[Humanist] 27.984 the computational idea

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sun Apr 20 09:16:35 CEST 2014

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 27, No. 984.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sat, 19 Apr 2014 16:45:04 +0000
        From: Helle Porsdam <porsdam at hum.ku.dk>
        Subject: AW:  27.983 the computational idea
        In-Reply-To: <20140419084927.260E83C0E at digitalhumanities.org>

Dear Willard,

In your mail you point to what seems to me to be the most important issue of all at the moment: The way in which many (or at least some) computer scientists see the computer as the ultimate human enhancement. It is not always said as straightforwardly as McCulloch does here, but it can often be read between the lines - that the human being needs reinforcement, and that the computer can make man/woman better. 

The same way of thinking is there in parts of neuroscience. Human beings have made a mess of it on this earth, and something needs to be done in order that we don't end up blowing each other up. There are some who would give us pills or other kinds of human enhancement so that we can become more empathetic, for example. In terms of empathy, it is unfortunate that most human beings seem to care only (or at least mostly) about their own immediate family - as the world becomes more global, we need to extend this sort of empathy to people around the world who need our help. This is true - but does it mean that we need to take pills or other kinds of enhancement?

In my opinion it is this way of thinking that makes many humanities scholars scared of the digital humanities and turns them into luddites. Andrew Prescott gave a wonderful talk a couple of weeks ago in Copenhagen where he put the digital humanities and the two cultures debate into perspective by going back to the fear and loathing of the Romantic thinkers of all things having to do with machines and the Industrial Revolution. It is this man-machine 'thing' that is so scary to many of us. Who wants to live in a world of machines - and is this where we're heading with computer man/woman?

In my own work, I have found a feminist angle productive. Some of this computer thinking which wants us to become machines in the end is very male-oriented, I think - there's a certain gadget excitement involved which is more often associated with men than with women. The work of someone like Sherry Turkle is very interesting in this respect (as in many others too). I also think that we - both men and women - have to, if not directly be on the defensive, then at least to work toward making it quite clear that the humanities are about human beings and their human output! 

The problem is that one ends up looking like the worst kind of conservative and scared luddite when one defends the humanities by fighting the tendency toward seeing the computer as the ultimate human enhancement. Is there a way, I wonder, in which it is possible to work from inside the digital humanities to defend the human in human being in a more PC way?

All the best,
Von: humanist-bounces at lists.digitalhumanities.org [humanist-bounces at lists.digitalhumanities.org]" im Auftrag von "Humanist Discussion Group [willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk]
Gesendet: Samstag, 19. April 2014 10:49
An: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
Betreff: [Humanist] 27.983 the computational idea

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 27, No. 983.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sat, 19 Apr 2014 09:32:16 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: envisioning the brain through a computational lens

It is instructive, I think, to consider what the natural object behind
all our efforts (i.e. the human brain) looks like in sharpest focus when
viewed not just from the perspective of computing but as or in
comparison to digital hardware. One way to get to this is via John von
Neumann's The Computer and the Brain (1958). But an even more vivid
picture is painted by the philosophical neurophysiologist Warren
McCulloch in his description of the brain at the opening of the
"Symposium: The Design of Machines to Simulate the Behavior of the Human
Brain" (IRE Transactions on Electronic Computers (December 1956):

> Since nature has given us the working model, we need not ask,
> theoretically, whether machines can be built to do what brains can do
> with information. But it will be a long time before we can match this
> three-pint, three-pound, twenty-five watt computer, with its memory
> storing 10**13 or 10**15 bits with a mean half-life of half a day and
> successful regeneration of 5 per cent of its traces for sixty years,
> operating continuously with its 10**10 dynamically stable and
> unreplaceable relays to preserve itself by governing its own activity
> and stabilizing the state of the whole body and its relation to its
> world by reflexive and appetitive negative feedback.

I'd think it fair to say that although few use such vivid language in
discussing the subject, McCulloch's conception of the great project in
which so many are now involved -- and into which some, perhaps many, are
likely to fit what we do -- is essentially the standard account.

McCulloch says "it will be a long time before...". I don't think he
means, as some do when using such a phrase, "never"; thus framed, by
implication, it becomes "only a matter of time before..." That is, it
seems to me that by adopting those terms one closes down and cuts off the
limitless fields in which the humanities play. If I'm right, that this *is* the
standard account, then not only can we not ignore it, we also need it
crucially to illumine what we're about.


The whole Symposium, by the way, is extensively discussed by Roberto
Cordeschi in his valuable book The Discovery of the Artificial:
Behavior, Mind and Machines Before and Beyond Cybernetics (Springer
2002). The Symposium itself may be found at http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/.


Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Research Group in Digital
Humanities, University of Western Sydney

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