[Humanist] 24.377 why the muddled middle?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat Oct 2 23:16:20 CEST 2010

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 377.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sat, 02 Oct 2010 08:01:25 +1000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: muddle in the middle

What keeps our colleagues from taking an intelligent interest in computing
for their research?

This is not to ask why everyone isn't riding the bandwagon. There's enough
work to go around as it is, and I'd think that if we imagine computing to be
a *requirement*, however practical using machines may be, however
unavoidable, then we also have lost the plot. But I will argue that a
critical understanding of what computing puts on offer and a strong
curiosity about it come as close to requirements for good scholarship in our
time as can be. So, again, what keeps our colleagues from taking an
intelligent interest?

Sometimes these days, though alas not for much longer in this calendar year,
I walk a very pleasant path along a river from a ferry wharf to my office
through a nature reserve and and through a well-kept neighbourhood. Being a
stranger to Australian flora, I am (when alert enough to realise that the
world is always more than I think it is) kept in a state of wonderment about
the plant-life I walk past. On this walk yesterday, in such a state, it
occurred to me that there are two answers to my question. Or rather, the
answer is that in order to realise what computing has on offer, and see the
offer fully for what it is, you need two cohabiting states of awareness.

The one we dwell on, the easy one, is seeing your object of interest as
data, or as if it were only data. Then, we argue, the residue is where your
attention goes -- if, that is, your primary motivation is to understand that
object, not just to implement some version of it, however good. But the
residue isn't going to be valuable, if visible at all, unless the object is
more than an out-there thing.

So I wonder: is the bigger problem a fundamental lack of curiosity about
(brought about by a fear of?) that which escapes the small but safe
conceptual boxes into which we put our interests? Between the live nettle of
intelligent, participant wonderment at the cultural artefact and the dead
nettle of the artefact-as-data (here paraphrasing Eliot in "Little Gidding")
is the state of being which confounds me.

I look at that famous scene in Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, where
he stands at the production line getting everything wrong, and think: this
isn't a vision of the world we've been handed by our automated age, its a
vision of what we have done with what we have given ourselves. Some
people are by unavoidable circumstances forced to work like that. Why do we
put ourselves there?



--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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