[Humanist] 29.422 reading scholarship in software?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Oct 26 07:47:55 CET 2015

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 29, No. 422.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sat, 24 Oct 2015 10:44:46 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: scholarship in software and reading the machine

From time to time various of us have contemplated and a few written 
about the problem of gaining scholarly recognition for work done in 
software. To date, I would suppose, this is rare -- and understandably 
so. It's not all that hard, given sufficient time, to assess the utility 
of a digital resource for scholarship in affected disciplines, but this 
is not the same as weighing its worth *as* scholarship. 

To do this you have to be able to answer the question Mike 
Mahoney used to ask: how do we read a machine? He made the question 
more interesting and difficult by pointing out that software can only be 
fully known in action. You know it by seeing it work, or at least you 
cannot know it adequately otherwise.

A closely related question is brought up by Larry Owens' fine study, 
"Vannevar Bush and the Differential Analyzer: The Text and Context of an 
Early Computer", Technology and Culture 27.1 (1986): 63-95. This is how 
he asks it:

> How does one tell the story of a machine? On what categories should
> the analysis rest, within what interpretative framework should one
> search for the meaning of engineering artifacts? However the
> historian chooses to answer these questions, utility must certainly
> play a role.... But there are other categories than utility, or,
> maybe, broader sorts of utility than so far invoked in our
> account.... [M]achines exist not only as tools, but also as symbols.
> Bush's analyzers did indeed do more than simply compute x(t). To
> flesh out our story of this particular machine, we must discover what
> this something else was. (p. 85)

Owens goes on to open up the engineering culture of the first half of 
the 20th Century. He looks forward to the death of interest in Bush's 
Analyzer as digital computing took over. After what Owens calls the 
"autopsy" of the programme that supported it, in the Spring of 1950, 
Warren Weaver wrote to Samuel Caldwell, director of the Center where it 
was developed,

> "[I]t seems rather a pity not to have around such a place as MIT a
> really impressive Analogue computer; for there is vividness and
> directness of meaning of the electrical and mechanical processes
> involved ... which can hardly fail, I would think, to have a very
> considerable educational value. A Digital Electronic computer is bound
> to be a somewhat abstract affair, in which the actual computational
> processes are fairly deeply submerged." (p. 66)

As Bush tirelessly pointed out "analogy machines" like the Analyzer were 
in fact so easy to read that one could learn the calculus from them; 
they provided a visible language expressing the "innate meaning" of the 
mathematics that expressed the innate meaning of the processes it 
represented. Not so for digital machines.

All of which, it seems to me, give us an inspiring example and 
highlights just how difficult reading our digital machines is.

Any ideas?


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

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