[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
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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 âinformationâ that is âencodedâ in DNA
> gets âreadâ by cells. You likely didnât notice because this is now a
> nearly reflexive way of talking about DNA, even in popular culture.
> Itâs just obvious to us that DNA stores informationâfor curly hair or
> blue eyesâand itâs natural to think of it as an information storage
> device much like the hard disk of a computer. Yet one of Cobbâs main
> points is that this is a remarkably recent way of thinking about
> 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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