Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 15, No. 295.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
Date: Sat, 06 Oct 2001 07:14:43 +0100
From: Wendell Piez <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I'm only now (he shamefully admits) catching up on a few old HUMANIST posts.
At 01:57 AM 9/17/01, you wrote:
>The problem is this: what are the powers of mind we most need in humanities
>computing and how do we learn to cultivate them?
You really must check out the work of Owen Barfield. (I think I mentioned
it to you last June.) You could start with his underground classic, *Poetic
Diction*. Even more provocative and far-reaching is *Saving the Appearances*.
Steve Talbott, publisher of the NETFUTURE newsletter, has an extended gloss
(viz. 'polemic') that riffs from Barfield in his book *The Future Does Not
Compute*, an insider's critique of the abstracting mentality (which works
side by side and hand in hand with imagination). Talbott can be a bit
ponderous and tendentious (although he's always been very nice to me!), but
I think this is understandable given the context in which he wrote
(mid-90s) and the weight of the topic.
Also, you should know, if you don't already, Weizenbaum's *Computer Power
and Human Reason*. Remember, he was the developer of ELIZA (and rather
taken aback, as he tells the story, by how much trust she met with).
In a later post, you ask:
>My question is this: how do we introduce our students, in humanities
>computing, to the complex and treacherous domain that lies between data and
>our representations of reality on the machine? How do we jolt them out of
>the common-sense view that these representations are purely and simply
Isn't that the problem of education itself, all the way back to Socrates
and Plato's Dialogues? (Socrates' mission being one essentially of asking
his friends to reason based not on the truisms they were told, but on their
own powers of observation and logic.)
I do know that in my case, the moment of truth was when, in some advanced
year of grad study, it became plain that *everything* I was reading --
literature, criticism, critical theory -- was equally rhetoric (though
making different kinds of claims). This was well after my Dad had warned me
(I think I was about six) that I couldn't believe something just because
someone had put it in a book. (I remember being shocked that someone would
place something they did not know to be true within the sacred precincts of
a book binding.)
In any case, I don't think this is a lesson easily learned. And my
intuition tells me that there is no formula to guarantee its transmission,
only moments of enlightenment and, for the fortunate, the recognition and
validation from someone senior that that insight is genuine.
Which is not to say it can't be encouraged. As for that, my feeling is that
the best way to teach that, for example, the video medium cannot be taken
at face value (as every night's news show asks us to), is to give the
student a video camera and ask them to produce (and then reflect on that
production). Working in an archive is a wonderful antidote, for those not
mortally ill, to the disease of historical certainty.
Wendell Piez mailto:email@example.com
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