Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 13, No. 397.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
Date: Sat, 12 Feb 2000 09:36:41 +0000
From: Willard McCarty <email@example.com>
I am currently preoccupied with the following bundle of interrelated questions.
When we do humanities computing, are we conducting an analogue of a
laboratory experiment? If we are, what are we experimenting on? What and
where is the reality we are trying to determine? What is uncertain?
I raise these questions because I think that we might get somewhere
interesting by considering laboratory experimentation as a model for our
use of the computer. Of course this raises the prior question of what an
experiment actually is -- and this is not an obvious or trivial matter.
Historically Peter Galison shows, in Image and Logic, how the introduction
of computing to physics altered what practicing physicists were willing to
call an "experiment" and refined the characteristics and so identity of
experimental physicists. Philosophically Ian Hacking works out, in
Representing and Intervening, an interventionist theory of knowledge that
brings experimentation into the light of his discipline, gives us powerful
ways of thinking about what happens. Sociologically, in Changing Order:
Replication and Induction in Scientific Practice, Harry Collins explores
the social dynamics of how experimental results affect and are affected by
the social network of experimenters. In other words, experimentation is a
rich and complex topic having to do with how we come to know our world
through the use of instruments. Since we computing humanists as a group are
defined by our common instrument, perhaps we have something to learn from
those who've been at an apparently similar kind of work for a bit longer
than we have. (To be fair, though, the understanding of experimental
practice to which I refer is thanks to an historian, a philosopher and a
I'm certainly not suggesting that we ape the scientists, since only apes
can ape, and however much we don't believe in progress and get in tune with
our animal natures, I'd rather not do a bad imitation of an ape. Or even,
especially, a convincing one! What I'm suggesting is that in our effort to
understand what we do, we should take a look around. Collins, for example,
has quite a bit to say about how new ideas do or do not get established,
and what he says puts our struggle into a useful perspective. It's good to
understand how resistance to new ways of doing things tends to happen.
Being socially, institutionally clever does play a big role sometimes.
Comments on those questions?
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Dr. Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer, King's College London
voice: +44 (0)171 848 2784 fax: +44 (0)171 848 5081
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