[Humanist] 25.6 in denial (& on tools)

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue May 10 08:36:51 CEST 2011

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 6.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com>                      (75)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 25.3 in denial

  [2]   From:    "Michael S. Hart" <hart at pglaf.org>                        (11)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 25.3 in denial

  [3]   From:    John Savage <jsavage at fordham.edu>                         (16)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 24.926 in denial

  [4]   From:    Laval Hunsucker <amoinsde at yahoo.com>                      (46)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 25.3 in denial

  [5]   From:    David Golumbia <dgolumbia at gmail.com>                      (35)
        Subject: two notes on tools

  [6]   From:    Jascha Kessler <urim1 at verizon.net>                       (287)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 25.3 in denial

        Date: Mon, 9 May 2011 09:27:53 -0400
        From: James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 25.3 in denial
        In-Reply-To: <20110509072152.7B35A13F758 at woodward.joyent.us>

Follow up on "just a tool"--

What I think we need to avoid:

-Uncritically making a fetish of the "new."  "New" is not a judgment of
value.  Value judgments are only possible when goals are articulated.
 Depending upon one's goals, something that is new could be

-Making a fetish of the new is usually carried out without any historical
awareness -- but we don't know what is truly "new" without this awareness.

-Failing to recognize that a computer is a different thing and its use has
different meanings depending upon the task being performed.  Therefore, a
computer may be "just a tool" when performing some tasks but much more than
that when performing others.

If I'm producing a plain text document, the printed output is substantially
the same as that of a manual typewriter.  Compare a person who types a
document for publication on a manual typewriter and then mails this
manuscript to a publisher to one who uses a word processing program and
emails it to the publisher: isn't it possible for the final, printed product
to look exactly the same in both cases?  What difference did the computer
make in this case?  I would say a difference in time.

-Assuming that a difference in time is always more that merely quantitative.
 I agree that performing tasks at higher speeds -can- result in a
qualitative difference, but we need to make this argument on a case by case

-So I think we should avoid generalities on both sides: both the generality
that a computer is "just a tool" and the generality that a computer is "more
than just a tool."

I would also like us to consider a slightly different context for the
phrase, "the computer is just a tool."  Whenever someone says something like
this, they are usually responding to what they perceive as a bloated claim
about the computer.  What I think is going on at times is that the person
making the perceived bloating claim is thinking of some uses while the
person denying that claim is thinking of other uses.

We also need to ask ourselves -- a computer is "just a tool" compared to
what?  I think what is implicitly being juxtaposed against the concept of
tool is the concept of a machine.  The difference between a tool and a
machine is that a tool is completely dependent upon the immediate agency of
its user while a machine can run on its own, and thus act somewhat

Once we think in terms of a tool vs. machine dichotomy it becomes a bit more
obvious that a computer can be either depending upon the use to which it is
put.  A word processing program is a tool with occasional machine qualities
that can be enabled or disabled at various levels.  But clearly the computer
is also a machine in other ways.  No one gets angry with a hammer for
hitting our thumb, because a hammer is just a tool.  It just sits there and
does nothing until we pick it up.  If we get angry when we hit our thumbs
with a hammer, we do so because we feel stupid for hitting ourselves, and
because we are in pain.  But we do get angry with our computers for "acting
on their own," so to speak, even though they do not cause us physical pain.

The last question is of the effect of the use of computers upon human
consciousness. Again, I think that there are more affirmations than
reasoned, critical arguments here.  Of course even just the  use of tools
affects the user, but monkeys use tools and have remained monkeys for as
long as they have existed.  Again, we shouldn't assume that -- or how -- the
use of either machine or tool affects human consciousness, but make reasoned
arguments based upon evidence.

Most of what I've read about the difference between hypertext and print
indicates to me that we're not so much going forward as returning to the
assumptions guiding manuscript culture.  The real difference here is not
between print and  hypertext, but between hypertext and manuscripts, when
the manuscript is one of many copies of a now-unstable original that no
longer exists (as in the case of the Bible), and when the manuscript is
accompanied by images -- when even the text itself becomes a visual element,
as in the elaborately drawn initial letters at the beginning of a book or

I also think that we need to remember that the computer was invented without
the use of computers, so is still very much dependent upon pre-computing era
paradigms.  Most of the hundreds of millions of computer users use it for
functions still very much reliant upon printed text, such as email, text
messages, social networking, blogs, etc.  Files and folders and cabinets are
physical objects that now indicate different kinds of relationships among
"objects" within a computing system.   We developed the higher order
thinking capable of producing computers because of printed text in the form
of both language and numbers.  We will lose that capability if we lose
printed text.

Jim R

        Date: Mon, 9 May 2011 07:31:35 -0700 (PDT)
        From: "Michael S. Hart" <hart at pglaf.org>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 25.3 in denial
        In-Reply-To: <20110509072152.7B35A13F758 at woodward.joyent.us>

The analogy of computer as tool to paintbrush as tool
might be better if changed to digital camera as tool.

Michael S. Hart
Project Gutenberg,
Inventor of eBooks
The World eBook Fair

July 4 through August 4 @

        Date: Mon, 9 May 2011 10:43:04 -0400
        From: John Savage <jsavage at fordham.edu>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 24.926 in denial
        In-Reply-To: <20110506045258.9E76313E587 at woodward.joyent.us>

On May 6, 2011, at 12:52 AM, Jascha Kessler wrote

> Cant resist: in the Bronx decades ago you could call an incompetent,
> moronical kid a "tool."  


Let me assure you that "tool" is still used that way here in the Bronx although the anecdotal evidence points to a shift toward a more narrow usage centered on the romantically incompetent and moronical. These days one is most likely to overhear something like this: "you're really dating him? Ugh. He's such a *tool*."

In a more serious response to Willard's original query, though, I myself often assert that the computer is just a tool. I do this in the face of the technophobia that still runs rampant on university campuses as an assurance that computers are not magical, mystical, or scary, and that one is unlikely to break a computer simply by using it. Saying that a computer is "just a tool" is for me a necessary corrective to the fear and fetishization I encounter on a daily basis.

My assertion that a computer is /simply|just|only|merely/ a tool is not an ontological statement about the nature of the work done with the computer--of course tools may change the work; that goes without saying--but a statement about the electromechanical nature and general reliability and stability of the device itself. A computer is a complicated tool, but it is a tool (perhaps "just a device" would be more accurate, but it lacks pithiness) and as with other complicated devices one ought to respect its complexity but not fear it. One does not refuse to drive because one is not an automotive engineer. One does not hesitate to heat coffee with microwave radiation because one is not a physicist. Nor should one fear to use a computer because one is not a computer scientist. It's just a tool. You can't hurt it. It won't hurt you. Go ahead and click the mouse button as hard as you want; it won't break.



Jay Savage, Ph.D.
Director of Faculty Technology Services
Instructional Technology Academic Computing
Fordham University | Fordham IT
jsavage at fordham.edu 

"I never trust anyone who's more excited about success than about doing the thing they want to be successful at." --Randall Munroe

        Date: Mon, 9 May 2011 09:38:15 -0700 (PDT)
        From: Laval Hunsucker <amoinsde at yahoo.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 25.3 in denial
        In-Reply-To: <20110509072152.7B35A13F758 at woodward.joyent.us>

James Smith wrote in the "in denial" thread :

> 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.

*If* in fact the library still even offers that paper copy 
-- something that's becoming less and less the case. 

> What might change if Google announced it might 
> remove Google Scholar if there weren't any significant 
> documented use in the citation indices?

Fortunately the library characteristically has better 
/ more reliable ways of locating, verifying and 
accessing the electronic copy than those offered by 
Google Scholar, at least when it comes to the library's 
purchased content. ( See now e.g. Péter Jacsó in 
_Online information review_ for February 2011, p.
154-160 ;  Amy Hoseth in _Charleston advisor_ for 
January 2011, p.36-39 ;  etc. etc.)  Isn't it to be hoped 
that GS's current popularity due to ease and speed 
of use ( as well as perhaps a measure of researcher 
laziness ? ) won't drive the better [ but of course for 
the institution more expensive ] approaches out of 
the market as it were ?  What we can depend on 
Google doing is, naturally, to go its own way as it at 
any moment itself sees fit. As you suggest, Google 
can pull Google Scholar any time it chooses, and if 
it did it would for doing so be accountable only to its 

Anyway, this question of the version behind a 
citation is nowadays a tricky and problematical one, 
and in any case an unresolved one. In spite of the 
DOI System and things such as the APA's "Retrieved 
from ..." rules. It'd be nice if such an issue got a bit 
more coordinated attention. Scholars should be 
concerned, I'd think.

At any rate :  very good that you raised these points, 
if only in passing.

 - Laval Hunsucker
   Breukelen, Nederland
  9 May 2011

        Date: Mon, 9 May 2011 13:27:10 -0400
        From: David Golumbia <dgolumbia at gmail.com>
        Subject: two notes on tools
        In-Reply-To: <20110509072152.7B35A13F758 at woodward.joyent.us>

1. the most common context in which i hear the sentence, "after all, the
computer is just a tool," is in response to my mentioning something negative
about the use of computers in the world, typically lifted directly from
mainstream centrist news coverage (things like Stuxnet, "Quants" in the Wall
Street crisis, "predator drones"), i have crossed the line from "inherently
good thing computers do for us, like transforming everything" to saying "we
must pay attention to what actually happens with computers." Then i will be
told, in a tone veering between condescension and lecture, that "the
computer is just a tool. it all depends on what humans do with it."   There
is nothing at all inherent in the computational form; there is no need to
worry that there might be formal or entailed connections between what the
computer itself is, and its sequelae in the world. "The computer is just a
tool, like a toaster."

1a. if a student asks about (or asserts) this earnestly in class, i will
answer: "toasters and guns are both analog tools. their use depends on what
their users make of them. does that mean they are the same thing, or equally
dangerous? what does it mean to say 'toasters and guns are just tools and
their use depends on what people do with them'?" If i am feeling chipper i
might add: "you can kill somebody with a toaster, but it's easier with a
gun, and you'd be hard pressed to make a good piece of toast with an ak-47")

2. The computer is by definition, not just A tool. the computer is THE tool.
it is the UNIVERSAL tool. with it, any other tool that can be formalized can
be simulated. there is no other tool of which this can be said (because if
it could be said, then that tool would also be the universal tool: this is
where Turing meets Godel). every computer is formally equivalent to every
other computer. this is exactly (not "sort of," not "approximately") the
quality that is not found in any other tool. a toaster cannot simulate a car
unless it is part of a giant toaster-filled transistor, etc. That is
Turing's discovery. That is why we are here today. The phrase "just a tool"
is applicable to computers less than to any any other tool in existence. It
is the sui generis nature of the universal machine that is the very
phenomenon we are trying to understand as we deploy it.

David Golumbia
dgolumbia at gmail.com

        Date: Mon, 9 May 2011 21:04:01 -0700
        From: Jascha Kessler <urim1 at verizon.net>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 25.3 in denial
        In-Reply-To: <20110509072152.7B35A13F758 at woodward.joyent.us>

I find the comments posted lately increasingly arcane.  I suppose everyone
is different, and each relates to work and tools idiosyncratically.  I am
amazed that I wrote a Ph.D. in three months on my wife's little Smith Corona
portable [which was her dowry gift to me, apart from her ability to earn a
living for us both in those desert years of the grad school].  Wrote, but
also typed, of course.  Later on, I changed to electric machines, Olympia
and then IBM, the latter afforded cheaply by my mother who worked for a
major hospital in NYC, and got them on the cheap side.  The last one I had
was that incredible IBM Selectric, with 5 pages of "memory," that required
retyping for every emendation.  Terrific!  But that 2100$ was wasted, when
my wife was encouraged to try an Apple I, then II by a son at Stanford, a
computer engineer in the making. She could type and  correct a dozen pages!
O my!  I had my Selectric.  Then there was the advent of the Mac Plus with
60 kb of memory!  My son was a freshman at Stanford; there was a lottery for
cheap Mac Plus the first year; and as it turned out I waited a year because
he drew 2500, and that was the number of Frosh in his class.  I snatched
that machine [he had mainframe Suns to work his magic on], and actually
produced a 25 page paper to deliver in Budapest in two weeks! and no
retyping page by page. At that moment IBM threw in the towel and came to
collect my 2100 Selectric for 600$ rebate, because they saw the bytes biting
into the wall: MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN.  How many kings have taken the
plunge to nowhere since that year!

In short, I dont understand complaints [Smith?] about writing/editing
hangups.  As a writer for near on 70 years, I am aware that in writing, even
a letter, I go immediately into automatic trance mode, and transpose words
heard in my head, or spoken in my head through my fingers. With age, the
fingers betray me increasingly, but fixing the myriad typoseis not hard,
what with the red underline that Word and other apps immediately apply.
Writing really is a form of speech, and what makes speech fluent and apt is
all the more aided by this "tool," which in extreme age may be provided by
speaking to the computer.  After all, Henry James, and others, walked about
talking their work to stenographers, and their later works, like them or
 not, are what one would get with a dictation computer, a living voice,
boring as it can be.

I deplore this business of the "scholar" and the categories, and all that
wearing of costumes and epaulettes.  We must get on with our work, learn to
speak our thoughts into words that we can see, and which can be heard
immediately, if we wish, or heard first and rendered seeable,and remember,
as I do, the travails suffered in 7th grade, merely learning how to set type
from a big case into a handheld metal tray to make a line of words. And Mark
Twain's financial disaster in supporting the invention of a mechanical
typesetter.    Good lord, we must run with this damn thing as fast as we
can, faster than any gingerbread man...  What is the written word but a
representation, 2nd hand of speech, and speech a projection of thought, and
or thoughtlessness, which is our media noise today....

Jascha Kessler

Jascha Kessler
Professor of English & Modern Literature, UCLA
Telephone/Facsimile: 310.393.4648

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