[Humanist] 23.263 the BBQ and the fire, or the joy of negative entropy

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Sep 2 07:45:35 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 263.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Stan Ruecker <sruecker at ualberta.ca>                       (91)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.242 yet another BBQ

  [2]   From:    Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>          (55)
        Subject: where's the fire?

        Date: Tue, 01 Sep 2009 23:28:27 -0600
        From: Stan Ruecker <sruecker at ualberta.ca>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.242 yet another BBQ
        In-Reply-To: <20090821054656.C55A434C3E at woodward.joyent.us>

Dear Willard,

I sometimes turn for solace, as I'm sure others do, to Lewis Thomas, who 
so cleverly brought public attention to any number of useful insights in 
the 1970s. I'd like to quote him here on the subject of the rightful 
business of science, which I realize is not quite what we all think of 
ourselves as doing, but nonetheless it has a certain inspirational 
quality, especially if you read it, as I did, by substituting "digital 
humanities" wherever he says "science."

"The essential wildness of science as a manifestation of human behavior 
is not generally perceived. As we extract new things of value from it, 
we also keep discovering parts of the activity that seem in need of 
better control, more efficiency, less unpredictability. We’d like to pay 
less for it and get our money’s worth on some more orderly, businesslike 

It needs thinking about. There is an almost ungovernable, biologic 
mechanism at work in scientific behavior at its best, and this should 
not be overlooked.

The difficulties are more conspicuous when the problems are very hard 
and complicated and the facts not yet in. Solutions cannot be arrived at 
for problems of this sort until the science has been lifted through a 
preliminary, turbulent zone of outright astonishment. Therefore, what 
must be planned for, in the laboratories engaged in the work, is the 
totally unforeseeable. If it is centrally organized, the system must be 
designed primarily for the elicitation of disbelief and the celebration 
of surprise."

Thomas, Lewis. “Natural Science” in *The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a 
Biology Watcher.* NY: Penguin Books Ltd, 1974. p. 100.


Humanist Discussion Group wrote:
>                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 242.
>          Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
>                        www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                 Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>         Date: Fri, 21 Aug 2009 06:45:04 +0100
>         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
>         Subject: boredom comes with maturity?
> Dear colleagues,
> Here's a question for you. It came to me while I was gazing at the 
> announcement of the Panjab Digital Library and another announcement, of 
> a printed publication containing nothing directly, or even indirectly as 
> far as I could tell, about computing. I found myself questioning the 
> decision to circulate the former but not the latter.
> Have we reached the point, I wonder, at which the once new is now so 
> commonplace that it's no longer interesting? Of course someone who is 
> already interested in Panjab literature and culture will want to know 
> about this digital library, but failing that interest, and immediate 
> evidence that the makers have done something technically and/or formally 
> new, is it something you'd like to see?
> Please note: I am not asking for personal likes and dislikes, which are 
> not the business of this group. I'm asking, rather, about a possible 
> stage of development that we may have reached, a kind of maturity, in 
> which to be noticed formally a digital object has to possess certain 
> properties reflecting a degree of technical progress. Some time ago 
> there was a comment about conference papers in the digital humanities 
> being less than riveting, being (I think it was) rather more reports 
> from the factory floor than intellectual wake-up calls. Since I think 
> that staying awake is important, I am paying rather alot of attention to 
> this latest jolt.
> In his paper for the Hixon Symposium (1948), "Why the Mind is in the 
> Head", Warren McCulloch expressed it this way:
>> When we run to catch a baseball we run not toward it but toward the
>> place where it will be when we get there to grab it. This requires
>> prediction.... The earmark of every predictive circuit is that if it
>> has operated long uniformly it will persist in activity, or
>> overshoot; otherwise it could not project regularities from the known
>> past onto the unknown future. That is what, as a scientist, I dread
>> most, for as our memories become stored, we become creatures of our
>> yesterdays – mere has-beens in a changing world. This leaves no room
>> for learning.
> We're not running to catch baseballs, but we are developing, quite 
> successfully, habitual behaviours and standard products. While I do take 
> the argument about standards etc., I worry about research in this 
> utilitarian age sunk to its bottom line. I worry about what happens when 
> one reaches a promised land, buys a house in suburbia and settles in.
> Comments?
> Yours,
> WM

        Date: Wed, 02 Sep 2009 06:41:22 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: where's the fire?
        In-Reply-To: <20090821054656.C55A434C3E at woodward.joyent.us>

Dear colleagues,

You may recall some time back an assertion I reported to you that our 
conference papers are dull, lacking in the zip-zap of fundamental 
questioning. Since then, from three other, separate sources I have heard 
similar things.

Most recently it was from a member of a national committee deliberating 
on what to do about our sort of work officially, i.e. how to begin 
concerted efforts in it. This assertion I take more seriously because a 
committee of government, with funding I would suppose, is poised to act 
but is questioning how to do so, what flavour to support from those on 
offer or dreamt of. The particular statement of discontent I received 
had reached the point of discriminating between

(a) work that comprises merely implementation of pre-existing stuff in 
service of research interests coming from elsewhere, and

(b) genuine research, i.e. into the unknown, for purposes originating 
with the researcher him-/herself -- recognizing that the self in 
question may be plural and so collaboratively constituted.

It seemed to be the judgement of this committee that what usually gets 
done in our shop is of the first rather than the second kind, and so the 
committee in question was looking in the direction of computer science 
for inspiration. My response was to make a further distinction between 
what's done in CS and what's done in humanities computing, which is to 
say, I argued that the latter exists and does genuine research.

You may well regard the analysis on which I report to have mistaken what 
we mostly do for what we are attempting to be seen not to do. In that, 
more charitable case, there's something seriously wrong with how we 
represent our work. How is it that someone could think all we're doing 
is to put in a day's labour on the assembly line? What are we doing 
wrong, or not doing? My own guess is that we're falling down by failing 
to communicate the genuine research we're doing in such a way that it 
can be understood *as research*. We don't sport the label of a 
*science*, and so no one will come to what we do with a flattering 
assumption about it.

There may also be a problem for us with the label that seems now to have 
taken over, i.e. "digital humanities". It comfortably convers anything a 
humanist does involving digital stuff, most of which isn't research 
except in the field of application, if there. So blanketing everything 
we do is a thick, muffling carpet of trivial applications dressed up in 
trendy colours. It certainly doesn't help that yet again we're told that 
since quite soon everything in the humanities will be digital, the term 
is more or less tautological and us specialists are reaching our point 
of professional obsolescence -- though some will continue to be needed 
to do the XML equivalent of fix the printer.

What can we point to that is both intellectually exciting and not the 
property of computer science? How would you attract an intellectually 
exciting person who wanted to do his or her own research (as opposed to 
get a job doing someone else's)? Have we forgotten what it is to be 
ourselves excited by the radiant energy of our primary materials?

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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