[Humanist] 25.518 hype and change

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Nov 30 07:59:43 CET 2011

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 518.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Wed, 30 Nov 2011 06:52:38 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: hype and change

In reading the writings of the early period in the digital humanities 
I've come to treasure a number of thoughtful essays amidst all the hype. 
Michael Mahoney writes in "The histories of computing(s)", Histories of 
computing, ed. Thomas Haigh (Harvard, 2011), that "From the very 
beginning people in the field have been engaged in instant historical 
analysis aimed at declaring a new epoch, a radical disjuncture." He 
credits Edmund Callis Berkeley with the first announcement of the 
'computer revolution' in a book with that title (1962), though the 
phrase is found as early as 1954 in a conference paper by Leon 
Megginson, who also compared it, like Berkeley, with the Industrial 
Revolution. By 1957, when Herbert Simon proclaimed his (in)famous 
predictions, the metaphor of revolution must already have been wrapping 
itself around computing. And by the early 1960s it's not hard to find 
others who simply announce the radical disjuncture and fall to 
predicting this and that. "Hype hides history", Mahoney remarks in his 
essay, but it does so by inflating and distorting, not making something up.

Despite all the rhetoric a few were genuinely puzzled, for example, 
Robert Hayes, Professor of Library Science at UCLA, who in a panel 
discussion summarized in Edmund A. Bowles, ed., Computers in Humanistic 
Research (Prentice-Hall, 1967), asks "Does the computer have a 
significant role to play in humanistic research?" It's easy for us to 
regard the question as silly, burdened as we are with what's happened 
since then, but by asking it he gets to a nub of the matter we are 
unwise but likely these days to overlook. Questioning the mechanization 
of research he asks, "If we introduce into the humanistic tradition this 
seed of mechanism, what will happen to our view of man? .... I am 
frightened, in fact, if the humanities, the stronghold of belief in man, 
adopts a view that man and his work are governed by formulas, averages, 
norms, and rules" (p. 242). 

A slight but crucial translation from the 
language of the 1960s gets us to the point also made by the 
engineer-mathematician Richard Hamming in 1961. "You have probably heard 
and read about the computer revolution," he says, "the control 
revolution if you prefer, that is presently occurring. But you have 
heard and read mainly about the material aspects of the revolution; I 
propose to show you that the intellectual aspects of this revolution are 
at least as interesting and important." He likewise compares it to the 
Industrial Revolution, but then says, "The computer revolution is, 
however, perhaps better compared with the Copernican revolution, or the 
Darwinian revolution, both of which greatly changed man's idea of 
himself and the world in which he lives" ("Intellectual Implications of 
the Computer Revolution", American Mathematical Monthly 70.1, 1963, p. 
4). Again, as with Hayes, the nub of the matter is the idea of the human 
and what is happening to it, and so the idea of the humanities and what 
is happening to it.


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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