[Humanist] 29.466 networks and human relations

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Nov 10 10:57:59 CET 2015

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 29, No. 466.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 10 Nov 2015 09:48:37 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: networks as if

One of my favourite remarks in the transcriptions from the Macy 
Conferences on cybernetics (1946-53) is a comment made by the 
neurophysiologist Ralph W. Gerard as he began his paper at the 1950 
gathering. Forgive me for quoting his words yet again, but they are timely:

> It seems to me, in looking back over the history of this group, that
> we started our discussions and sessions in the »as if« spirit.
> Everyone was delighted to express any idea that came into his mind,
> whether it seemed silly or certain or merely a stimulating guess that
> would affect someone else. We explored possibilities for all sorts of
> »ifs.« Then, rather sharply it seemed to me, we began to talk in an
> »is« idiom.We were saying much the same things, but now saying them
> as if they were so....
> Since this group has been the focus and fountainhead of thinking
> along these lines, we surely have a very real responsibility, both
> internally and externally. Internally, since we bring expertness in
> such varied fields, no one can be sure another’s statements are facts
> or guesses unless the speaker is meticulous in labeling suggestions
> as such. Externally, our responsibility is even greater, since our
> statements and writings – which may extend beyond an immediate area
> of competence – should not give a spurious certainty to a credulous
> audience, be this audience the lay intelligentsia or that precious
> company of young physical scientists now finding the happy hunting
> ground in biology.

(Claus Pias, ed. Cybernetics / Kybernetik: Die Macy-Konferenzen 
1946-1953. Band II: Protokolle. Zürich: Diaphanes, 2003, p. 163.

Gerard's objection came to mind while reading a description of the 
Waterman's Symposium, Data Bodies: You are My Data, circulated on 
Humanist this morning. It begins with the casual remark that, "Though 
social networks are at the heart of how we live, circulating knowledge 
and fostering innovation, they are also closely monitored...." Doubtless 
the metaphor, 'social network', passes by without notice for most 
readers, often including me. This happens with metaphors all the time, 
of course; they die, or rather, we die to them. But like Gerard I think 
we have some responsibility to notice and then to remark on 
computationally associated metaphors, that they are in fact 
metaphorical, analogical leaps. People are *not* nodes in a network 
related by edges. 'Social network' is indeed a productive, valuable 
metaphor, not primarily because it leads us down the garden path to an 
entertaining, even informative display but because it stirs the alert to 
enquire into how we and our friends and relations, or whomever we are 
studying, do *not* comprise such a network, and so to enquire into all of 
that which does not survive the translation. In a sentence such as I 
just quoted a door opens up for a moment, then closes. Did you see it?

So I conclude with this paradox: that to be alert to the failures of our 
concepts is to be alert to their successes.

Objections? Refinements?


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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