19.538 a cautionary tale?

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Thu, 5 Jan 2006 06:14:43 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 19, No. 538.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Thu, 05 Jan 2006 06:07:54 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: a cautionary tale

Daniel C. Dennett, in the hugely entertaining essay, "Memes and the
exploitation of imagination" (Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism
48.2, Spring 1990), discussing implications of Richard Dawkins' idea
of memes, notes the following:

>John McCarthy, the founder of Artificial Intelligence (or in any event,
>the coiner of its name, a meme with its own, independent base in the
>infosphere) once suggested to a humanist audience that electronic mail
>networks could revolutionize the ecology of the poet. Only a handful of
>poets can make their living by selling their poems, McCarthy noted,
>because poetry books are slender, expensive volumes purchased by very
>few individuals and libraries. But imagine what would happen if poets
>could put their poems on an international network, where anybody could
>read them or copy them for a penny, electronically transferred to the
>poet's royalty account. This could provide a steady source of income for
>many poets, he surmised. Quite independently of any aesthetic objections
>poets and poetry lovers might have to poems embodied in electronic media
>(more to the point: poems displayed in patterns of excited phosphor dots
>on computer screens), the obvious counter-hypothesis arises from
>population memetics. If such a network were established, no poetry lover
>would be willing to wade through thousands of electronic files filled
>with doggerel, looking for the good poems. There would be a niche
>created for various memes for poetry-filters. One could subscribe, for a
>few pennies, to an editorial service that scanned the infosphere for
>good poems. Different services, with different critical standards, would
>flourish, as would services for reviewing all the different services and
>still more services that screened, collected, formatted, and presented
>the works of the best poets in slender electronic volumes which only a
>few would purchase. The memes for editing and criticism will find niches
>in any environment in the infosphere. They flourish because of the short
>supply and limited capacity of minds, whatever the transmission media
>between minds. (p. 132)

Perhaps the conclusion to be drawn is not that "new media" studies
has no basis whatever but rather that there are many forces at work
and that sometimes one or more of them can be far more important to
the outcome than any factors attributable to the medium. Is there
here a cautionary tale for those of us who are professionally
committed to the putatively revolutionary effects of the new medium?


Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London | Kay House, 7
Arundel Street | London WC2R 3DX | U.K. | +44 (0)20 7848-2784 fax:
-2980 || willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/wlm/
Received on Thu Jan 05 2006 - 01:43:26 EST

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