21.538 anywhere you want to go (so long as you can drive there)

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Mon, 11 Feb 2008 10:42:30 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 21, No. 538.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Mon, 11 Feb 2008 09:51:29 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: anywhere you want to go (so long as you can drive there)

I am finding some assistance to thinking about the future of
humanities computing by digging into its past. In Edmund A Bowles,
ed., Computers and Humanistic Research (Prentice-Hall, 1967), for
example, Philip Smith, in "The Computer and the Humanist", pp 16-28,
reviews progress to that date, or what he calls "a hopeful note about
the future": the promise of automation of input, looking to the day
when machines will be able to read "any type font that we may
present", though this, he says, may require that we tear our books
apart; printing achieved at 600 lines/minute; a general understanding
of what computers can and cannot do without learning how to program
expertly; programming languages developed for the humanist;
time-sharing on mainframes, so that we can all operate as if we had
our own machines; etc. "To sum up this prognosis, the ending is
happy, in true American tradition."

Fulfillment of the promise he sketches is not a taxing nor a surprising
matter to delineate, even if some unforeseen changes must be
supplied, e.g. by personal computers, the Web and so forth. There is
no disturbance to a story of progress, nothing in particular to learn
other than to qualify one's predictions. More or less the same continues
in remarks by the volume editor, in "Toward a Research of New
Dimensions" (pp. 8-15), with an important exception I'll get to
in a moment. Citing a widely quoted humanist of the time,
Ephim Fogel (who invented the term "vision-actuality interval", or
VAI,to caution his colleagues that patience is required), Bowles notes that,

>The humanist using a computer has the very basic task of telling the
>programmer what he wants to accomplish. The necessity of this
>providing an extremely lucid description of *what* he hopes to
>achieve compels the scholar to face the question of *why* he wants
>to do it. Furthermore, this process, or dialogue, forces him to
>define his terms explicitly and really think through his problem
>with clarity and logic. This process in itself serves an extremely
>useful -- and necessary -- function.

Bowles goes on to detail other advantages -- the computer provides "an
infinitely more reliable repository than the mind of the proverbial
absent-minded professor"; it "permits the scholar to broaden his data
base, for the first time making possible the comprehensive inclusion
of all relevant material"; it can "simulate a problem or situation"
(by which Bowles means "model"), thus saving time in research; it is
not subject to "the vagaries of human fatigue". Again, there is
little here to object to, and in the case of the remark about
conversation with a programmer much for some of us still to learn
about collaborative research, as my colleague Harold Short has
pointed out. But one can be excused for feeling that something here
is missing amidst all this talk of progress, most of which has been
achieved without great upheaval.

A bit later on Bowles responds to a question circulated at a
conference at Yale two years earlier: "What can a computer do?"

>Picture, if you will, a prospective car buyer asking the salesman,
>"Before I buy this car, I want to know where it can go?" Naturally
>the salesman would answer, "The car will go anywhere you can drive
>it." The same, of course, is true of the computer. It will do
>anything you can tell it to do -- it is an instruction-following
>machine. (pp. 10f)

I suppose you have to be a pedestrian or a cyclist to see the problem
here, and so the question that is never addressed, so far as I can
tell, in this book, and, alas all too seldom since then. To continue
with the automotive metaphor, what happens to one's sense of
going once one becomes a driver? What happens to a city whose
urban planners think only in terms of the automobile?


Willard McCarty | Professor of Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London |
http://staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/. Et sic in infinitum (Fludd 1617, p. 26).
Received on Mon Feb 11 2008 - 06:17:34 EST

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