[Humanist] 25.252 where the problem lies

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Aug 31 07:29:36 CEST 2011

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 252.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 30 Aug 2011 12:56:53 -0600
        From: Mark Winokur <Mark.Winokur at Colorado.EDU>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 25.245 where does the problem lie?
        In-Reply-To: <20110826054706.14C6F1BE1AF at woodward.joyent.us>

Dear Willard:

First, thanks for the Williams excerpt. I often forget how important he 
is in thinking about Digital Humanities. But, with respect, I don't 
understand him to be completely negating the "technological determinism" 
argument, but to complicate both that argument and the argument that 
technology is simply a social "symptom." Here is his articulation of a 
sort of radical middle way:

"Such an interpretation would differ from technological determinism in 
that it would restore /intention/ to the process of research and 
development. The technology would be seen, that is to say, as being 
looked for and developed with certain purposes and practices already in 
mind. At the same time the interpretation would differ from symptomatic 
technology in that these purposes and practices would be seen as 
/direct/: as known social needs, purposes and practices to which the 
technology is not marginal but central." (P. 7 of the Routledge Classics 


On 8/25/2011 11:47 PM, Humanist Discussion Group wrote:
>                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 245.
>              Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                         www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                  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
> adequate?
> Comments?
> Yours,
> WM

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