[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
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        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 
reductionist programme.

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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