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Humanist Archives: Nov. 2, 2022, 6:38 a.m. Humanist 36.228 - the general-purpose machine and unlimited growth

              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 36, No. 228.
        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
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        Date: 2022-11-02 06:32:55+00:00
        From: Willard McCarty <>
        Subject: general purpose and unlimited growth

In "Computer science and education" (1969), pioneer computer scientist
George Forsythe observed that "computing is rapidly invading almost
every aspect of our intellectual and technological life." He then went
on to proclaim that, "Indeed, the question 'What can be automated?' is
one of the most inspiring philosophical and practical questions of
contemporary civilization." (Information Processing 68, Amsterdam, p.
1025) Newspaper evidence suggests that people were still being surprised
by the idea for some time afterwards. Two aspects of Forsythe's
statement interest me. First is the irony that as this machine was
opening up seemingly endless possibilities, it was at the same time
closing down others as more and more people accepted the notion that
what couldn't be computed wasn't terribly important and would after a
time be accommodated by what Herbert Simon called 'satisficing'. The
second is the delusion of unlimited possibilities itself, of the
unlimited 'growth' that is now causing us to reach "the limit situation"
(Lagerkvist 2022).

Some days or weeks ago, Jerome McGann pointed to a limitation of
Lagerkvist's fine book, that it doesn't say much at all in answer to
Lenin's useful question, "What is to be done?" John Lanchester's novel
The Wall (2018) gives us a version of a common reaction to that
question.  But I want to pose a different version of the problem of
unlimited growth, namely of data--and let me limit this to useful
scholarly data--and furthermore to the kind one uses by reading it
rather than applying statistical tests.

With many years as a scholar, a good reputation and respect, one can
make statements without footnotes, at least in some circumstances, but
in general what does one do to remain helpful while doing new things? I
find the number of footnotes growing (e.g. over 100 in a 22-page
single-spaced paper). These serve two purposes: to reassure my readers
that there are other respected scholars who would back me up if asked,
and that here is where you go if you want to find out more. An
interdisciplinary scholar has an obligation to point the way, no?

Thoughts on this? Responding to the problem by narrowing down ever more
seems to me a BIG mistake. But what is a junior scholar to do and survive?


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

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