[Humanist] 24.698 the more things change?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Feb 8 09:15:55 CET 2011

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 698.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 08 Feb 2011 08:09:08 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: the more things change

Recently I received a copy of the April 1985 issue of Byte Magazine, the
"Artificial Intelligence" issue. I bought it for the article by John K
Stevens, "Reverse Engineering the Brain", accompanied by Judy Trogadis'
brilliant microphotograph of human neuronal circuits growing on the
surface of a Motorola 68000 chip.* Leafing through this issue provides
many occasions for encounter with the technological marvels of the time
-- 1200-baud modems, 10 MB hard discs, fast dot-matrix printers etc etc.
But otherwise what strikes me is how little has changed in the style of
thinking & writing about the technology. How contemporary the
latest-and-greatest of 1985 seems. The imagined future, I am thinking,
changes far more slowly than we imagine. This leads me to wonder whether
our forgetting, which is especially acute in the technologically centred
fields, has more than a little to do with the perceived and much touted
rapidity of change. Certainly a 10MB hard disc, costing ca $1000
Canadian at the time -- I recall paying this amount -- dazzling in
comparison to a double-sided double-density floppy disc, is now a drop
in the terabyte ocean. But otherwise what has changed?

I am trying, you see, to pull out of this old Byte a serious
historiographical point, or rather, question: how far into the past do
we have to go before styles of thinking begin to become strange to us,
or should become historically different?

More immediately, on behalf of the humanities affected by our works, how
much of a problem is it that we forget so easily, are so careless with
our ageing artefacts?

> Even now, at the turn of the 21st century, no comprehensive archives
> of television or radio programs exist. But without cultural
> artifacts, civilization has no memory and no mechanism to learn from
> its successes and failures. And paradoxically, with the explosion of
> the Internet, we live in what Danny Hillis has referred to as our
> "digital dark age." (www.archive.org/about/about.php#why)

An illustration by anecdote. Yesterday I went looking for a Final Report on
a funded project that came to a slow and typically ragged end in 2008,
approximately. This Report is supposedly linked from an online site I found,
but the link leads to a blank page. (The Internet Archive Wayback Machine,
as far as I can tell, failed to capture it.) The person who wrote the
Report, fortunately still very much alive, is now looking on an old computer
for a copy of it. I await the results of her search, and while I do, the
best advice anyone has given me concerning the practicalities of research
comes to mind. This was circa 1975, while studying for my MA degree. When
you have a book in your hands, my professor said, copy down everything you
conceivably will ever need from it -- you may never see this book again. How
much more true now, among our kind. Ironically the Report which I hope to
get from her concerns in part a series of seminars centred on a question
that would have been *far* more effectively addressed if the convenors had
been aware of the history of the question -- which, it seems, they were not.
And we hope to be taken seriously within the humanities by those we most



*(The Nanobio Convergence Laboratory, Interuniversity Microelectronics
Centre, Belgium, www.imec.be, has developed a chip on which neuronal
circuits can grow in vivo and interconnect with microelectronics; they
advertise their research with a photograph having remarkable resemblance
to Trogadis'. See Science Daily for 26 November 2009,

Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, www.mccarty.org.uk;
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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