[Humanist] 29.197 machines: reading, thinking, creating

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sun Aug 9 08:17:50 CEST 2015

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 29, No. 197.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 28 Jul 2015 14:19:47 +0200
        From: Tim Smithers <tim.smithers at cantab.net>
        Subject: Re:  29.185 machines: reading, thinking, creating
        In-Reply-To: <20150723010540.32297670A at digitalhumanities.org>

Dear Willard,

You wrote 

  As an old friend of mine used to say, you don't get taller
  by cutting off the legs of others.

No, you don't, that's right, but a good friend of mine often
adds that doings so seems to make some people feel taller.

More constructively, poiesis  is, or could be, what brings
together all the different things we do, and the things we
take up to do them with: our tools, machines, and systems.
Much of what we do involves a basic bringing forth of

Research and scholarship (of any kind) is about bring forth
new knowledge and understanding, though, depending upon how we
do this, it often brings forth other outcomes too: models,
methods, simulations, techniques, communications (in different
media and forms), collaborations, new questions, new doubts
new uncertainties ...

Designing and engineering brings forth the new, different, and
more for our artificial worlds--the kinds of worlds most of us
live in: the so called "built environment" and all the things
we fill this up with, and surround ourselves with.

We are not all equally comfortable and uncomfortable with all
this, and cant expect to be.  Each of us is different.  But we
are all a part of it, unless we chose to go off and be a goat
herd living a hermit's life up a mountain somewhere.  Where I
do see some difference that may point to the "tender spot" you
speak of is to do with who designs and builds the tools we
take up to do our investigations and studies.

I'm generalising here, perhaps too much, but science
researchers mostly design and build the scientific instruments
they use, albeit with much help from other designers and
engineers.  A radio astronomer--to take an example situation I
was a part of--spent ten years getting together, managing, and
making happen a project to design and build a new kind of
radio telescope with which to make the observations needed to
further our understanding of certain astronomical goings on.

If, as a researcher or scholar, we do not command the tools we
use, by having devised, developed, designed, and made them,
then our relationship to our tools is different from one who
has designed and built the tools he or she uses.  The
difference can result in mysteriousness about the way they
work and ignorance about how and for what they can be used

This doesn't separate science researchers from humanist
scholars!  Scholars in all of the humanities also have, and
often profess the need to have, an in depth understanding of
the tools and techniques they use, and of the tools and
processes used to make the artifacts they study: books,
paintings, photographs, films, stone tools, burial mounds,
parchment, inks, old sailing ships, social organisations and
institutions ...

Today, it seems to me that many of the digital tools used by
Humanist scholars are not so much of their own devising,
designing, and making, and this creates discomforts,
uncertainties, and worries about how they are used, and for
what.  Discomforts and worries perhaps most often expressed by
those who don't use these "new toys."  But I would see this as
a temporary state of affairs.  I see no reason why these same
scholars, on discovering the shortcomings, inadequacies, and
possibilities of their current digital tools--designed and
built by others--will start to work to design and make new and
better digital tools for their studies, and probably work with
designers and engineers of digital technology to do this.
Much as my radio astronomer worked with a structural designer
and other engineers of various kinds to build his telescope.

It took about a generation for astronomers to become
successful radio-astronomers, in addition to optical
astronomers.  It started by taking graduates in electronic and
radio engineering into autonomy PhD programmes.  Perhaps it
will take about the same in Digital Humanities, but it would
help if we insisted rather less of teaching young people only
STEM subjects.

Best regards,


> On 23 Jul 2015, at 03:05, Humanist Discussion Group <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:
>                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 29, No. 185.
>            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>        Date: Wed, 22 Jul 2015 12:35:39 +1000
>        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
>        Subject: open and closed
> Don Braxton's continuing provocation to think about the shocks present 
> and in store for us from machines I find most welcome. The hedge-talk of 
> political guardianship among the humanities that he speaks of is a huge 
> problem, though hardly a surprise. It's a problem for us because we 
> work across disciplines. And it is, I think, a rear-guard action in a time 
> when online publication and distribution mechanisms more than allow 
> anyone from any discipline to listen in to the conversations going on 
> elsewhere. True, that listening in can be exceedingly demanding if 
> you actually try to understand the context, but still it is easily begun.
> The form of this problem that I find most interesting is brought on by 
> convergences between the humanities and the sciences thanks 
> among other things to the technoscientific machine we've adopted. 
> These convergences spook a number of us in digital humanities and 
> beyond. Thus unsettled we reassure ourselves with such clubby talk 
> of how superior we are, as Don says. Some of this clubby talk is 
> very clever, very sophisticated, but it does anything but help.
> The insecurity just beneath the surface of the reactionary reactions 
> is obvious. But here things get especially interesting. I like to ask, 
> what is at the bottom of this insecurity? What tender spot is 
> technoscience poking, increasingly vigorously these days? Why 
> do some of us try to denegrate mathesis (Foucault's science of 
> calculable order) as if this were necessary to honour poiesis 
> (the bringing forth of things)? As an old friend of mine used to say, 
> you don't get taller by cutting off the legs of others.
> When computing was new, signs of insecurity were more visible 
> than they are now, but the problem has only gone underground, 
> and not far under. In my experience it comes out when you talk to 
> colleagues not about marvellous new tools but about what happens 
> to research in their areas when these tools are applied critically, 
> not just to make the work they already do faster & more convenient
> but to question it fundamentally. Again disciplinary invasion warnings 
> are triggered, fears awakened and immune systems engaged. 
> What *is* the nature of what we're playing at with our new toys? What 
> *is* this sandbox (of the human) that we're in? Has anyone noticed 
> that its limits are very blurry indeed? I recommend Evelyn Fox Keller's 
> many writings about the effects of computational biology and biological 
> computing on our idea of the human. We are, as Don says, in a 
> position of power -- but mostly don't know that.
> Comments?
> Yours,
> WM
> -- 
> Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
> Humanities, King's College London, and Digital Humanities Research
> Group, University of Western Sydney

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