[Humanist] 26.416 assessments

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Oct 24 09:21:16 CEST 2012

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 26, No. 416.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Wed, 24 Oct 2012 07:32:41 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: assessments

In reply to one of my messages on Humanist, my colleague Andrew Prescott
recommended a collection of essays I would now like to bring to your
attention once more:

Coppock, Terry, ed. 1999. Information Technology and Scholarship:
Applications in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Oxford: Oxford
University Press (for the British Academy).

The title is not the most likely to cause you to rush to Amazon, but the
contents make its case. Although Anthony Kenny, in "Scholarship and
Information Technology", says many of the same things as he did in
"Computers and the Humanities", his 1992 British Library lecture, he
brings his essential question up to the end of the 20th Century: "After
45 years of humanities computing", he writes, "why has IT had so little
effect on scholarship?" (2). This question and the attitude behind it
set the tone for the rest of the essays in the volume, e.g. Karen Spärk
Jones' very fine "How much has information technology contributed to
linguistics?" Her answer: "Information technology should have much to
offer linguistics... [but] has had rather little influence..." (109). She
recommends "more attention from linguists".

Kenny's own response comes in the form of several hypotheses: (a) all
humanists are by nature Luddites -- which he finds wanting; (b)
digitization has failed to give us what we need -- the "one more heave"
school of explanation he also finds inadequate; (c) a shift in scholarly
focus away from the empirical sort of work our machines are esp good at,
because humanists have fled quantification and so taken to the
theoretical high ground -- which must have seemed plausible at the time
but is rather less compelling now; (d) computing has become ubiquitous
and so disappeared from the sight of most people or been manifested
primarily by what has not been written -- which I find utterly
unconvincing. He argues that even so the effect of computing hasn't been
at all comparable in magnitude to the shift from oral culture to written
or to the invention of printing, as so often claimed. "It has not so
much changed patterns of scholarship as improved the life of the
scholar, by freeing up a great deal of time from donkeywork for genuine
research" (4).

Here one of those words should cause us to choke. Compare
medievalist Franklin J Pegues' statement from 1965:

> The purpose of the machine is not to dehumanize the humanities but to
> free the humanist for the important work of literary criticism by providing
> him with large and accurate masses of data that may be used by him in
> the work which only he can accomplish.
"Editorial: Computer Research in the Humanities". Journal of Higher
Education 36.2: 105-8.

Either Pegues nailed the real contribution of computing in 1965 or -- my
suggestion -- the problem is precisely the relegation of computing to
service so that we can do something else. Hence Kenny's "donkeywork". (The
usual term in the historical literature is "drudgery", but the underlying
social model, and the real problem here, is the same: servitude. Is this the
best way to design for the computing of the future, to design for a way of
being that has us as lords and ladies waited on by morally neutral
servants (who, of course, do the living for us)?

In any case Kenny's question remains and, I think, survives in robust health
into the present. I note Ryan Cordell's statement in his proposal for a 2013
Northeast MLA roundtable: "DH scholarship has not significantly influenced
the vast body of literary scholarship"
(https://call-for-papers.sas.upenn.edu/node/46411). Of course this last is
not proof or even argument -- indeed, it is intended as provocation. But
one really should pay attention to something our colleagues have been saying
for several decades. If, like me, you think nevertheless not only that the
great changes happen more slowly and fundamentally than we tend to notice
but also, and primarily, that intellectual growth has been stunted by the
wrong ideas of computing, then the critical perspective of Kenny et al does
us great benefit. There is, after all, no need any longer to promote. Let
the circus impresarios do that. Let us come up with the goods.


Willard McCarty, FRAI / Professor of Humanities Computing & Director of
the Doctoral Programme, Department of Digital Humanities, King's College
London; Professor, School of Computing, Engineering and Mathematics,
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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