[Humanist] 25.561 afraid?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Dec 15 09:34:13 CET 2011

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 561.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Wed, 14 Dec 2011 10:02:45 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: afraid?

I quote from page 3 of Michael J. Preston and Samuel S. Coleman, "Some 
considerations concerning encoding and concording texts", Computers and 
the Humanities 12 (1978): 3-12. The authors are discussing the difficult 
question of how to assess whether what is done with computers in specific 
instances is worth the candle.

> The difficulty, of course, is that significance in one area is not 
> necessarily significance in another. A computationally simple project 
> may be of importance in a particular discipline and should not be 
> assigned cavalierly to the computational hell of the "trivial." 
> Analogously, experimental research may yield computational results 
> with minimal application in a traditional discipline, but show promise 
> of further development and eventual broad utility. Multiple and 
> perhaps even contradictory viewpoints ought to be characteristic of 
> those who use computers in humanistic research because the technology 
> is being used for so many different purposes; this attitude is 
> particularly encouraged by the current subsiding of the old fears 
> about computers intruding into the humanities. Indeed, a kind of 
> backlash in favor of computer research in the humanities seems to 
> present the greatest danger-that of complacency-especially for those 
> of us at universities where there is a substantial group of computing 
> humanists.

What jumps out at me is "the current subsiding of the old fears" 
which clears a space for complacency, for the familiarity that blocks 
what those fears are essentially about. When in the past I have 
spoken about how interesting these fears are, I've tended to get a 
reaction of dismissal from those old enough to be in a position to 
remember them. But in fact, if you check the literature of the time, 
fears are abundantly attested. Some of this literature also 
poo-poos colleagues' fearfulness, e.g. proclaiming the bright new 
scientific revolution happening without the help of the humanities, 
as Stephen M. Parrish wrote in the 1960s. But, I ask, how 
can any fundamental change happen without being importantly fearful? How 
can we possibly understand that change without experiencing the 
profound discomfort of the cognitive ground shifting under one's feet?

I'm collecting expressions of the fear of computing among humanists ca 
1950-1990. I would be most grateful for any references. Unfortunately 
Joanna Bourke's Fear: A Cultural History (2005) does not deal with 

Professor Willard McCarty, Department of Digital Humanities, King's 
College London; Professor (fractional), 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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