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Humanist Archives: Dec. 22, 2022, 11:01 a.m. Humanist 36.313 - Solstitial greetings!

              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 36, No. 313.
        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
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        Date: 2022-12-22 10:53:10+00:00
        From: Willard McCarty <>
        Subject: Solstitial greetings

The winter solstice is one day behind us, Hanukkah ended four ago,
Christmas is three ahead and several other nearby festivals occur. 
Those who have been here a year or more will know that I usually
write a ruminative message about this time for Humanist. In a nutshell I
do this to put us all in mind of a communal purpose hard to define but
felt nonetheless and, as its Editor, to exercise my privilege to give it
a nudge. No one has ever objected, so I continue. Your nudges in return
are, of course, most welcome.

I’d guess that if all the nudges were gathered together from the late
1980s to 2021, a common theme would emerge: that as practitioners we and
our colleagues would benefit and confer benefit from considering our
role amongst the disciplines, and from our perspective to illumine the
neglected and misconstrued problems we see.

At the moment, for example, artificial intelligence is all the rage. A
friend of mine who has a strong background in engineering recently
pointed out to me that so much of the talk about AI comes from those who
give no consideration to the knowledge, aims and means of those others
who design and build smart machines. So many take ‘AI’ as a given and
simply run with it, whatever ‘it’ is in their construction. Thus they
unwittingly take on the assumptions of the standard account. To see the
consequences of that, all you need do is to take a look at the history of
'official AI', as I call it and look for where you would have intervened
or raised objections if you could.

Some years ago historian of technology Michael Mahoney pointed out that
what we need to do is to ‘get in the driver’s seat’. For some of us
(like me) that’s perhaps more than a bit ambitious, but at least we can
‘ride shotgun’ and give badly needed advice of how to avoid
catastrophic accidents. Should anyone here be under the impression that
this is not a perilous ride that we’re on, take a look e.g. at Charlie
Brooker’s /Black Mirror/ and the flurry of writings on (to cite the
title of Shoshana Zuboff’s recent book) /The Age of Surveillance
Capitalism/. And while you’re at it, see her earlier /In the Age of the
Smart Machine/ and Donna Haraway’s “A Game of Cat's Cradle: Science
Studies, Feminist Theory, Cultural Studies”, in /Configurations/ 1
(1994): 59-71.

In that essay, Haraway asks this: how can we “take seriously the
constitutively militarized practice of technoscience and not replicate
in our own practice, including the material-semiotic flesh of our
language, the worlds we analyze?” She goes on: “The point is to get at
how worlds are made and unmade, in order to participate in the
processes, in order to foster some forms of life and not others.” Is
this not a project for those like ourselves and unlike those to whom my
engineer friend refers? Are we not equipped to find out how the worlds
implemented by AI systems are “made and unmade” and so “participate in
the processes, in order to foster some forms of life and not others”?
For those with little background in computer science—again, like
me—there’s the help of others (such as colleagues here present) with
knowledge of the engineering and the science. But some of this ‘getting
at’ is equally in need of historical, anthropological and sociological
training, for example. Hence we who need that help have much
help to give. Put that all together, I say, and you have a Digital
Humanities we can worthily profess.

But today and in the solstitial days which follow, until the revised
project of living up to the here-implied New Year’s resolutions can
begin, there are the festivities, the rebirthing of the solar cycle that
we celebrate in spite of what needs our urgent attention. So, allow me
to wish you the very best for this season, during which Humanist will
likely stutter a bit as I down tools and attend to those festivities!


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

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