[Humanist] 28.70 Knuth on the historiography of computing

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat May 31 23:47:28 CEST 2014

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 28, No. 70.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sat, 31 May 2014 18:12:24 +1000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: Don Knuth's recent lecture

Some here will be aware that Donald Knuth, a very well known computer
scientist, author of the multivolume Art of Computer Programming, recently
gave a lecture on the historiography of his subject at Stanford. This
lecture has stirred up a great deal of discussion among historians of
computing because he attacks the tendency for histories to turn away from
technical matters to the broader significance of computer science in the
world. He singles out an article by Martin Campbell-Kelly that he interprets
as celebrating the historiographical trend that has so upset him. (During
the lecture he says that the essay made him cry. He seemed to be 
reporting honestly what happened.) 

Quite apart from the specifics of his target Knuth's upset poses an
ironically much broader question for us: to what degree should an article or
book in digital humanities deal with, manifest or be based on technical
issues? For Knuth's real concern, a profound one, is the need to know (in
Richard Hamming's words) "what they thought when they did it", i.e. how
important work in the field actually came about. One could easily argue that
work which does not directly engage with technical, hands-on experience or
which is not based on such experience is best left to others, even perhaps
that it constitutes a perilous distraction. "Do I know (do I grok) what I am
talking about?" is a good question to have pinned to the wall above one's
desk. (A shadow of Steve Ramsay's argument for the fundamental importance of
hands-on looms.)

Some here will know that the same sort of argument has raged in the history
and philosophy of the sciences, where some would say that if e.g. the
mathematics or biochemistry is beyond you, you should be doing something
else than write about the relevant sciences. But is this situation not
analogous to, say, knowledge of Greek and Latin for scholars of ancient
Greece and Rome?

Knuth's lecture is now online as a YouTube video, athttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gAXdDEQveKw. Watch it tonight!

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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