[Humanist] 29.25 happy birthday Humanist

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed May 13 07:43:43 CEST 2015

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 29, No. 25.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 12 May 2015 10:11:25 +0200
        From: Tim Smithers <tim.smithers at cantab.net>
        Subject: 29.1 Happy Birthday Humanist!

[The following admittedly late birthday greeting is simply too interesting and important to keep to myself, so I am sending it, attachments deleted, to the one being celebrated. I trust that anyone here who is engaged by Tim Smithers' note will have access to the journals Science and Frontiers in Neuroscience. Are we, as Tim suggests, venturing beyond the critically knowable? Are we in digital humanities becoming trapped by our machines, more and more studying them rather than the arts, literature, music? --WM]

Dear Willard,

I started this on 7 May, but this is a now late Humanist
Birthday greetings.

Congratulations are certainly in order, or Zorionak!, as the
Basques say: to you and all else who have made and keep
Humanist such a wonderful list.  I have enjoyed more and
learned more from this list than any other.

I don't have a good record, but I have been lurking on
Humanist for about ten years--as a non-Humanities person.  For
me, it is, in certain ways, reminiscent of Phil Agre's The Red
Rock Eater News Service (RRE), which I joined very early in
its all too short life.  Perhaps you were on this list too?

Birthday's call for presents, so I thought I'd send you two 
small ones. 

You probably know Ian Morris' latest book, Foragers, Farmers,
and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve, but here is a
review of this by Peter Turchin, recently published in
Science, so perhaps you'll not have seen this.

Turchin's work on "Cliodynamics" I imagine you know.  I find
this interesting, but not because I like what he does.  I
think he illustrates something that seems to happen in the
Sciences, perhaps more and more.  The instruments of
investigation (the lose way to say this is, the technology)
comes to overly determine what the science is.  As our
instruments of investigation become more powerful and more
sophisticated, we, scientists, seem to get carried away.  It's
as if we think that using big powerful instruments must make
our science better.  It doesn't, of course.  Often it results
in poor science, and sometimes, no science at all.

This happens, in part, I think, because as our instruments
become more powerful they typically become more complicated to
use, so making it harder for non-users to be able to tell if
they are being used well and in appropriate ways.  I see hints
of this in the Digital Humanities too.

This belief, that "big powerful instruments makes our science
better," often means that the questions we investigate,
together with how, are formulated more from what we can do
with our instruments, and how, than by what we believe or
suspect might be a good way to improve our knowledge and
understanding of what we investigate.  What we can do with our
instruments becomes uppermost in our thinking, and drives the
science we do.  Rather than our thinking about what we want to
try to understand better driving how we might do this with the
instruments we have.  What we can and know how to do with our
instruments and what we need to try to do for some good
research don't always line up.  Often the former--what we know
how to do--is easier to go with than struggling with the
latter--what is needed fro some good science.

It may be my romantic spectacles, but in earlier times, this
didn't happen so much.  For example, I don't see this when I
read of how Jame Clerk Maxwell investigated the physics and
perception of colour.  He (together with his wife) made most
of the instruments and devices they used in their
investigations.  They were simple, but also, because they
built their own instruments of investigation, the questions
they investigated and how, and the instruments they used to do
this with, were naturally more aligned.

Digital Humanists do, at least sometimes, build their own
computational tools of investigation, but not, I think, often
enough for this "the instrument is in the way" situation to be
as evident as it could be, and perhaps needs to be.

To illustrate a little more of what I'm getting at, I attach a
second Birthday present, a paper by Robert Pepperell:
Connecting art and the brain: an artist's perspective on
visual indeterminacy.

As the title suggests, Pepperell is an artist, but in this
paper he reports on a collaboration with some neuroscientists.
I think it's an interesting paper throughout, but then I have
an interest in what he calls visual indeterminacy.  However,
in a final section he makes a series of insightful
observations about the way some of the science was done in
this collaboration.  It illustrates, again, I think, how this
too was allowed to be heavily configured by what you can do
with brain scanning machines and subject testing, and, in
particular, how you have to limit and configure what is an
"experiment" by how you can use these machines and techniques
in practice.

I think Pepperell is to be praised for daring to publish these
observations, and for doing so in such a gentle and well
intentioned way.  It's nice to see this.

Any way, Happy Birthday Humanist!  May it continue for another
happy 30 years!

Best regards,


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