Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 16, No. 113.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
Date: Thu, 04 Jul 2002 08:17:04 +0100
From: Willard McCarty <email@example.com>
Subject: publication & recognition of software & systems
The historian of technology Michael S Mahoney (Princeton) notes in "Issues
in the history of computing" a number of historiographical problems that
fields like ours present. Among these is the difficulty of recovering what
we might roughly call the intellectual content of their primary artifacts
-- the difficulty of reading them, if you will. In "We Would Know What They
Thought When They Did It", R. W. Hamming argues that for such artifactual
fields of work the traditional historian's focus on evidence produces a
systematically biased result. We can demonstrate this, he says, because
some of us are old enough to remember that for which there is no other
evidence than unrecorded anecdote or even an inchoate sense that something
important happened at a particular time. (Writing the history of something
recent thus has rather interesting problems of its own.) Furthermore, he
argues, those of us in practically orientated fields want a different sort
of history, and thus his title. He calls for the participants, those who
are making the history of computing now, to write things down.
My question is somewhat different though closely related. In building a new
academic field one has to establish it in the eyes of others as academic.
In the humanities this is done largely through refereed publication, as we
all know. Since for humanities computing a large part of the intellectual
work is, as in computer science, manifested in crafted objects, how do we
publish these objects such that their intellectual value may be judged? Of
course one can write *about* them in ordinary academic prose, but clearly
that is not good enough: any writings about will to some degree suffer from
reductive translation. Since Michael Polanyi's work on tacit knowledge
(brought into mainstream history & philosophy of science by Thomas Kuhn),
we have known better than to think that (as it were) the mind of an
artifact can be separated from its body.
My question is an immediately practical one: how do we behave in a
recognizably and responsibly academic way with respect to our intellectual
Hamming, R. W. 1980. "We Would Know What They Thought When They Did It". In
A History of Computing in the Twentieth Century: A Collection of Essays.
Ed. N. Metropolis, J. Howlett and Gian-Carlo Rota. New York: Academic
Kuhn, Thomas S. 1970. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2nd edn.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (see p. 43).
Mahoney, Michael S. 1996. "Issues in the History of Computing". In History
of Programming Languages II. Ed. Thomas J. Bergin and Rick G. Gibson. New
York: ACM Press. 772-81. http://www.princeton.edu/~mike/computing.html
Polanyi, M.1958. Personal Knowledge: Toward a Post-Critical Philosophy.
-----. 1966. The Tacit Dimension. New York: Doubleday and Company.
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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