Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 14, No. 88.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
Date: Mon, 03 Jul 2000 08:19:34 +0100
From: Willard McCarty <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: caught in the revolution
Thanks to Dr Han Baltussen (Philosophy, King's College London) I have to
hand Christopher Luethy, "Caught in the electronic revolution: Observations
and analyses by some historians of science, medicine, technology and
philosophy", Early Science and Medicine 5.1 (2000): 64-92. Luethy (whose
name is spelled with a u-umlaut) asks, "For ought we not, as historians of
science, technology, and medicine, [to] be in the possession of privileged
conceptual tools with which to analyse the changes we are all observing?
Should not our vocabulary be particularly sharp when we speak of the ways
in which new technologies affect intellectual development, and vice versa?"
(p. 65). Whether one thinks that Luethy's article exemplifies the
privileged tools and particularly sharp vocabulary, he is surely right that
the history (AND philosophy AND sociology) of science and technology (not
omitting mathematics either) are essential to the task we have centrally
Luethy reports in his article on the results from a questionnaire sent out
by the journal Early Science and Medicine to 80 colleagues in the field and
to some historians of 19th and 20th-century science (including e.g. Peter
Galison). 30 responses came back. Although the article promises only that
the responses will be online until May 2000, they appear still to be at
<http://www.kun.nl/phil/center/revolution.html>. The article offers a
selection of these responses and Dr Luethy's analysis.
Luethy was surprised that very few of the respondents questioned use of the
word "revolution". Evert van der Zweerde noted that if the word
"presupposes a powerful resistance that has to be overcome" then we are not
witnessing a revolution; and Michael Hunter that it may not apply in any
profound sense in established academic fields: "the extent to which these
developments have altered the real agenda" of such fields simply isn't
clear yet. Most, however, accepted the term, meaning by it a change
involving rapid growth of computational power, the all-pervasive nature of
computing and its effects on our vocabulary, metaphors and ways of thinking.
Luethy cites a recent study, Impact of the Internet Economy in Europe (for
which see Neue Zuercher Zeitung 21/9/99, electronics suppl. B8), in which
the authors develop a model for the change based on historical parallels
"as well as a heuristic concept of 'revolution' to designate fast,
multilayered, and economically and demographically significant reactions to
new technologies" (p. 68). Respondents to the questionnaire cited the
invention of the printing press, of course. One, Thomas B Settle, cited in
addition the development of written languages and mathematics,
domestication of plants and animals, the subsequent invention of the
city-state et al. and of civilisation as a whole, the revolutions of
gunpower and sailing ships, the development of steam-based power
technologies and so on and so forth. Whether one wishes to be as inclusive,
Dr Settle certainly raises the question of socio-cultural change and its
relation to new technologies. Are there studies of this area we should know
about? After surveying the responses, Luethy notes, "These divergent views
underline forcefully how unclear the mid- and long-term effects of
computerization still are." Indeed.
To the question of whether the use of tools has changed the working methods
of the scholars involved one person answered to the effect that there is no
generation-gap in the use of the computer: "Irrespective of age, no one who
answered the questionnaire continues to use paper, scissors and glue
sticks" (p. 71). Perhaps a shaky conclusion on the basis of only 30 answers
-- we can possibly all find colleagues who eschew computers, somewhere --
but "the irreversibility of this technological revolution" seems difficult
The geographical decentralisation of research, reported by Luethy, will
come as no surprise, but you may find the German term for the condition to
which it has led, "die neue Unuebersichtlichkeit", to be quite useful!
Complaints about our ironic lack of success in surveying what is happening
have surfaced here from time to time. At the same time, respondents note
the possibilities, being realised in specific cases, to connect what has
formerly been separated e.g. in different, sometimes non-cooperating
libraries and archives. The proliferation of materials in differing states
and versions gets notice and complaint.
Several of the respondents asserted, some vigorously, that "good research
will remain unaffected, while new patterns are a sign of lower quality" (p.
80): "At top levels, no change. At lower levels, a further lowering of
quality", Loren Graham dishearteningly said (p. 79). Well, them's fighting
words.... About how the technology will affect our perception of history,
one camp strongly asserted that there is NO interrelation between "the
perception of history and the means of research" (p. 81), while others
thought that it will be changed e.g. by virtual reality software -- a
"cinematic experience of the past", perhaps, with a dramatic increase of
When asked about the "greatest potential of the electronic revolution" the
common ground was "a noteworthy emotional charge" to the responses. Fears
and warnings prevailed. Oi veh!
The conclusion? "No conclusion" is the last section heading in the article.
But Luethy does end with words that sound not so silly to me: "As it
happens in most cases," Paul Richard Blum notes, "this revolution turns out
to be one with hindsight only. This had certainly not been designed as a
revolution. [...] In my view things develop first as a tool, then as a way
of looking at things with that tool in mind, then as a reflection on this
change, and finally as a transformation into history...." (p. 91).
My conclusion? That we can do better than the above, MUCH better, simply by
watching with open eyes and minds what is happening right now under our
hands. Not to predict the future but to see the present more clearly and so
to inform desire that we may make a better world for ourselves.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Dr. Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer, King's College London
voice: +44 (0)20 7848 2784 fax: +44 (0)20 7848 5081
maui gratias agere
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