[Humanist] 24.534 trading off?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Dec 2 09:48:27 CET 2010

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 534.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Thu, 02 Dec 2010 07:02:31 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: trading off

In our embracements of the new & digital ways of doing things do we ever 
systematically consider the tradeoffs we are making? Has anyone written 
well on the subject?

Consider, for example, P. R. Wilkinson's Thesaurus of Traditional 
English Metaphors (London: Routledge, 1993; 2nd edn. 2002). Here's the 
Table of Contents:

> D SAILOR 130
> H THIEF 505
> I AT HOME 534
> K AT PLAY 887
> Bibliography 990
> Index of themes 995
> Index of keywords 1033

Here, under A Tinker, A.1a Wood, is a typical entry:

> brown as mahogany black as ebony seasoned [1643] Well-tried,
> experienced—soldier etc. (from the seasoning of timber that makes it
> fit for service).
 > sap (v) [1755] Drain or gradually dry out vital
> element—as ‘sapped his energies’ etc.
 > dry straight Turn out all right
> in the end; survive a testing time.
 > hazled [dried out—midEng EAn]
> Crabby, surly, sour. warp [1700] Corrupt, cause to grow twisted,
> perverted, of someone’s mind etc. (from the bending of badly seasoned
> timber).
 > warped up like a plancheon [=planch= plank, floorboard—Suf
> Som Dor Gmg Dev Cor]
 > splinter group A minority that secedes from the
> main body because of disagreements or a shift in policy (as a wooden
> splinter splits away from the main timber). splinter (v) Form such a
> group.
 > spelk (n) [splinter, such as runs under the skin; spill for
> lighting fires or candles—Ayr Nhb eDur] Meagre, frail man; slip of a
> girl or boy.

The index looks like this:

> A
> accordions K.8c
> accounts E.2c
> aches and pains I.35a
> across country G.10a
> adders G.44b
> adrift (ships) D.17b
> aground (ships) D.17c
> ailments I.35c
> air G.14a
> travel E.5d
> warfare C.10h

and the index of keywords:

> A
> A from a…, not know/tell J.20c
> Aaron’s serpent J.34c
> aback
> o’ behind E.17b
> o’ behint F.10g
> take a. D.3c
> abb or warp B.2d
> abbey to a grange J.54
> abbot, swear like J.48
> ABC, plain as J.20c
> abed, may lie I.79i
> a-begging, go G.1
> a-benting, pigeon go K.52

As can be verified from the keyword entry for "stupid", in comparison 
with a character-string search of a digital version of this book,

> stupid
>   as a coot G.50b
>   cuddy E.23d
>   owls G.48
>   pot mule K.15c
>   wax widow K.65
>   he can’t chew gum and… I.31e

the index misses *many* occurrences of "stupid" in the book, such as the 
very first entry,

> wooden Expressionless, dull, stupid.

So what's the tradeoff in going digital? One still has the indices.

I once knew a scholar of classical Chinese at Toronto (Wayne Schlepp, 
himself not Chinese), who for years had been using a very well known 
Chinese encyclopedia, which had never had an index in all the centuries 
of its existence, he told me. One day, he said, he saw an advert for an 
index that someone had cleverly devised -- quite a difficult task given 
the way Chinese works as a written language. He was about to order it 
when he stopped, arrested by the realisation that in all the years he 
had used this encyclopedia he had typically found far more interesting 
items in his long search for whatever he began looking for than the 
originating subject itself.

One could generalise by saying that what we're trading off is an 
altogether different mode of thinking. My old friend Schlepp, one of the 
earliest to take an interest in computing at Toronto, wouldn't on this 
occasion make that tradeoff. How often are we less attentive to what's 
rapidly moving out of reach?

Our digital cultural hero Vannevar Bush, in that much celebrated 
Atlantic Monthly article, wrote about the augmentation of associative 
thinking that his Memex would help bring about. The Memex 
was a recording device, hence "MEMory EXtension", perhaps. It 
did not interfere with the wandering path of natural reading, as I 
recall, but it did mess with our forgetting. Has anyone examined the 
usefulness of forgetting? Do we know what forgetting does for us? 
There's Borges' "Funes the Memorious" to suggest the problem we'd 
have without the ability to forget.


Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Professor, Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney,
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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