[Humanist] 23.190 making a difference

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sun Jul 26 09:34:51 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 190.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sun, 26 Jul 2009 08:29:32 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: making a difference

> "An empirical proposition can be tested" (we say). But how? and
> through what? What counts as its test? ... -- As if giving grounds
> did not come to an end sometime. But the end is not an ungrounded
> presupposition: it is an ungrounded way of acting. -- Ludwig
> Wittgenstein, On certainty, ed. Anscombe and von Wright, 109-110

In Humanist 23.186 Martin Mueller relays a conversation with a colleague 
who wanted to know if all this digital stuff that we push on the world 
has made an important difference. Martin cited classical philology as a 
good test-case, perhaps the best we have for textual computing given the 
amount of work done for classicists and by classicists in the digital 
medium. He noted that there's no excuse easily cited to explain a 
negative answer: we have the resources and many tools; we've had the 
time to use and explore them. So what gives or has given?

Martin is exercising a genre of questioning nearly as old as the 
activity being questioned: such callings-to-account began at least as 
early as 1962 -- not as prematurely as you might think -- and have 
recurred through the years many, many times. Tiresomely so, an impatient 
person would declare; curiously so, a more thoughtful person might. The 
answers have *never* been conclusive, but the questioning has not 
ceased. So is this questioning merely a nervous tic of a troubled field 
of enquiry? (One wonders, what field or discipline is not troubled these 
days?) A sign of a "degenerating research programme", to use Imre 
Lakatos' expression? A reminder that we really do need to develop our 
defensive rhetorical skills in the face of challenges? Or what?

Let me ask another question instead: what exactly would serve as an 
acceptable, persuasive answer? What would be the kind of evidence we'd 
find conclusive? Martin wisely brushes aside the curiously recurrent 
claims to revolutionary effect. "I don't think", he says, "that 
significant change is necessarily measured in dramatic
breakthroughs. It is more likely to happen in slow, subtle, and
pervasive ways." Let's say, as I think too, that this is the case. Then 
what sort of studies would we need to bring these subtle ways of change 
to the fore? Histories in the sociology of knowledge, I'd think. Some of 
us have been saying for some time that what's happening in digital 
projects and departments needs to be studied sociologically, as the 
activities in scientific laboratories have been studied, by the likes of 
Steve Woolgar, Bruno Latour, Karin Knorr Cetina and others. We do need 
to know about the "epistemic culture" we've been creating and how we've 
been modifying the others. It seems the classicists would like to know 
whether they're different these days as a result.

But sociological methods have their limits. Rather than get caught up 
solely in trying to measure whether a difference has been made, and if 
so what it is, I think we should simultaneously challenge the 
assumptions behind the statement that this difference "ought to be 
measurable in some fashion", as Martin says. Perhaps it can be measured. 
But is that the point, or the sole point? What difference has classics 
made to the world in the last 60 years? Do classicists, or scholars of 
any stripe, think that being evaluated by utilitarian measure is the 
right way to assess their worth to humanity? Are we so far gone down the 
downward path to the bottom line that we can think in no other way? What 
happened to wanting to know, to intellectual curiosity? What sort of 
conception of the human being are we left with if the only reason for 
opening the eyes is to find the food to feed the body? Or, worse 
perhaps, to feed someone else's and get a burp for thanks.

This is not to say that the differences made by digital resources and 
tools are not important, even vital to know about. Part of the reason 
for needing to know about them is that they are hardly all positive 
differences. Some of them are seriously otherwise. Books such as Paul 
Edwards' The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in 
Cold War America (MIT, 1996) and David Golumba's The Cultural Logic of 
Computation (Harvard, 2009) -- read them tonight -- chime with Joseph 
Weizenbaum's darkest assessments and give more reason to pay attention 
to Langdon Winner's warnings. One of the big problems we have is that 
professionally, in our accounting of our reasons for being, we pay 
attention only to our own little gardens, as if we were not citizens of 
this or that country, as if what is reported on the 7 o'clock news has 
nothing to do with us, as if we don't have lives. So scholarly curiosity 
becomes something not even we understand and value, since we're so busy 
packaging deliverables for the Man. We then don't teach being curious to 
our students, who have been told to expect "transferrable skills", and 
so assess us in those terms. Is it any wonder that they, faced *at best* 
with the prospect of being like their parents, get restless, or worse?

Yes, we in the digital humanities are useful to others. We know this. 
What effects our usefulness has had needs to be studied, because these 
effects, or certainly the important ones, are long-term, quietly 
progressing, subtle. But WHY do we do what we do -- rather than 
something else for which utilitarian arguments don't need to be made, 
like investment banking?


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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