[Humanist] 29.224 unforeseen contexts

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Aug 19 07:11:44 CEST 2015

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 29, No. 224.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 18 Aug 2015 23:31:04 +0000
        From: Joris van Zundert <joris.van.zundert at huygens.knaw.nl>
        Subject: Re:  29.221 unforeseen contexts
        In-Reply-To: <20150818052458.6062D6A8E at digitalhumanities.org>

Dear Willard,

I saw that flame pass by, leaching as I am on the SIGCIS list. This is not
the first time I have witnessed a distinctly poignant qualification of
McPherson's article. I had the questionable pleasure of pointing some of my
more 'hard core' IT colleagues to it. Reactions were almost unanimously
knee-jerk and face palm, discarding it outright as "nonsense" at best and,
in the worst case, "b*ll sh**" (including eyes rolling).

Personally I think McPherson's argument on specific technical details is
less informed than it could have been, but this should not drown out her
major and justified plea—as I read it—to critically examining computer
science and computational paradigms from a anthropological or social
science perspective to uncover the potential cultural biases involved with
developing IT technology.

The issue you raise is with inadvertent interdisciplinarity. I think
however that the more knee-jerk reactions reveal that we are dealing not so
much with an aspect of suboptimal communication between disciplines. To me
these violent reactions rather reveal an immature ability of IT as a
(sub)culture to self-reflect on strongly held particular beliefs and

One of these beliefs is a neutrality of mathematics and logic as the
underpinning of information technology. A perceived fundamental neutrality
that–I would argue—many in the IT domain believe to warrant the neutrality
of code, or at least its amorality. Such core believes are still held by
many in the IT domain, I would contend. Challenging such core beliefs is
painful and causes violent rejection of the argument. In this the violent
reaction to McPherson's article resembles for instance the reactions we
have seen when IT culture was challenged (and continues to be challenged)
on its misogynistic character, a deplorable trait for which ample evidence
however meanwhile exists. Many in the IT domain would have deeply hoped
that software and computation would be free and impervious to such real
world and cultural aspects. Being pointed out, or even being questioned
that reality might be different is grating.

I think the small flame war we witnessed is thus not primarily a symptom of
inadequate interdisciplinary interaction, but more one of a number of
to-be-expected results of the examination of a (relatively) young field
being questioned and challenged on its cultural norms and beliefs with the
aim to uncover its biases and to enhance its cultural and paradigmatic

I see it as a rocky road to a more cultural reflexive and humanistically
informed IT domain. A condition that to me seems paramount before we can
even start to think of real interdisciplinarity.

All kind regards

On Tue, Aug 18, 2015 at 7:25 AM Humanist Discussion Group <
willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:

>                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 29, No. 221.
>             Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                        www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                 Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>         Date: Mon, 17 Aug 2015 16:57:46 -0400
>         From: Janet Abbate <abbate at vt.edu>
>         Subject: [SIGCIS-Members] Is Unix racist?
> [The following query began somewhat of a flame-war where it was posted, in
> the e-mail list of SIGCIS (Special Interest Group: Computers, Information
> and Society, www.sigcis.org). Whatever the value of the article that
> sparked it may be, the more violent reaction so far to it gives us an
> example of what can happen when something meant for one disciplinary
> context finds its way into another. It raises the question of how to
> anticipate inadvertent interdisciplinarity. Those interested in following
> the reactions will find them at
> http://lists.sigcis.org/pipermail/members-sigcis.org/. --WM]
> Anyone seen this piece by Tara Mcpherson? It starts with some interesting
> questions, but I found the follow-through to be disappointingly
> ahistorical. Again and again she argues that there must be a connection
> between the modularity of Unix and the compartmentalization of race within
> American culture, but then immediately admits that she has no evidence for
> any direct connection. As far as I can tell, the only reason she singles
> out Unix is because it coincides conveniently with the US Civil Rights era.
> I'm curious to know what others think.
> "Why Are the Digital Humanities So White? or Thinking the Histories of
> Race and Computation."
> http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/29
> Janet
> Dr. Janet Abbate
> Associate Professor, Science & Technology in Society
> Co-director, National Capital Region STS program
> Virginia Tech
> www.sts.vt.edu/ncr
> www.linkedin.com/groups/STS-Virginia-Tech-4565055
> www.facebook.com/VirginiaTechSTS

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