[Humanist] 30.52 language before?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu May 26 07:28:01 CEST 2016

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 30, No. 52.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Thu, 26 May 2016 06:18:20 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: language before

In today's New York Review of Books Daily, H. Allen Orr reviews Matthew 
Cobb's Life's Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code 
It is in itself a worthy review, but I refer to it here for something 
Orr says in passing:

> You might not have noticed that I used the language of information
> when discussing DNA above. The “information” that is “encoded” in DNA
> gets “read” by cells. You likely didn’t notice because this is now a
> nearly reflexive way of talking about DNA, even in popular culture.
> It’s just obvious to us that DNA stores information—for curly hair or
> blue eyes—and it’s natural to think of it as an information storage
> device much like the hard disk of a computer. Yet one of Cobb’s main
> points is that this is a remarkably recent way of thinking about
> biology.
> The rise of this style of thinking had everything to do with what was
> happening in other fields of science during and immediately after
> World War II....

Many here will be able to guess the story that follows that last 
sentence. But again, my point is not the history of post-war science 
but the process Orr describes -- "one of Cobb's main points" -- of how 
what later seems natural fact is naturalised. "It's just obvious to us 
that..." was not before it was made that way. We are (perhaps on the far 
side of) the same thing happening with respect to computing, with 
decades of 'the computational model of mind' behind us, ubiquitous, 
embedded computing everywhere we don't see, and so on and so 

It seems to be crucial, even at the heart of what digital humanities 
could do if only we can summon the wit to do it, to keep firmly in 
mind the transitional moment when computing is naturalised. A 
struggle, of course, perhaps an impossible one. How do you imagine the 
world before the changes Cobb writes about or before analogue became 
the word to describe what is not digital (when it meant 'analogous to')? 
But, I would say, the power of the discipline is in proportion to the 
difficulty of this task -- and a few other things, of course. But this 
is one of them, surely.



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

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