[Humanist] 23.720 persistent fear?
Humanist Discussion Group
willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Mar 24 07:32:12 CET 2010
Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 720.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
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Date: Wed, 24 Mar 2010 06:31:29 +0000
From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
Subject: persistent fear
Yesterday, in a class I teach to PhD students from a variety of
disciplines, the subject of computer science and its ambitions came up.
I tried to explain in terms I thought would be fully acceptable to
people in the humanities and social sciences what could now be done,
e.g. with literary language, and how what could be done raised very
interesting questions of the sort that such people ordinarily entertain.
But I was in for a surprise. Perhaps I should not have been surprised by
the reactions of a mature student, now retired and pursuing his degree
for the love of the subject, who thought these advances in computing
represented a "foot in the door" of a metaphorical creature we would not
want to share a room with. But clearly the younger sorts were bothered
as well, and one of them volunteered afterward that he thought the heads
of department at a recent gathering he attended would not be welcoming
Now fear of computing is one of my favourite subjects. I study that
fear, because I think it is very revealing historically of what was
happening in the early years. But I had assumed that it was now more or
less a thing of the past, and that our problem now is an
over-familiarity with computers as appliances. It seems from the one
experience, however, that although the machine-as-appliance may be
familiar enough, what is not at all, and so a cause of fear, is what
machines can do analytically. We all know this is little enough, and we
complain. But it seems that at least to some lovers of poetry, for
example, concording the stuff, looking for collocates and patterns
revealed by statistical tests etc is all part of a rather disturbing
I for one am glad that the fear is still alive, since I think it's
closer to the mark at which we aim than the refrigerator-view of
computing. But then I admire people who say, "THE BRAIN IS A COMPUTER
MADE OF MEAT!!", just to see if they're awake.
Seriously, what's your experience? Do you encounter this fear when you
talk outside your circles of technically adept colleagues?
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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