3.243 computing and changes in the humanities (63)

Thu, 13 Jul 89 19:56:56 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 3, No. 243. Thursday, 13 Jul 1989.

Date: THU 13 JUL 1989 17:04:00 CDT
From: Jim McSwain <F0A8@USOUTHAL>
Subject: Chronicle of Higher Education

At the risk of directing fellow participants to what can sometimes
be an absurd and parochial publication reeking with insider bias
and educational nonsense, I take note of an article in THE CHRONICLE
OF HIGHER EDUCATION, 12 July 1989, pp. A6-A8, entitled "Humanities
Researchers Experience a 'Sea Change' . . ." In addition to favorable
comments on the research possibilities of "Thesaurus Linguae Graecae" or
T.L.G. it introduces Constance Gould, historian and officer with RLIN,
who makes some interesting comments and is someone participants should
know in as much as she is involved with the RLIN database projects.
Also mentioned is ACADEMIC COMPUTING, a useful magazine free to many
academic computer users whose authors kindly included their BITNET
addresses, a practice which should be routine in the credits of all
journal/magazine publications. Imagine instantly challenging or
offering comments on periodical material to the author without the
usual obstacles of gender, regional background, tint of language
or the shame of employment at a third-rate institution . . . The
(Univ. of Pa. 1989) by Paul Fortier of Winnipeg (are you out there
Prof. Fortier??), which is a work with which I am not familiar but
will now investigate. Although the article concludes with a familiar
instance of using the computers "dumb" calculating power to catalogue
a vast collection of Greek artifacts, it nonetheless ends provocatively
by asserting that graduate students (lowly though they may be) have
sharply increased their research skills by using computer search
techniques and databases that allow one to draw upon data from outside
one's alleged field of expertise.
Which brings me to some silly thoughts I wish to throw out to my
. .--listeners(?), readers(?)--fellow participants. One change
brought to humanists by computers is to expand, modify and then
transform the field of experience with which we all work to make
comprehensible, to integrate with past knowledge and insight and to
therefore shed "light" on our existence--isn't that what humanists do?
if not, tell me now before I go further. If Foucoult is correct that
categories or structures of meaning are often carried by inertia
from the past, emptied and then given new and sometimes surprising
"meanings," then computers, as a way of dealing with experience,
may empty old categories--literacy, communication, power, description
or explanation--and then refill them with a mode of interacting
with experience shaped, tuned and focused by the progressively complex
and speedy capabilities of machine-based intelligence. If we take
part in this, will the outcome be a product of our present ways of
dealing with experience, or will we gradually and unconsciously
substitute perhaps narrow and limited machine capabilities for the
frightening and terribly powerful ability which God put into our
brain to analyze, comprehend and integrate experience? Or will it
turn out to be the reverse--the substitution of superior machine
capabilities for our limited natural abilities with unknown
consequences for the nature and (oops, jargon) destiny of man?
Pardon me for thinking out loud, it can be embarassing and dangerous.
Regards, JMcSwain f0a8@usouthal