[Humanist] 30.193 1000010101 and all that

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Jul 21 08:01:19 CEST 2016

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 30, No. 193.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Wed, 20 Jul 2016 15:55:50 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: "100010101 and all that"

In 1966 the Times Literary Supplement published three issues dedicated 
to "New Ways in History" (7 April, 28 July, 8 September). The editorial 
in the last of these, "100010101 and all that", is worth considering for 
the relatively minor degree of translation required to bring it into the 
present. I quote bits of it below, omitting those which refer to articles 
published in those three issues, to highlight problems that meanwhile 
have not gone away: the relationship between what we somehow 
perceive and that which cannot be digitised; the rhetoric of precision 
clothing that which is digitised; the triumphalism, esp among the 
newly converted; the championing of volume; the resistance to it all, 
cloaking unease or even fear of the machine; and, at the end, the 
possibility of hands held across the two-cultured gulf:

> At every turn we come on the same central problem: how far is it
> right to turn history into numbers? [Whoever does it] we are faced
> with the question of what attitude to adopt to the expression of
> historical evidence in quantitative terms. That this can be immensely
> useful is clear: exact relationships can be established, gaps can be
> bridged, models can be made and tested. What is even clearer is that
> it is becoming increasingly the rule. At the same time it is worth
> recalling that there are large areas of life about which figures say
> singularly little; that the air of precision which they lend may well
> be specious, and that their use sometimes goes with a certain
> pretentiousness of presentation and a falling-off of clarity in the
> written word....
> In the background looms another bogy-man: the computer. If we have
> got to have systematic accumulation and analysis of figures, then it
> might as well be done by machine.... It could well be, however, that
> the computer will be of more immediate use to historians in storing
> and arranging their material: the sort of indexing and classifying
> work that [has been] proposed for the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum
> and that [others think] is impracticable.... [I]f the computer can
> indeed be helpful then we should not be frightened of it but should
> put it to work.
> The difficulty with computer-aided history will be how to criticize
> its findings, for anything that it takes a computer to work out is
> not going to be checked all that quickly except by another computer.
> It is hard enough when the statistics are compiled manually by a
> single scholar... particularly if the reader is not told how some of
> the key figures are arrived at. [A reference to the "extremely
> impressive" work of the École Pratique des Hautes Études.] None the
> less the danger of private jargon, mock-scientific writing and
> meaningless generalization attaching themselves to this kind of
> pioneering is [evident].
> It is possible that... the increasing untidiness of physics, together
> with the quantification of more and more areas of history, are
> bringing science and history much closer together than either party
> thought they were. If so, the prospect is an exciting one.... [It is
> a question] of being able to link up the fragmented pieces of human
> knowledge at a new level. We should need then to keep our heads and
> remember the criteria put forward for historians [in an article
> elsewhere in this issue]: sense of the past, sense of the ridiculous,
> and just plain common sense. Given these three things there is no
> reason for us to be nervous of numbers, of sociology, of economics,
> of machines, or of anything else.


Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London; Adjunct Professor, Western Sydney

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