[Humanist] 25.496 where is the thrill?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sun Nov 20 09:15:54 CET 2011

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 496.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sat, 19 Nov 2011 09:06:07 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: where the thrill is

Yesterday I spent many hours with only partial success trying to install 
the Natural Language Toolkit (http://www.nltk.org/) on my Mac. After 
numerous difficulties with numerous websites, chasing bits and pieces in 
various stages of development, I began to suspect that I was grossly 
overlooking a rather obvious truth: that the reward many must be 
enjoying from treading the same path is not at all what I was seeking -- 
that, to reach to the proverbial, their reward is in the journey, not 
the arrival. I want to arrive!

This morning I turned to a book on my desk for some temporary 
distraction: Brian Winston, Misunderstanding Media (London: Routledge & 
Kegan Paul, 1986). In the process of describing the emergence of 
television into popularity after World War II, Winston relates the visit 
made by David Sarnoff and a colleague, both from the Radio Corporation 
of America, in 1920 to "an independent radio engineer who had perfected 
a uni-control radio that was simpler to operate" than the device then 
manufactured by RCA. Sarnoff's colleague "was busy pointing out how 
useless the device was since the joy of radio was clearly to have a lot 
of knobs to tune and the enjoyment of the privacy of a headset." 
Sarnoff, however, exclaimed, "This is the radio music box of which I've 
dreamed." Winston concludes that, "Failure of vision, as much as 
unthinking enthusiasm for technology, can lead equally well to the 
misunderstanding of media" (p. 53).

It's surely not that we less technologically enraptured want to run away 
from our machine, rather than we long to merge with it and for that reason 
find all the prickly bits intensely frustrating. Thinking about this again 
I wonder about this merging. As I understand the phenomenologist's 
argument, mastery of this tool in front of me means its disappearance. 
Perhaps it does disappear sometimes, but I derive so much pleasure from 
the elegance of its design that I would mourn the loss permanently and
regret it even for a moment. So is the idea of "interface" correct after all: 
that it is not to be overcome in prosthesis, like the blind person's stick, 
but provide a location, a medium within which to work? If so, then how do 
we think about this medium? How do we improve it? Does the response 
we make vary with the device?

And by the way, I *love* listening to radio, not tuning it. If I had a pacemaker, 
I wouldn't want to be logging in and making adjustments. Perhaps what we 
call "the computer" is unique in maintaining this interface as the locus of 


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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