[Humanist] 23.67 fear itself?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Jun 2 07:25:17 CEST 2009

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 67.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 02 Jun 2009 06:22:23 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: fear itself

In the course of my historial readings into what was happening with 
humanists and computers I am paying close attention to any expressions 
of anxiety which surface in the literature. I'm reading around quite 
widely, as far afield as, say, Time Magazine, the Globe and Mail 
(Toronto) and the New Yorker, with the conviction that 
humanist-researchers were also ordinary people, who not only read 
Goethe, Donne, Dickinson, Shakespeare, Mandelstam et al., listened to 
Bach, Debussy, went to art galleries etc etc but also read the 
newspaper, watched the television when that became widely available and 
so forth. I'm also convinced they had children, some of whom got 
interested in the digital computer kits of the 1950s and 60s, built 
electronic devices, studied calculus and physics and so forth. I am 
assuming that these humanists therefore knew what was going on, though 
perhaps in a vague sort of way, in other intellectual neighbourhoods 
than their own, that they were affected by the whole range of things 
being said in the popular media, and that the effects of all such 
influences had something to do with what they thought when they were 
being humanists.

Expressions of anxiety relating to computing are not difficult to find. 
I'm paying attention to these because I suspect that these are telling 
clues to the cultural assimilation of computing, or more precisely, into 
what people thought was happening and why those who took an active role 
did what they did -- and did not do what they didn't do.

For the purposes of this note, however, I want to fast-forward to our 
own time and ask about what fears are still troubling us as humanists. 
The ongoing "On the Human" project of the National Humanities Center 
(www.onthehuman.org, be there or be square) is sufficient to illustrate 
one bundle of fears that are very much alive -- of the sciences invading 
the humanities and taking possession, so it is alleged, of questions 
formerly only ours to deal with. Since there's simply no denying that 
computers are technoscientific instruments, we're affected 
professionally -- and, yet again, along with everyone else who thinks 
beyond the next beer and BBQ. I find it particularly curious that in the 
scholarly literature to this day, where one might expect to find open 
curiosity about the technoscience which the computer carries into our 
studies and libraries, one finds instead the garlic and crucifixes hung.

So my question: is the oppositional relationship we still maintain with 
technoscience a healthy one? Is it a clue to a Gilgamesh-Enkidu 
relationship that will make us stronger? What is the fear all about?


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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