[Humanist] 23.334 working

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Oct 1 07:34:06 CEST 2009

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 334.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

Date: Thu, 01 Oct 2009 06:27:06 +0100
From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
Subject: working

Years ago, somehow, I ran into a famous study by the oral historian Studs
Terkel, Working: People talk about what they do all day and how they feel
about what they do (New York: The New Press, 1972, rpt 2004). I recall being
quite moved by (as a reporter for the New York Times wrote) "the
extraordinary dreams of ordinary people", such as a fireman's, talking about
what motivated him. Recently, reading Pamela McCorduck's Machines Who Think,
I came across a reference to it in her discussion of people's reactions to
AI. So I've returned to it to see what's there, again after all this time.

Let me quote here a very small sample, from a transcript of an interviewwith a labourer:

> I'm a dying breed. A labourer. Strictly muscle work... pick it up,
> put it down, pick it up, put it down.... You can't take pride any
> more. You remember when a guy could point to a house he built, how
> many logs he stacked. He built it, and he was proud of it. I don't
> really think I could be proud if a contractor built a home for me. I
> would be tempted to get in there and kick the carpenter in the ass
> (laughs), and take the saw away from him. 'Cause I would have to be
> part of it, you know. (p. xxxi)

There's much in the remainder of the interview that keeps one from
getting nostalgic about a world of noble labour passing away, and
scattered throughout the book are comments about automation and
computers. For example, this same man, Mike Lefevre, comments a bit
further on,

> Automation? Depends on how it's applied. It frightens me if it puts
> me out on the street. It doesn't frighten me if it shortens my work
> week.... Machines can either liberate man or enslave 'im, because
> they're pretty neutral. It's man who has the bias to put the thing
>  one place or another. (p. xxxiii)

The remarks on automation are of particular interest to me. But I mention
the book, and this interview in particular, because of what Lefevre says
about wanting to be able to take pride in his work. It seems to me that
amidst all the high-level matters we consider with respect to computing we
might pay more attention to the appeal computing has to this very same want.
I suspect many of us have it, and may already be taking pride in cooking,
joinery, sewing or whatever of the kind, or somewhat more abstractly, in
crafting a fine edition, getting the words just right and so on. Or in
designing and putting into place an institutional structure that allows
others to have work they can take pride in.

I wonder, then, if rather than, or in addition to, the appeal of the
practical side of the digital humanities to the possibility of usefulness
elsewhere ("transferrable skills"), we might profitably stress what a fine
thing it is to make something and then take pride in it. To this day I take
pleasure, sometimes conscious, in a bookshelf I designed and built 20 years
ago. It's, in a sense, part of me.

What about the pleasures in programming? In following a research projectthrough to its conclusion, beholding the structure of it? This isn't
itself research (unless you're a participant-observing social
scientist), but it's strong motivation to do research, and to keep doing
it despite the contrary ways of the world.

Here also is a connection with the arts, no?



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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