18.545 material culture of humanities computing

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Tue, 1 Feb 2005 06:38:02 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 18, No. 545.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

   [1] From: "Rabkin, Eric" <esrabkin_at_umich.edu> (43)
         Subject: RE: 18.542 material culture of humanities computing

   [2] From: Vika Zafrin <amarena_at_gmail.com> (81)
         Subject: Re: 18.542 material culture of humanities computing

         Date: Tue, 01 Feb 2005 06:27:14 +0000
         From: "Rabkin, Eric" <esrabkin_at_umich.edu>
         Subject: RE: 18.542 material culture of humanities computing

Dear Willard,

You write that "The universality and plasticity of computing mean that
as an epistemic device it offers and so leads us into unlimited making
of things. Does it not thereby throw a light, hereafter difficult to
ignore, on knowing as a process of making and remaking?" Your comments
about computing thus being always conscious (as opposed to Polanyi's
"tacit") seem to me to reflect your thoughtful approach to computing
rather than the generality of users. I believe people in most
behaviors, and even in computing, seek, even if only unconsciously, a
useful thoughtlessness, some so that their lives are felt to be less
complex and some so that they can build on the accepted foundation to
examine new concerns, but in all cases so that life feels more
manageable. This thoughtlessness, as Polanyi indicates with his example
of the blind man feeling the sidewalk with his cane rather than feeling
the cane, is useful. Now put a pencil into someone's hand. I am always
amazed at people who can just pick one up and draw something that looks
good; I can't. But my lab class students are often amazed to see me
just "pick up" Powerpoint and create not only objects but animations
with about the same tacit thoughtlessness that I can write prose with a
pencil. Of course, if I choose to make a beautiful animation, I focus
on it and the tool ceases to be tacit, just as I need to focus on my
handwriting if I expect anyone else to read it. It seems to me that
some aspects of humanities computing do become tacit. When I run simple
update queries (e.g., computing the age of authors at the time of
publication of their works), I don't consciously think about how
databases function at all; I merely find the right fields and make the
right calculation, as I would if I were trying to estimate the cost of a
trip (ground, air, hotel, then addition; I don't ask how addition
works). By way of parallel, language itself strikes me as the
archetypal general purpose tool, one that certainty can claim a role in
constructing the world, but most of us most of the time ("Hi, how are
you?" "Fine, thanks. And you?") use it tacitly, transparently. When we
don't, we're often beings critics or artists, which is fine. But not
the constant practice of most people.

Or so it seems to me.

Best wishes,


Eric S. Rabkin 734-764-2553 (Office)
Dept of English 734-764-6330 (Dept)
Univ of Michigan 734-763-3128 (Fax)
Ann Arbor MI 48109-1003 esrabkin_at_umich.edu

         Date: Tue, 01 Feb 2005 06:30:42 +0000
         From: Vika Zafrin <amarena_at_gmail.com>
         Subject: Re: 18.542 material culture of humanities computing

Hi Willard,

You write:

> Theorizing about the process described here is found in phenomenology, e.g.
> Michael Polanyi's "tacit knowing". It also takes place in computing, e.g.
> in my use of a whole bundle of technologies at this moment. But isn't it
> the case that computing makes a genuine difference, that in this respect at
> least it is genuinely new? The universality and plasticity of computing
> mean that as an epistemic device it offers and so leads us into unlimited
> making of things. Does it not thereby throw a light, hereafter difficult to
> ignore, on knowing as a process of making and remaking? Is it not then the
> case that means become a permanent question permanently in the forefront of
> our awareness? Or at minimum an option of new urgency and stubborn

Based on this description, "computing" seems to be equivalent to
"language." Perhaps using technology bundles can be likened in this
case to using a particular language, or an instance of using any
language. In other words, computing as a generalized process and the
use of computing are distinguished.

What we do with computing, with language or with any other epistemic
tool, is create and preserve knowledge. (My working definition is
"the entirety of human memory of the species' experience" -- but
that's another thread, isn't it?) Any expression of language is a
physical instantiation of knowledge: speech is composed of soundwaves,

Following this analogy, any human-readable expression of computing is
an instantiation. Tthis seems to ring true both with regard to
software and with regard to files. Whenever I open Firefox, I see a
unique instantiation of the program; likewise, although the Blake
Archive's data may be stored on a specific server, every time I load
it in my browser I see an instantiation.

In your original post, you write:

"It also seems clear to me that at its achievable best, collaborative
work involving humanities computing is inseparably so -- that in those
cases it is misleading if not entirely false to talk about techie bits
as opposed to scholarly bits. Nevertheless, the partial detachment of
means from ends that makes humanities computing possible and that is
implicit in computing more generally requires that in reflecting on
these objects we extract the specifically humanities computing aspects
of them."

Here's where my analogy falls apart. Much like other kinds of
evolution, the evolution of language proceeds according to no rules in
particular, which is why you can't teach a language without talking
about how people use it. Software in general, and humanities
computing software in particular, also evolves -- but its evoluiton is
enacted quite consciously, based on usage.

I think separating "techie" from "scholarly" would annihilate the
field: the point is precisely that humanists involved in HC learn how
to use and create technology, and people who have come to HC from the
techie side are more or less forced to learn some things about
scholarship in the humanities.

In order to extract specifically humanities computing aspects of
software, wouldn't we first need to know who built it, how, and why,
and how it's used? I could, theoretically, come up with a program
identical in both form and functionality to someone else's, but built
for entirely different reasons and using different processes and
resources. If I understand you correctly, these differences would
affect which the elements of the program could be called "humanities
computing." (To bring it back full circle, in using a textbook it is
helpful to know its authors' biases, and reading the Divine Comedy is
more fulfilling if you know about the details of Dante's political

If no information is available about the author and all you have is
the software, I suppose it could be a useful exercise to attempt to
separate its potential humanities computing uses from the set of all
possible uses. But that would be speculation about how the field
might evolve, until there was some data about how the software was
*actually* used.

I guess, what I'm arriving at is: writing theory of the sort you
propose is equivalent to attempting to predict the future, with
whatever degree of success. It's like trying to predict what a
particular word will mean two hundred years from now. Have
eighteenth-century linguists actually done that, I wonder? It would
be interesting to see if they were right.


Vika Zafrin
Director, Virtual Humanities Lab
Brown University Box 1942
Providence, RI 02912 USA
Received on Tue Feb 01 2005 - 01:44:05 EST

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