[Humanist] 23.191 making a difference

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Jul 27 09:54:00 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 191.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    amsler at cs.utexas.edu                                      (27)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.190 making a difference

  [2]   From:    Sterling Fluharty <phdinhistory at gmail.com>                (77)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.190 making a difference

        Date: Sun, 26 Jul 2009 11:20:48 -0500
        From: amsler at cs.utexas.edu
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.190 making a difference
        In-Reply-To: <20090726073451.2ABD124757 at woodward.joyent.us>

The "What have we accomplished" question could be approached by asking  
what would happen if the humanities had to stop using computers. What  
would be lost?

The answer I reach is that apart from dropping out of the current  
world of communications and information retireval and dissemination  
technologies, not much.  Oh, there are some works whose existence  
depends upon computers for their display and those would be gone, but  
the progress of humanities thought would survive intact. The fancy  
computational techniques for text analysis could still be done by  
hand, but would just be much slower. Concordances made a publishing  
appearance long before they were computer-generated (and the impact of  
computer generated concordances seems to have been to supress the  
publication of print concordances because they are so readily produced  
upon demand).

So, what one arrives at is that the humanities is merely riding the  
wave of technology and not a force within that wave.

The real question is 'so what'? Why does adaptation to the use of a  
contemporary technology have to have advanced the field? Do physicists  
worry about how 'cell phones' have advanced the state of the art in  

Or, if you'd like the other question... What isn't the humanities  
doing that 'could' affect the progress of humanities thought? One of  
the favorite questions of the folks with supercomputers at their  
disposal is what could your field do with supercomputing capability?  
If you had access to free unlimited super-fast computation, free data  
storage, world-wide networks of lightening fast communications, all  
free, what would you do with it?

        Date: Sun, 26 Jul 2009 12:29:21 -0600
        From: Sterling Fluharty <phdinhistory at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.190 making a difference
        In-Reply-To: <20090726073451.2ABD124757 at woodward.joyent.us>


I find it curious that you would call investment banking unproblematically
utilitarian.  Perhaps you missed the New York Times article this past week
about high-frequency trading on Wall Street.  In fact, the topic of the
article seems to fit quite nicely with Golumba's thesis about computers
mostly benefiting those who already have power in society.  I suppose
someone could argue that the use of powerful computers to beat out small
investors in the stock markets is a useful thing.  Goldman Sachs would
certainly agree with that position.  But I think some of us would question
that view and advocate for a more egalitarian utilitarianism.

Maybe I have misunderstood you.  In your usage, utilitarian apparently has a
negative connotation.  It seems that you worry about the humanities being
measured by the bottom line.  Putting a price tag on the humanities would be
foolhardy, I hear you saying.  Moreover, I think you are urging us to move
beyond lower-level measures and instead become truly curious and reach our
full potential.  For me, utilitarian has an additional meaning.  Simply put,
I think we should measure the value of our work by its usefulness.  As I see
it, the things that are most valuable are the things that are wanted or
needed by the largest numbers of people or that can make the largest
difference in their lives.  And since not everyone agrees on who should have
the most right to use things of value, politics ensue.

I could be wrong, but it sounds like you hope for the emergence of a
scholarly culture that operates with one foot in academia and the other in
real-world politics.  For too long, you say, scholars have carefully but
narrowly tended to the gardens of their disciplinary niches.  By extension,
our "academic" discussions have too often been hypothetical or theoretical
with little expectation of producing an immediate or practical result.  We
have too often ignored, you say, how our scholarly work could or should
connect with the headlines of the day.  Your prescription for these problems
is intellectual curiosity.  The ways of looking beyond the blinders of our
professions, of questioning the established ways of doing things and being
truly innovative, should be taught and cherished.  Merely teaching skills,
you say, will never do much to make the world a better place.

I really wonder if we can have it both ways.  Some humanists have told me
they already know what kind of work is most valuable, or what kinds of
scholarship they should produce, and they don't need the public to tell them
what would be most useful.  I don't think the public is fooled; I believe
they can tell when a humanist is being paternalistic.  Other humanists seem
to value the isolation afforded by the ivory tower.  They probably see value
in incubating ideas for a decade or so before they appear as a published
monograph.  This is starting to change as digital publication makes much of
our work available to the masses.  But somehow I doubt humanists will start
soliciting input and feedback from the public at various  stages of their
scholarly projects.  You say that digital humanists are slowly and subtly
making new contributions to knowledge.  I wonder if the public sees this as
an excuse for not being more innovative.  You claim that changes wrought by
the digital humanities are pervasive.  Perhaps they are, but I am not sure
we can continue producing those kinds of changes without measuring the
extent of their effect.

Measurement can be a curious thing.  Consider a famous story from
psychology.  At some point in the 1980s, the College Entrance Examination
Board decided to survey the nearly one million college-bound students who
would take the SAT that year.  The premise was simple: Students were asked
to compare their abilities with those of typical Americans their same age. 
The results were quite interesting.  For instance, 60% said their ability to
get along with others put them in the top 10%, 0% rated themselves below
average, and 25% said they were in the top 1%.  This has since been
identified as the self-serving bias.  So the question I would raise is the
extent to which we can trust digital humanists to determine whether their
work has been successful or made an important difference. Obviously, opinion
polls have their weaknesses.  But surely measuring can be made more
scientific.  So maybe what we need to develop is a metrics of usefulness. 
Maybe only then will we better grasp the past, present, and future worth of
the humanities.

Best wishes,

Sterling FluhartyUniversity of New Mexico

On Sun, Jul 26, 2009 at 1:34 AM, Humanist Discussion Group <
willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:

>                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 190.
>         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
>                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                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>

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