[Humanist] 29.422 reading scholarship in software?
Humanist Discussion Group
willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Oct 26 07:47:55 CET 2015
Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 29, No. 422.
Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
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Date: Sat, 24 Oct 2015 10:44:46 +0100
From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
Subject: scholarship in software and reading the machine
From time to time various of us have contemplated and a few written
about the problem of gaining scholarly recognition for work done in
software. To date, I would suppose, this is rare -- and understandably
so. It's not all that hard, given sufficient time, to assess the utility
of a digital resource for scholarship in affected disciplines, but this
is not the same as weighing its worth *as* scholarship.
To do this you have to be able to answer the question Mike
Mahoney used to ask: how do we read a machine? He made the question
more interesting and difficult by pointing out that software can only be
fully known in action. You know it by seeing it work, or at least you
cannot know it adequately otherwise.
A closely related question is brought up by Larry Owens' fine study,
"Vannevar Bush and the Differential Analyzer: The Text and Context of an
Early Computer", Technology and Culture 27.1 (1986): 63-95. This is how
he asks it:
> How does one tell the story of a machine? On what categories should
> the analysis rest, within what interpretative framework should one
> search for the meaning of engineering artifacts? However the
> historian chooses to answer these questions, utility must certainly
> play a role.... But there are other categories than utility, or,
> maybe, broader sorts of utility than so far invoked in our
> account.... [M]achines exist not only as tools, but also as symbols.
> Bush's analyzers did indeed do more than simply compute x(t). To
> flesh out our story of this particular machine, we must discover what
> this something else was. (p. 85)
Owens goes on to open up the engineering culture of the first half of
the 20th Century. He looks forward to the death of interest in Bush's
Analyzer as digital computing took over. After what Owens calls the
"autopsy" of the programme that supported it, in the Spring of 1950,
Warren Weaver wrote to Samuel Caldwell, director of the Center where it
> "[I]t seems rather a pity not to have around such a place as MIT a
> really impressive Analogue computer; for there is vividness and
> directness of meaning of the electrical and mechanical processes
> involved ... which can hardly fail, I would think, to have a very
> considerable educational value. A Digital Electronic computer is bound
> to be a somewhat abstract affair, in which the actual computational
> processes are fairly deeply submerged." (p. 66)
As Bush tirelessly pointed out "analogy machines" like the Analyzer were
in fact so easy to read that one could learn the calculus from them;
they provided a visible language expressing the "innate meaning" of the
mathematics that expressed the innate meaning of the processes it
represented. Not so for digital machines.
All of which, it seems to me, give us an inspiring example and
highlights just how difficult reading our digital machines is.
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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