[Humanist] 23.208 making a difference

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Fri Jul 31 10:11:05 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 208.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Fri, 31 Jul 2009 09:08:11 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: closing down the world

To repeat a bit: in the book that I have just finished reading, The 
Closed World, Paul N Edwards describes a "cyborg discourse" constituting 
"the entire field of signifying or meaningful practices" related to 
computing, "a way of knowledge, a background of assumptions and 
agreements about how reality is to be interpreted and expressed, 
supported by paradigmatic metaphors, techniques and technologies and 
potentially embodied in social institutions" (34). He argues 
persuasively that this discourse closed down, indeed sealed off the 
world of those committed to it. Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense 
Initiative (a.k.a. Star Wars), publically proposed in 1983, supplies 
quite a good example.

In June or July 1985 Brian Cantwell Smith (now at Toronto) read a paper, 
"The Limits of Correctness", to the Symposium on Unintended Nuclear War, 
   Fifth Congress of the International Physicians for the Prevention of 
Nuclear War, in Budapest. In it he argues that the fundamental problem 
and danger is the very notion of correctness, that is, of the 
possibility that the world might be captured in a computational model of 
it. In other words, as many have warned, models are as dangerous as they 
are powerful: the good ones tend to seduce us into forgetting the 
difference in principle and practice between any model and the thing 
modelled. We slip down the slippery slope from "as if" to "is", many of 
us without feeling a thing.

The history of computing, one might say, is a chronicle of models being 
mistaken for and replaced by that which they model, i.e. of the world 
being closed down by our mistaking constructions of it for reality. Our 
research, one might say, consists in defamiliarizing those constructions 
as soon as we ourselves make them. And that is the exit-door from the 
closed, boring world, is it not?

In "Circular causality: The beginnings of an epistemology of 
responsibility", Heinz von Foerster looks back at activities in the 
decade from 1943-1953, during which -- WWII coming to its bloody end and 
the Cold War beginning) the Macy Conferences on cybernetics took place. 
(See Cybernetics/Kybernetik: The Macy Conferences 1946-1953, vol 1, ed. 
Claus Pias, Diaphanes, 2003, pp. 11-17). "It is the decade", he wrote, 
of a con-spiracy, a »breathing together«, amongst a score of curious, 
fearless, articulate, ingenious and pragmatic dreamers who conformed in 
letting diversity be their guide. I am fascinated by the stream of 
concepts and insights, of invented relations and of others discovered, 
of perceptions, thoughts and ideas, of questions unanswered and answered 
that poured forth from these people." He writes about arriving in New 
York in 1949 with very little English and some copies of a monograph he 
had written, which he then proceeded to send to obvious places in hopes 
of a job. He was summoned to Chicago, to the Department of 
Neuropsychiatry of the Medical School, where "I meet the man who wanted 
to know more: tall, lanky, a greyish beard, an inviting grin, and the 
eyes; eyes to support the Greek notion of vision: it is not the light 
that enters into, but sight that beams forth from the eyes, touching 
with joy what they see. I meet Warren McCulloch." (11-12)

Now that is not a world closing down -- for that we must turn to his 
account of Vienna in the mid 1940s -- but a world opening up. The same 
people and same ideas are involved here as in Edwards' account of quite 
the opposite situation. Wherein lies the difference?


More information about the Humanist mailing list