[Humanist] 27.819 Busa and Cage

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Feb 24 07:20:02 CET 2014

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 27, No. 819.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sun, 23 Feb 2014 13:44:09 +0000
        From: Martin Mueller <martinmueller at northwestern.edu>
        Subject: Re:  27.818 Busa and Cage
        In-Reply-To: <20140223080943.470DD6125 at digitalhumanities.org>

There may be false alternatives hiding in the worry whether computers
"merely" save time. There is a charming book by Jane Smiley, Iowa native,
about John Atanasoff, another Iowa native, who according to her was
"the man who invented the computer." She put her narrative in a wider
context of scientists who ran up against the limits of human computation:
if it takes too long to carry out a computation that is necessary to
tackling a question, the question cannot be tackled. Vicky Kalogera, an
astronomer and colleague of mine at Northwestern, once told me that in her
mother's and certainly her grandmother's world mathematically gifted women
were limited to being human computers or quantitative secretaries.

The economist Michael Spence was described in the New York Times (February
18, 2014) as thinking in 2005  "about how the Internet, compressing time
and distance, would strengthen supply chains around the world." In its
early years, the toll booths in the Denver bypass (E-470) were staffed by
extraordinarily courteous and cheerful attendants.  They have been
replaced by automatic cameras and workflows that depend critically on
computers. Most of the women who were human computers for early
twentieth-century physicists or astronomers found new and better things to
do with their time. I am less sure about the employment opportunities for
the toll booth attendants--mostly older and mostly women--who lost their
jobs.  Paul Krugmann worries about such questions.

Just about everything good or bad associated with computers boils down --
and usually sooner rather than later -- to the time cost of operations.
When something becomes literally "worthwhile" the calculus of the possible
changes, often in unpredictable ways. "Had we but world enough and time"
is a good phrase to remember. So is Ranganathan's fourth law of library
science: "Save the time of the reader."

Changes in speed and scale are the key factors in thinking about computers
in the humanities. I am not at all sure, however, whether the cumulative
effect in the so-called "Digital Humanities" differs in interesting ways
from those changes in other disciplines or walks of life. And in all walks
there is always the big question whether time saved is put to some other
and better purpose. Another recent story in the Times talks about a
failing high school student: how could she possibly do her homework (so
she argued) when she had all this texting to do?
Martin Mueller

Professor emeritus of English and Classics
Northwestern University

On 2/23/14 2:09 AM, "Humanist Discussion Group"
<willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:

>                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 27, No. 818.
>            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>        Date: Sat, 22 Feb 2014 19:54:50 +1000
>        From: Desmond Schmidt <desmond.allan.schmidt at gmail.com>
>        Subject: Re:  27.817 Busa and Cage: more work not less
>        In-Reply-To: <20140222084224.6F99462E9 at digitalhumanities.org>
>Dear Willard,
>This same point that Busa makes was posed as a question to a number of
>leading Italian academics already in 1962 in an article in Almanacco
>Letterario Bompiani, pp.143-144, 313-318. They were asked if the
>computer had changed the nature of their work "as some claim", or
>whether it merely made things easier. They all replied to the effect that
>nothing really had changed, except for Gianfranco Contini, who agreed,
>but added: "precisely because it will allow quantitative research that
>so far has been impossible, its heuristic significance will be
>revealing". My guess is that Marshall McLuhan is behind the change in
>attitude that Busa refers to, and is the chief of the "some who claim",
>since The Gutenberg Galaxy was published in that year.
>Desmond Schmidt
>Research Scientist
>Queensland University of Technology
>On Sat, Feb 22, 2014 at 6:42 PM, Humanist Discussion Group <
>willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:
>>                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 27, No. 817.
>>             Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>>                        www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>>                 Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>>         Date: Sat, 22 Feb 2014 08:31:29 +0000
>>         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
>>         Subject: more work not less
>> I would guess that most of us here are familiar with Fr Busa's repeated
>> insistence that computers should not be considered labour-saving
>> devices, e.g. in "Why can a computer do so little?", ALLC Bulletin 4
>> (1976): 3,
>> > Let me point out one consequence arising from the above. A t the
>> > starting point of a new era there may be the temptation to ask the
>> > new techniques to do things in the same way as before. See, for
>> > example, some recent literature expressing critical remarks on
>> > computer use. My statement is confirmed that using the computer to
>> > prepare concordances, for example, with the same format and the same
>> > features as before is a poor use of a computer. I feel sympathetic to
>> > anyone in scholarly research who still thinks of using a computer
>> > just to do things easier and faster. The processing of my Index
>> > Thomisticus took one million man-hours for much less than five
>> > thousand machine hours. In language processing the use of computers
>> > is not aimed towards less human effort , or for doing things faster
>> > and with less labour, but for more human work, more mental effort; we
>> > must strive to know, more systematically, deeper, and better, what is
>> > in our mouth at every moment, the mysterious world of our words.
>> I just stumbled across another such statement from a rather different
>> source. In their introduction to yet another invaluable edited
>> collection (take that, research excellence frameworkers!) Mainframe
>> Experimentalism: Early Computing and the Foundations of the Digital Arts
>> (2012), Hannah B Higgins and Douglas Kahn quote John Cage, "Diary:
>> Audience 1966", in A Year from Monday (1967), p. 50:
>> > Are we an audience for computer art? The answer's not No; it's Yes.
>> > What we need is a computer that isn't labor-saving but which
>> > increases the work for us to do, that puns (this is [Marshall]
>> > McLuhan's idea) as well as Joyce revealing bridges (this is [Norman
>> > O.] Brown's idea) where we thought there weren't any, turns us (my
>> > idea) not "on" but into artists.
>> There is so much to learn from those technologically inclined artists of
>> the 1950s-1970s, so much ammunition against the army of dull plodders.
>> Yours,
>> WM
>> --
>> 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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