6.0373 Further Rs: Humanities Computing (2/191)

Wed, 2 Dec 1992 21:34:17 EST

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 6, No. 0373. Wednesday, 2 Dec 1992.

(1) Date: Mon, 23 Nov 1992 21:29:06 -0500 (55 lines)
From: mccarty@epas.utoronto.ca (W. McCarty)
Subject: humanities computing

(2) Date: Mon, 23 Nov 92 13:37:42 CST (136 lines)
From: "Paul R. Falzer" <mfprf@uxa.ecn.bgu.edu>
Subject: Riding the Computing Hobbyhorse

(1) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: Mon, 23 Nov 1992 21:29:06 -0500
From: mccarty@epas.utoronto.ca (W. McCarty)
Subject: humanities computing

Mark Olsen writes provocatively, this time in response to Stephen Clausing's
message on humanities computing. A man of deliberate wit, he will not
be offended, I trust, by remarks in kind.

It is both simplistic and unfair to say that we, the practitioners, are
at fault for the failure of humanities computing to make an institutional
place for itself. This is not to deny that some of what has been
published fits Olsen's description of "rather unreadable studies of
the same old thing", but not all of it is to be so condemned. Some is
quite interesting. He rightly notes the problematic way greater
empiricism has been used to avoid rather than stimulate thought, but
in what field is avoidance of thinking not a predominant concern? Some
fields most absorbed in theory seem to use the theoretical turn Olsen
mentions in order to turn away from anything I can recognize as
thought. Do we win respect by engaging the cant, or by doing some
serious, pure research to see what happens when a computer is used as
an instrument of perception and thought? The former is, I suspect,
relatively easy though very boring, whereas the latter is hard, takes
time, and is vexed by many false turns along the way. As John Burrows
wisely remarked at the last ALLC/ACH conference, the emergence of good work
is a slow process, requiring patience and endurance. Some of us will
tend to get a bit testy if we're told it's our fault that humanities
computing isn't given a seat at the banquet table.

Clausing and others are pointing to the social and institutional
conditions under which humanities computing is usually conducted;
these, to put the matter more mildly than Clausing, are not
particularly favourable. Those of us in the field would like
conditions to change for the better, and some of us are working very
hard to produce the kind of work that will help this change come
about. The usual right-wing response to the occasional grumble is to
say that all this whinging won't get us anywhere. True, if it remains
just whinging. But if it leads to an assessment of what is needed to
improve things for ourselves, and so for our colleagues, then it's
positive. Olsen says results are needed, convincing results. What
form will these take? Not, I think, definitive proof that Shakespeare
did or did not write Shakespeare's works, nor in literary studies
anything remotely like what is applauded in the more properly
quantitative fields Olsen listed. What, then? Can we say,
here, now? Can we articulate the intellectual nature of humanities
computing or point to studies that do?

Once, when I was in a position to do so, I called this rather amazing
virtual gathering of widely scattered people an "electronic seminar".
Allow me to suggest that in respect of important questions such as the
one Clausing, Olsen, and others have just written about, it could live
up to its calling.

Willard McCarty

(2) --------------------------------------------------------------148---
Date: Mon, 23 Nov 92 13:37:42 CST
From: "Paul R. Falzer" <mfprf@uxa.ecn.bgu.edu>
Subject: Riding the Computing Hobbyhorse

Here are a couple of observations and modest suggestions on the
matter of humanists as computer hobbyists and on the more general
issue of our legitimizing a specialty that roughly goes by the
name, humanities computing.

There is nothing wrong with having hobbies, be they gardening,
cooking, woodworking, or computing. But a hobby is an avocation
and there is a lot to be said for raising humanities computing
from the status of hobby to a legitimize specialty. Nonetheless,
I believe that sanctioning such a specialty might be a less than
desirable move at this time. Permit me to sketch out my

Comparisons with the sciences are inevitable, and humanists have
managed to get short-shrift in the areas of electronics and
technology--just as we have in other domains. The problem of our
relationship to the sciences is endemic. But perhaps we can
learn something from the scientific community and jump ahead of them.

To a significant extent, high speed computing equipment is a
necessary tool of science. But while scientific methodology and
computer technology are inseparable, it occurs to me that when it
comes to understanding the computer technique, individual
scientists do not any greater expertise than humanists, and
scientists have precious little to say about the relationship
between person and computer. Broadly, what they know is confined
to the specific application or instrumentation they need in order
to do their work. Beyond that, they are only hobbyists, unless
the computer itself--not bits and pieces of computer
technology--has become integral to their work.

On one point, scientists and humanists seem to be like-minded:
both, as a group, regard the computer as a tool whose principal
features are precision, speed, and efficiency. For scientists,
the computer is resembles a giant calculator; for humanists, the
computer is a fancy typewriter; for both, it is a newfangled

Is this what we envisioned ten or thirty years ago? Paul Saffo,
writing in November's *PC Computing* magazine says "no." He
alerts us to something we have inadvertently done (or more
appropriately, not done) in the course of utilizing computer
technology. He says:

"The PC revolution is over--and the mainframe has won. We might
as well junk our desktop machines now, because the vision of
standalone computing that inspired the PC revolution will be a
distant memory before this decade is out. We are entering a
world where our computing devices are defined above all by what
they connect us to, and an unconnected computer will be as
useless as a 1970s dumb terminal without a phone line."

Saffo reminds us that the dream of personal computing, a dream
of individuality, independence, and flexibility, has yielded to what
he calls "information utility"--a condition in which every piece
of electronic gear is on line, while computerized activities occur
at the behest of standardized procedures that slice and dice bits
of information into chunks and snippets. Saffo says: "I can't
decide whether to be exhilirated or appalled by the prospect of
this new information-utility world. I welcome the communication
functions it offers, but I bristle at the thought that more and
more of what I do depends upon the goodwill of an anonymous
bureaucracy running distant machines."

The scientist qua scientist, like the businessperson and the
bureaucrat, have abandoned the dream and rushed headlong into a
brave new world of interconnected MIPS and bits. I think that
the humanist can do better. I suggest that the question, "what
are we moving toward?" at least be considered before we start
talking in earnest about CH positions, and that consideration of
this and related questions be an integral part of the discussion
about CH specialties and curricula. Of course, there are a
number of ways to take the iniative. Let me make a couple of
suggestions about where we might begin.

First, we might do better to coax our colleagues along than to
hammer them with the threat (which is how I believe they would
perceive it) of an HC specialist coming in to tell them what they
don't know and why they must change their lives. Some of them
will never become computer literate, but perhaps others will
surprise us all by starting to play with the new toy on their
desks. Perhaps they might even take up computing as a hobby.
Perhaps they might help us recall the forgotten dream.

(I am reminded of a colleague, a senior faculty member who had
adamantly refused even to work at an electric typewriter prior to
the arrival of a dusty old 8088 a few weeks ago. He asked me
what he could do with it and as I began telling him a few stories
his eyes got a big as saucers. I brought him a simple shareware
text editor, installed it, and gave the .exe file the name of his
youngest daughter. To everybody's amazement, he's using the
thing and has gotten excited about learning how to use it better.
The last I heard, he was looking into the price of scanners.)

Second, we would do well to take stock of our own relationships
with the computer and prepare ouselves to make the relationship
between humanities and computing richer and more intimate than
the relationship between computing and science (or computing and
business). Once we do this, the idea of an HC specialty will be
much more readily accepted; even more important, these
specialists--as a group--will have something fundamentally new to
offer. My hunch is that we are not ready to make this
contribution because we are still inclined to think of the
computer as what Saffo calls an information utility.

Here's a test: besides your word processor, what is the single
application that is most important to your work? I am asking
about an application, not a system, disk, or file management
utility. I am excluding communication software, unless it does
something besides hooking you into a mainframe, uploading and
downloading your files. I am asking you to restrict your answer
to stand alone programs, and thus to exclude what essentially are
appendages to your word processor.

I think that this test can help to determine how important is the
computer itself, rather than a computer application. The
assumption I make from informal observation is that the second
application enables one to look more deeply at the relationship
among person, work, and computer. My hunch is that many of us do
not have an application that meets the foregoing criteria. If
you wish, feel free to reply to me directly. If there are
sufficient responses I will summarize and post them, with the
thought that subscribers to the Humanist might want to know what
software products their colleagues consider most valuable.

There is much more to be said on the subject of computing's
relationship with the humanities. Rather than droning on, I will
close by welcoming your responses and thanking you for
considering my thoughts.

Paul R. Falzer