhat gentler case. I show an example in which automated
pattern-recognition would produce some surprises for the art historian. An
expert in the material that I used on this occasion replies, also
immediately: "Everyone in art history knows that this correspondence is
nothing more than style." The possibility that many (hundreds? thousands?)
of such examples might be delivered to the desktop, as we say, is brushed
away with contempt. I wonder: because that notoriously elusive and
polysemous notion of style might be shown to have feet of clay, that it
might be shown to be a question rather than a fact? What would happen to the
discipline then? What would happen to the ground formerly assumed to be
solid granite?

Comments?

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






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