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Humanist Archives: March 2, 2021, 8:39 a.m. Humanist 34.248 - unwise response to an interesting problem

              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 34, No. 248.
        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
                      Hosted by DH-Cologne
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        Date: 2021-03-01 09:30:43+00:00
        From: Manfred Thaller <>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 34.243: unwise response to an interesting problem

Dear Willard,

being slightly ashamed of having a "sharper mind" ascribed to me, as the
result of this dog reacting to one bell not with one, but two Pawlowian
reactions, some short comments from me.

> I'd argue we must get a grip, at the level not only of what are generally
> called the algorithms but also the hardware.

In a sense, I would be extremely happy, if there was a greater
willingness to inspect the algorithmic level - or what I would call the
proto-algorithmic, as in the fascinating paper of Geoffrey Hinton Dino
Buzzetti pointed to today (

> “How to represent
> part-whole hierarchies in a neural network”, recently published on arXiv:

). Sufficiently happy, that I for one would be willing to forego the
hardware level.

But this, again, is a gut reaction. In a more reasoned way, I think I
can only agree with you, principally. In a sense I am wondering why you
do not find more support for this position.  James Rovira this morning
perfectly described the two interpretation of what interdisciplinarity
can mean - and somehow I think the obvious limits of cooperation between
two people who at the end do not really understand each other should
clearly be a stimulus to try to get more people who are subscribing to
the idea that at the end of the day true interdisciplinarity happens in
<emph>one</emph> head.

There is one argument, which I submit somewhat tentatively: Quite a few
Humanists and more of the humanists in general traditionally claim, that
there is a fundamental difference between the Humanities and hard
Science. Well, if this is so, how can it be, that we use tools developed
for hard science unchecked and without understanding them and their
epistemic implications?


(1) I, personally, always considered the juxtaposition of Humanities and
Science wrong, coming from the tradition where both are branches of the
endeavour to encounter the world rationally.

(2) More to the point of your remark: There are so many layers of
software between the hardware and any programming tool used to create
the application software in the Humanities, that I wonder, how many
properties and capabilities available at the level at which Humanities'
applications are actually realized, are really reflecting the hardware
and not the design considerations that went into one or the other of the
intermediate layers.

Forgive me to distract from your question by mentioning the second
reaction this dog has shown when hearing van Lit's bell: Somehow I hear
the voice of the meek Humanist here, who assumes that Humanists have to
resign themselves to the fact, that they will always be limited and
should resign themselves to their natural limitations. It maybe that the
meek shall inherit the earth; they did not inherit academia during the
few decades I watched ...

As always,

Am 28.02.2021 um 10:31 schrieb Humanist:
>                    Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 34, No. 243.
>          Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
>                               Hosted by DH-Cologne
>                  Submit to:
>          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
> them?
> Comments?
> Yours,
> WM
> --
> Willard McCarty,
> Professor emeritus, King's College London;
> Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews;  Humanist

Prof. em. Dr. Manfred Thaller
Zuletzt Universität zu Köln /
Formerly University at Cologne

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