17.516 ironies of the productivity claim

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Date: Mon Jan 12 2004 - 07:21:09 EST

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 17, No. 516.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist@princeton.edu

         Date: Fri, 09 Jan 2004 08:43:03 +0000
         From: Maurizio Lana <m.lana@lett.unipmn.it>
         Subject: Re: 17.502 ironies of the productivity claim

At 10.13 06/01/2004, you wrote:
> >Landauer divides the history of computers-in-use into two main phases:
> >an automation phase (roughly 1960-1972) and a decision support phase
> >(1973-present). Here Landauer locates one explanation for the
> >productivity puzzle. Decision support -- computer assistance in
> >organizing and processing information for people to use -- has proven
> >extremely complex.

about the matter of "automation phase (roughly 1960-1972) and decision
support phase (1973-present)":
as far as i know the history of computers-in-use is clearly marked from its
origin by a cybernetic approach: the complexity of problems grows every
day, and with it also grows the urgency for the solutions to these
problems. this all starts in the sixties with the work of J.C.R. Licklider
(see "Man-computer symbiosis"; you can find it online courtesy of Digital
Equipment Corp. and R. Taylor: go to http://memex.org/licklider.pdf) and D.
Engelbart ("By “augmenting human intellect” we mean increasing the
capability of a man to approach a complex problem situation, to gain
comprehension to suit his particular needs, and to derive solutions to
problems. Increased capability in this respect is taken to mean a mixture
of the following: more-rapid comprehension, better comprehension, the
possibility of gaining a useful degree of comprehension in a situation that
previously was too complex, speedier solutions, better solutions, and the
possibility of finding solutions to problems that before seemed insoluble."
[italics are mine] citation from "Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual
Framework"; you can find it online in various places, go for example to

the more one studies the history and evolution of "computers-in-use", the
more it clearly appears how much, up to these days, the development and
evolution of personal computing is linked / bounded to ideas and concepts
of the type summarily sketched with the above references.

on the academical and practical side of the problem: "if productivity is
not the point of computing (as would seem rather obvious for academic
work), then what is?"
i would like first to recall a sort of exemplum fictum: concordance
production. in the field of literary and textual studies, concordances are
a basic tool. once ago producing the concordance of a great / big work (say
Vergil's Aeneis) required the full life of a scholar. now you can produce
in few minutes the concordance of any text available in digital format
(yes, this statement has to be taken with care, not always it is completely
true; nevertheless it is useful).

after that i would like to recall two typical situations of those who study
- you can use a computer tool for the study of texts to serendipically
wander through the (digital) text to see if something interesting surfaces
and catches your attention. at that point you (start to) have an hypothesis
to test, with that same computer tool and/or traditional (non
computer-based) tools.
- when you study a text, it frequently happens that you have before
yourself many theorically possible paths of analysis, and you know that
only some of them will lead to a meaningful end. to discover the ones
leading to a meaningful end you must/can test their assumptions against the
text. if you have your texts in digital format and one or more computer
tools suitable to the task, you can rapidly check which paths of analysis
result to be void of meaning. more rapidly than if you didn't had the
computer tools.

in other words, i see part of "the point of computing" in some sort of aid
to hypothesis generation and to hypothesis testing. or, to say the same in
other words, with other nuances ("a text speaks only to those who ask it
valid questions"), an aid to questions asking and to the search for valid
answers to those questions.


Maurizio Lana - ricercatore
Dipartimento di Studi Umanistici - Università del Piemonte Orientale a Vercelli
via Manzoni 8, I-13100 Vercelli
+39 347 7370925

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Fri Mar 26 2004 - 11:19:36 EST