[Humanist] 24.422 industrialisation of the digital humanities?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Oct 21 18:41:24 CEST 2010

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 422.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Thu, 21 Oct 2010 09:20:12 -0700
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: industrialisation

In 1988 the British artist and theorist Roy Ascott, in "Art and 
Education in the Telematic Culture" (Leonardo 21), wrote to his fellow 
artists on the creative possibilities brought about by "the convergence 
computers and telecommunications systems". (Those interested in his work 
will be glad to know about the collection of his essays in Telematic 
Embrace: Visionary Theories of Art, Technology and Consciousness, ed. 
with a long introduction by Edward Shanken, 2007.) He concluded his 
essay by declaring that, "our cultural participation in intelligent 
telematic networks has long-term implications that we can scarcely 
imagine. The symbiosis of computers and human beings and the integration 
of natural and artificial intelligence will be realised in forms and 
behaviours the understanding of which is beyond our present conceptual 
horizon." Ironically *his* conceptual horizon, even in 1988, seems to 
have extended well beyond that of many of us today. He called then, 22 
years ago, "for artists, designers, architects, museum directors, 
educators, philosophers, scientists, technologists and politicians 
throughout the world to work together to create cybernetic systems that 
will support new forms of art practice, new means of public access, and 
the involvement of a wider range of participants."

What concerns me particularly is not so much the degree to which we have 
failed to met his call for such wide-scale collaboration as the warning 
with which he prefixed his visionary conclusion. Contrasting the ways of 
thinking and acting conventionally named after Socrates and Cato, he 
declared that,

"The principles of Socrates --critical reflection, personal development, 
sustained enquiry -- must not be undermined in this new technological 
environment by the principles of Cato, which estimate everything by what 
it produces."

This sentence expresses perhaps my greatest fear for our little and 
fragile field: its tendency to industrialization. I fear that the 
digital humanities is becoming dominated by purely technical concerns of 
implementation, I suspect in no small measure under pressure to assist 
the other disciplines survive their crises of confidence and funding -- 
as well as to avoid the severe challenges computing presents to all 
disciplines. One sign of this industrialization is the spread of 
technological orthodoxy under the banner of technical standards. In 
principle agreement on how to do things is good -- how else can 
collaboration, communication or anything which requires concerted effort 
happen? But as playing the role of co-worker dedicated to a common good 
shifts toward playing the enforcer of rules, community becomes tyranny. 
Variant opinions become deviant opinions. New ideas are shouted down. 
Those who dare to voice them are ostracised. Chaplin's Modern Times 
becomes our story. (If you think this is fantasy, look around.)

So, back to the question of the ideal department of digital humanities. 
Of course it must have a group of technically competent people who help 
design, manage and work on collaborative projects. But if there's 
anything it must do that few others or none will do, I think, it is to 
foster as well as practice intelligent heterodoxy, i.e. relentless 
questioning of every technological move for its human consequences and 
implications. It must have not only the professor of public engagement, 
as Julianne Nyhan wisely suggested, but also the Socratic professor who 
whose annoyances keep our eyelids open.


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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