[Humanist] 26.278 computing and modernity

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Sep 6 07:21:30 CEST 2012

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 26, No. 278.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Wed, 5 Sep 2012 18:56:14 +0200
        From: Milos Rankovic <milos at milos-and-slavica.net>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 26.275 computing and modernity?
        In-Reply-To: <20120905063743.9C39228DC01 at woodward.joyent.us>

Dear Willard,

Of course, “we have stepped through” so many doors in the last century and each time it was a different “we” that did the overstepping… Turing himself opened several doors, none of which “we” seem to have resisted. On the one hand, his nail in the Russell & Whitehead’s metaphysical coffin was more difficult to ignore than Gödel’s. On the other, his computing machines were easily hijacked by the confusion of digital with ontological. Different academic communities at different times and at different points on the globe took their positions along these two tangents. 

Soon after Gödel’s and Turing’s seminal contributions, biological inheritance, too, turned out to be digital, confusing the issue ever more. Then Derrida spotted this confusion before biologists did (in the very opening pages of his Of Grammatology). Recently discovered complexities in the mechanics of gene “expression” as well as the role of the (inherited) environment in development are already forcing the ground up revisions of the unit theory of inheritance, featuring instead metaphors, such as Cycles of Contingency (ed. Oyama, Griffiths and Gray), that fit rather well with Derrida’s writing on iterability. 

There are likewise parallel histories of the computational intuitions about the mind with the analogous confusion of the distributed with the fragmented. Here Donald Hebb played Derrida in the area of neuropsychology with his dual-trace memory (only two decades before Derrida’s dual trace, i.e. active/passive, force/ground). This work led to computer simulations of neural networks since Turing never published his own pioneering work on connectionist AI (“Intelligent Machinery”, 1948). Elsewhere, however, the naive interpretations of Turing machines led to the conception of memory as storage. As with biological memory, thankfully, the increasingly conspicuous complexities of implementation (whether silicon or carbon based) are forcing “us” to reconsider whether there can ever be reading that is not also writing.

In all, there are conceptions of the machinery that seem at home in the Giddens’ world and then there are those that do not. Any sociological/cultural-analytic account must therefore take pains in describing the “we” that both did and did not step over the threshold (which reminds me of Schrödinger’s 1935 cat and the parallel histories of ToE).


On 5 Sep 2012, at 08:37, Humanist Discussion Group <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:

>                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 26, No. 275.
>            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>        Date: Wed, 05 Sep 2012 07:34:32 +0100
>        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
>        Subject: computing and the conditions of modernity
> In Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age 
> (Polity, 1991), Anthony Giddens describes the conditions of living as we 
> do now, in what Ulrich Beck calls a "risk society", with emphasis on the 
> constant flux of individual identity. He mentions the notion of the 
> postmodern but argues that its supposedly distinguishing features (esp 
> fragmentation) do not distinguish it from the modernity he discusses.
> I find Giddens' analysis appealing because -- I am struggling to get 
> this right -- he sets us and our doings within a condition of flux, 
> choice and peril (i.e. modernity) rather than posits a great cultural 
> shift from one state to another (i.e. from the modern to the 
> postmodern). The difference I am trying to get at is that between 
> changing (present participle) and changed (past participle). And in his 
> modernity the relationship between the constant changing, choosing and 
> being imperiled and the events and inventions often assigned as causes 
> is a complex network of feedback and feed-forward.
> Giddens does not mention computing nor related technologies, and that 
> brings me to my question: does anyone here know of literature that 
> centres on computing from such a sociological/cultural-analytic 
> perspective *without positing that because of computing or more or less 
> simultaneously with its invention and then development in hardware (i.e. 
> Turing 1936 to Turing 1950 approximately) we have stepped through a door 
> into a new age*?
> Of course digital computing can be traced back to specific inventions, 
> publications and so on. But why (and how!), I wonder, does the machinery 
> we have seem so much at home in the world Giddens describes?
> Comments?
> Yours,
> WM
> -- 
> 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/

More information about the Humanist mailing list