[Humanist] 23.99 programming: the fear of it?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Jun 22 07:51:46 CEST 2009

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 99.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sat, 20 Jun 2009 07:01:57 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: why some fear programming

I'd like to get us to pay more attention to the question of why students of
the humanities often find programming less than attractive as a subject for
study -- why the fear of doing it.  I think that the beginnings of a useful
response require us to recognise that fear is real psychologically and
useful biologically but that our task is to investigate what it points to.
How is the translation of programming into the interpretation of poetry

Presuming I can understand what a formalization of an essentially
non-formalizable phenomenon is saying, I tend to react first by feeling
intellectually claustrophobic, then (presuming I'm sufficiently alert) with
curiosity for what lies beyond it. If the formalization is complete, then I
lose interest in what, after all, has been shown to be routine,
mechanizable. If I am being taught by someone who is clearly assuming that
the non-formalizable residue is unimportant, then I'm apt to grow impatient
and decide to spend my time elsewhere. I'm sure it's satisfying to make a
parser that's 98.6% successful at handling "natural" language. But as a
humanist I want to know about the 1.4% that cannot be handled. For me the
appeal has to be that a particular skill in capturing things will help me
get closer, sense more keenly the fleeting transcendence of these things.

We say something is important or significant but fail to say what it imports
or signifies. Similarly with the assertion that programming is a useful
skill. For what, exactly, is it useful? If *all* we want is to finish our
homework so we can go out to play at something else, then we should be
devoted to that something else, no? If that something else proves on closer
inspection or with real devotion to it to be boring, then the question is
still about the fleeting something. What are we chasing or being chased by?

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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