[Humanist] 22.698 traces of mind: where, and for how long?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Apr 16 07:44:01 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 698.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Thu, 16 Apr 2009 06:42:43 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: traces of mind?

In "The Ontology of the Enemy: Norbert Wiener and the Cybernetic 
Vision", Critical Inquiry 21 (Autumn 1994), Peter Galison argues that 
the idea of cybernetics was formed within and shaped by the way the 
enemy was conceived during World War II, as a man at one with his 
machine of death and destruction. That in itself is not difficult to see 
and to accept as what we call a formative influence. What's difficult is 
the question of how much of this conceptual influence sticks to the 
cybernetic ideas and devices, and how hard it sticks, or whether it 
becomes an inescapable part of them. How much of the enemy Other is 
inherited by and comes secretly along with e.g. the idea of interaction 
design, and is reinforced by wargaming and cyberporn? Galison walks the 
tightrope quite carefully:

> Cultural meaning is neither aleatory nor eternal. We are not free by
> fiat alone to dismiss the chain of associations that was forged over
> decades in the laboratory, on the battlefield, in the social
> sciences, and in the philosophy of cybernetics. At the same time,
> it would clearly be erroneous to view cybernetics as a logically
> impelled set of beliefs. Nothing in the feedback device implies a
> representation of human beings as behavioristic black boxes; nothing
> in the mathematics entails by deduction alone a universe reducible
> to Wiener's monadic input-output analysis. What we do have to
> acknowledge is the power of a half-century in which these and other
> associations have been reinstantiated at every turn, in which
> opposition is seen to lie at the core of every human contact with the
> outside world. (p. 266)

Elsewhere, in Image and Logic, which was then in progress, he writes 
about the "partial disencumberance of meaning" as objects pass from one 
person to another in the "trading zone", i.e. across cultural boundaries.

In our daily work we are starting to draw on ideas of "thing knowledge". 
Some of us, with reference e.g. to the experimental sciences and arts, 
assert that computational objects can be scholarly objects on an equal 
par with papers and books, i.e. that they have a kind of permanent and 
integral meaning not disencumbered as the objects pass from person to 
person. Is this the case only as long as the objects pass from hand to 
hand within a common culture and delimited period of time during which 
assumptions are stable?

It seems to me that here we face a fundamental problem in the social 
sciences, namely the reality of socio-cultural entities, which are not 
material but anything but immaterial or, in many cases, especially 
transient. Spooky, I say, but would wish to say more.

Any ideas?

Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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