[Humanist] 25.245 where does the problem lie?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Fri Aug 26 07:47:06 CEST 2011

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 245.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Fri, 26 Aug 2011 06:39:07 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: where the problem lies

One of the consequences of trying to think historically about our 
subject is to raise the question of why certain ideas we know to be 
wrong and can see to be holding us back nevertheless refuse to go away 
despite persuasive arguments to the contrary. Let me give you two examples.

1. Technological determinism, or Machines make history

In his great book Television: Technology and cultural form (1974), 
Raymond Williams began as follows:

> people often speak of a new world, a new society, a new phase of
> history, being created – ‘brought about’ – by this or that new
> technology. Most of us know what is generally implied when such
> things are said. But this may be the central difficulty: that we have
> got so used to statements of this general kind, in our most ordinary
> discussions, that we can fail to realise their specific meanings….
> For behind all such statements lie some of the most difficult and
> most unresolved historical and philosophical questions. Yet the
> questions are not posed by the statements; indeed they are ordinarily
> masked by them.  (1)

It seems to me that his response to the problem nailed it:

> the reality of determination is the setting of limits and the
> exertion of pressures, within which variable social practices are
> profoundly affected but never necessarily controlled. (133)

This seems so obvious that one is strongly inclined to regard 
technological determinism as on the same level of intelligence as any 
other of the silly doctrines that people rope themselves to in times of 
doubt. But as Sally Wyatt sensibly remarks in “Technological Determinism 
is Dead; Long Live Technological Determinism”, The Handbook of Science 
and Technology Studies, pp. 165-80 (2008), the doctrine persists 
nevertheless. So we have to figure out not why it is stupifying as well 
as stupid (which is obvious) but specifically what about it gives it 
such staying power, and more importantly, how we can root out the virus 
that triggers the diseased reaction.

(2) Getting a message across

In 1948 Claude Shannon proposed an mathematical scheme for engineering 
successful transmission of signals from sender to receiver despite the 
inevitable noise of any communications channel. In 1949 Warren Weaver 
wrote a popular article in Scientific American to explain the scheme. 
Weaver begins by asking, “How do men communicate, one with another?”, 
lists several means familiar to his readers – telephone, radio, written 
and printed word, a nod, a wink and so forth. He considers the common 
problems of getting a message across, and then he turns to the technical 
problems and the model itself. Thus Weaver in effect reduces the human 
situation to a diagrammatic understanding that passes into mathematical 
form, picks up both the world-changing potential for widespread 
application and the authority of the science it invokes, then returns to 
ordinary discourse as an answer to his initial question: This is how men 
communicate, one with another.

As people in Communication Studies will know quite well, the 
Shannon-Weaver model became hugely popular, gradually ran into trouble 
(e.g. from Marshall McLuhan) and has been argued down for applications 
beyond engineering, it would seem, definitively. For example, in a 1995 
government report, Global Communications: Opportunities for Trade and 
Aid, the authors note that “Despite a long history, [the Shannon-Weaver] 
model is less useful today, given the convergence of information and 
communication technology and an interactive multimedia environment in 
which communication no longer takes place in a linear fashion”. It goes 
on to identify “The somewhat passive notions of ‘message’, ‘sender’, and 
‘receiver’” as thoroughly problematic.

Again, however, the Shannon-Weaver model remains curiously adhesive, 
especially in how we treat our artificially intelligent machines, as if 
they were or could only be information kiosks.  Why is it, when in most 
of our waking hours, in conversations with each other, we know this 
model to be beyond its depth, do we persist in acting as if it were 


Professor Willard McCarty, Department of Digital Humanities, King's
College London; Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western
Sydney; Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews (www.isr-journal.org);
Editor, Humanist (www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist/); www.mccarty.org.uk/

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