[Humanist] 25.3 in denial

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon May 9 09:21:52 CEST 2011

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 3.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    James Smith <jgsmith at gmail.com>                          (135)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] Re: 24.926 in denial

  [2]   From:    del thomas Ph D <deltom at comcast.net>                      (70)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 24.926 in denial

        Date: Sun, 8 May 2011 11:08:33 -0400
        From: James Smith <jgsmith at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] Re: 24.926 in denial
        In-Reply-To: <4DC38749.8020601 at mccarty.org.uk>

- Just a Tool -

My impression is that many people see the computer as a tool in this sense.
 It's there behind the scenes, but not an integral part of any argument.
 People tend to hide any electronic assistance just as people tend not to
cite the actual resource they use, instead citing the paper copy in the
library that they accessed indirectly through some electronic means.  What
might change if Google announced it might remove Google Scholar if there
weren't any significant documented use in the citation indices?

These practices of eliding the electronic are dangerous because they create
a facade that hides what actually happened to produce the reported results.

The computer is just a tool, but so is a paintbrush.  No one dismisses a
painter's art just because it was done with a paintbrush, even though you
can produce some good art with just fingers and paint.  At the same time, I
can't pick up a paintbrush and produce art.  I haven't had enough practice.
Coloring by number doesn't make art.

The current crop of tools act like the color by number painting.  There are
simple buttons to push and slots for information.  There's a lot of
handholding because the users aren't expected to be proficient in
computation, any more than I'm expected to be proficient in painting.  The
results are useful, but they don't capture anything of the researcher using
the tool.  Instead, they capture arguments made by the tool builder on how
humanities should be computed.  Does the tool user understand and agree with
these arguments?

Not every paintbrush needs the training of an artist.  I don't need to have
years of experience in order to paint the side of a house.  Nor do I need to
have years of experience to use the computer to write an email or use a word
processor.  Humanists aren't interested in the broad strokes that paint a
house, but in the details that create art.

The computer is just a tool, but it's different than most tools.  It's
malleable.  It's a medium like clay that takes on the shape of the artist.
We should mold the computer to our will to answer our research questions.
We shouldn't mold ourselves to the computer and change our research
questions so that the computer can help.  Right now, I fear that we are
using the computer like a hammer.  We know it can do something well, so we
turn everything else into a nail.

The computer has no free will.  It can't do anything we don't tell it to do.
If we do nothing but stare at the computer all day, it will stare back.  It
will win any blinking contest unless the power goes out or some piece of
hardware fails.  This is an important point, because anything the computer
does is a result of a decision by the researcher.  If those decisions are
hidden because the computational aspects of the research are hidden, then
the reader can't know what actually happened to produce the reported
results.  These decisions are the electronic equivalent of an editorial
statement in a scholarly edition.  How trusted is a scholarly edition in
which there is no explanation of the decisions made by the editor?  Why
should the digital equivalent be an exception?

- Imprinting -

The idea of imprinting is fundamental to the issues facing digital

Imagine someone had grown up reading only graphic novels.  There are
pictures on every page with a little text.  Everything is immediate and
visual.  After they've been reading these for twenty years, give them their
first text-only novel.  What might happen?  I imagine they'd start looking
for the panels they were used to.  They'd also understand that left to
right, top to bottom isn't the only way to scan a page, so they'd be looking
for hints on how to approach the page.  They might expect information on the
page to be two-dimensional and feel that there was something missing because
the text was only one-dimensional.  Would it be obvious that the sentence
that got cut off at the right side of the page continued from the left on
the next line?  Is the gutter always dividing?  If this person were a
student in a college-level literature course, would they be able to pass by
saying that they simply couldn't deal with a text-only interface to the
story but needed a graphical interface instead?  Would they be considered

The analogy isn't perfect.  Graphic novels are much richer than any current
GUI on the market.  Text-only novels have deeper arguments than anything in
a CLI.  But we are in a time when most people have only dealt with the
graphic novel view of the computer while they really need to be at the text
novel reading level to take advantage of the full power available.  The
difficulty is getting them to realize that the GUI isn't the only realistic

- Provocation -

One last thing that is on my mind in this vein.  A useful model for the
brain is one in which generation and constraint are separate processes.  The
result is that we do what we don't choose not to do.  We can't do what isn't
generated, and what we don't filter out ends up getting through.  This can
be seen in the problems writers have when they try to write and
edit simultaneously.  It leads to writer's block.  This also means that a
drunk person probably doesn't do anything that doesn't come from their deep

The result is that the writing that is produced with a typewriter and the
writing that is produced with a computer should be different.  The
typewriter makes editing expensive.  The computer makes it cheap.  I have to
work hard to turn off the editing side of my brain when I'm drafting a novel
on a computer.

The important takeaway for digital humanities though is that the computer is
an agent of provocation.  It's generative, like modern art.  It's up to us
to apply the constraints using our expert judgement.

-- Jim

On Fri, May 6, 2011 at 1:29 AM, Willard McCarty <
willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:

> I asked about "just a tool" meaning Wendell's first, dismissive sense,
> illustrated by his first example,
>  "I don't think social media are properly a subject of humanistic
>> criticism. The computer is just a tool."
> implying, as he said, that
>  it is therefore of less interest or importance, as if
>> tools were not significant. It relies on a non sequitur: because the
>> computer is a tool, what we do with it -- and what we can do only with
>> it -- is outside the scope of humanistic inquiry.
> [snip]

> Let me put to you an historical thesis, and invite you to throw stuff at
> it. The thesis is that a long time ago, before some of those here were part
> of discussions like this, scholars encountered mainframe computing (slow,
> huge, expensive, noisy, inaccessible except through intermediaries etc), and
> when they met computing in this physical form they and what became the
> digital humanities were, as ethologists say, "imprinted". Perhaps one could
> claim that urban, middle-class culture as a whole was imprinted in this way,
> since for 20 years or more it was bombarded with the mainframe image of
> computing. Ever after that encounter, despite how much the hardware and
> software have changed, we have tended to think of computing as a one way
> trip from button-pushing to result-getting, as a problem-solving exercise.
> Now I don't mean that this is the *only* way we think, esp not consciously,
> rather that this discreditable idea of computing remains a significant
> impediment to what we do and how we think.
> [snip]


So what do you think?
> Yours,
> WM
> --
> 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/

        Date: Sun, 08 May 2011 11:46:18 -0400
        From: del thomas Ph D <deltom at comcast.net>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 24.926 in denial
        In-Reply-To: <20110506045258.9E76313E587 at woodward.joyent.us>

There are tools with in tools. Such as OS and apps in addition to 
different add on "plug ins."  So the "just a tool" constantly evolves 
and expands.  For example, there are computers that use fuzzy logic and 
may control everything from our homes to traffic to calculations in 
space and more.  But in some way most of them have the quality that 
Thoreau suggests:  "Men have become the tools of their tools."   Or 
as suggested sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

I see the consequences while just a tool as increasing the destination 
orientation at the expense of the journey.  Is it a problem that more 
and more of us are limited to the view of the bottom line/ answer even 
when the my no longer exist and don't know how "things" work?


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