[Humanist] 28.549 as gods?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Dec 8 11:21:57 CET 2014

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 28, No. 549.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sun, 07 Dec 2014 10:49:06 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: as gods

As I was playing with David McClure's visualisation of Humanist and feeling
that sense of command over it all, I was reminded of an argument Evelyn Fox
Keller makes in "Models, Simulations and Computer Experiments"*. She draws
attention to the power of visualisation to induce just such feelings; she quotes
from Tommaso Toffoli and Norman Margolus' introduction to Cellular
Automata Machines (MIT Press, 1987):

> In Greek mythology, the machinery of the universe was the gods
> themselves. They personally tugged the sun across the sky, delivered
> rain and thunder, and fed appropriate thoughts into human minds. In
> more recent conceptions, the universe is created complete with its
> operating mechanism: once set in motion, it runs by itself. God sits
> outside of it and can take delight in watching it.

Toffoli and Margolus go on to describe cellular automata (such as John
Conway's Game of Life) as "a universe synthesizer" and so by implication
ourselves as gods -- at first likely to make a mess of things but becoming
with practice accomplished creators and manipulators. Keller goes on then
to enlarge the situation to those who use our invented devices to visualise
worlds of data, hence worlds, and so become subject to the same seductive
power. Her's is in the first instance not a moral argument but an attempt to
investigate the trajectories of simulation and visualisation -- what sort of
knowledge they lead us to acquire, or rather what we come to mean by

McClure's visualisation of Humanist, together with his discussion of what
went into producing it and Domenico Fiormonte's point about "philology"
etc., sum to conclusions about the preoccupations of the membership in time.
But the revelatory sense that HERE IT IS intermixed with the seductive
manipulatory command over the historical record -- for which McClure's
access to the software gives him multiplied powers -- gives me pause. Not
just the impression of truth but truth I can remake.

So what do we make of this?


*In Hans Radder, ed., The Philosophy of Scientific Experimentation.
Pittsburgh: University 
of Pittsburgh Press, 2003.
Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Digital Humanities Research
Group, University of Western Sydney

More information about the Humanist mailing list