Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 15, No. 477.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
Date: Tue, 29 Jan 2002 10:21:00 +0000
From: Willard McCarty <email@example.com>
Jeff McCullers, in Humanist 15.474, speaks about the tactile experience of
using tools such as the keyboard and wood-chisels. I began to think my way
toward the problem embodied knowledge in computing when some years ago I
had to deal with a now somewhat quaint sounding sneer, that the computer
was "just a tool". My years spent as a teacher of calligraphy and
occasionally paid lettering artist had prepared me well to spot this sneer
for the child of ignorance that it is. My calligraphy teacher, Lloyd
Reynolds, used a number of figurative expressions in his stubborn attempts
to get us to open our minds to what was happening when we used our edged
pens. What worked for me was thinking that my nerve-endings were growing
through the pen to its edge, which is where the mind of the calligrapher
has to be. The eye is of some help for seeing where the writing is headed
on the page, but it is no good in instructing the hand what to do, as the
eye only sees what's already happened, and then of course it's too late.
For the pen as for the wood-chisel: the mind has to be at the cutting edge.
One metaphor to hand, as it were, is prosthesis, "That part of surgery
which consists in supplying deficiencies, as by artificial limbs or teeth,
or by other means... An artificial replacement for a part of the body"
(OED). As many here will know, this has become a very popular way of
thinking about the computer. It has the advantage of being a metaphor of
embodiment -- the prosthetic device is good in proportion to the intimacy
of interconnection with the human user. What bothers me about this
metaphor, however, is the notion that the prosthesis specifically
*replaces* what has been lost -- the arm, the leg. Now one can, of course,
argue somewhat in the manner of Plato in the Symposium, that we've lost an
original wholeness that the metaphorically prosthetic device is, as it
were, supplying an artificial replacement for. I wonder if the edenic story
isn't so deep in us culturally that any stronger, better body cannot escape
being an approximation of our prelapsarian one.
The problem with this line of thinking for us is that it is teleological,
anti-experimental. There's nothing essentially new in it. Humanities
computing, it seems to me, is kin to the experimental sciences in that we
discover or make new knowledge (though perhaps never new wisdom). It is kin
to the arts & crafts in that we do this through fine skill with tools.
Dr Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer,
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London,
Strand, London WC2R 2LS, U.K.,
+44 (0)20 7848-2784, ilex.cc.kcl.ac.uk/wlm/,
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