Humanist Discussion Group

Humanist Archives: Feb. 28, 2021, 9:31 a.m. Humanist 34.243 - unwise response to an interesting problem

              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 34, No. 243.
        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
                      Hosted by DH-Cologne
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        Date: 2021-02-28 09:11:37+00:00
        From: Willard McCarty <>
        Subject: unwise response to an interesting problem

A few numbers back, I alerted members of this seminar to two books and
quoted this passage from one of them, approvingly:

   > If the scholarly problem becomes more
   > intricate and advanced, it becomes more likely that the technician
   > will fail to provide a solution that truly encapsulates the problem.
   > And when the technology becomes more advanced, it becomes more likely
   > that the scholar will fail to understand how it can be improved to
   > meet their requirements. If we scale back our ambitions towards using
   > and modifying the existing technology, it is possible to have
   > scholars operate on their own, as is customary in the humanities...

Later Manfred Thaller questioned the scaling back recommended here, and
having been awakened by his sharper mind I must agree that it would be a
very unwise response -- but to a very interesting problem. As digital
technologies become ever more complex and so outstrip our understanding,
and as their inner processes are hidden behind ever more layers of
abstraction, how do we intervene? And what do we do about black-box
processes that are in principle unfathomable?

I'd argue we must get a grip, at the level not only of what are generally 
called the algorithms but also the hardware. Studies of the 'impact' of the 
digital machine on social behaviour that assume this machine as a given 
are not enough. But how do we make it an un-given except by involving 
those who have their hands on how these things work and learn from 


Willard McCarty,
Professor emeritus, King's College London;
Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews;  Humanist

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