Humanist Discussion Group

Humanist Archives: June 15, 2022, 5:25 a.m. Humanist 36.66 - a shifting moral agent

              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 36, No. 66.
        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
                      Hosted by DH-Cologne
                Submit to:

        Date: 2022-06-14 19:20:38+00:00
        From: Tim Smithers <>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 36.63: AI: a shifting moral agent

Dear Jerry,

If I gave you to understand I think tool users are off the
moral hook, I didn't manage to say what I wanted to. I think
they're not. But it's often a different hook, it seems to me.

If I gave you to understand I think the division between tool
maker and tool user is simple, clear, and transparent, again,
I didn't say what I wanted to.

I like, and agree with, or am persuaded by, what you say. Each
tool use does, inevitably, in some way, re-make the tool.
There is no necessary, nor enforceable, relationship between
the tool as the original author conceived and made it, and the
same tool the tool user decides the tool will be for them in
their own particular purposeful use of it. Often there is no
relationship at all. Using a slide rule as a blackboard
pointer, for example.

An understanding of the inner workings and original design of
some tool is not necessary for good tool use. However, some
alignment of the original design and construction and actual
use of the tool, albeit accidental or fortunate, does need to
occur, I think, for the tool user to be able to know that
their tool using has paid off as intended in the way they
understand it to have worked. For, in other words, the tool
user to be able to reflect upon their tool use and its
outcomes in such a way as to gain a good enough and reliable
understanding of their tool use its and outcomes. If there is
not such alignment, other efforts need to be made to obtain
this understanding. But, to do that you need to notice this
lack of alignment in the tool use.

There is, I have seen, in the quantitative arts often found in
the Physical Sciences and Engineerings, a tendency to think
the numbers they deal in have their own intrinsic meanings,
and that these meanings are preserved and carried through all
the computational munching and crunching the numbers are
subjected to, to the final outcome, so no interpretation is
involved nor needed: the final numbers "speak for themselves."
I was taught the, apparently now out of fashion, notion that
numbers, including those expressed using numerals, are always
text to be carefully read and knowledgeably interpreted, so
that the numbers are not taken to say things they don't, or
can't, or shouldn't be understood to say. I was taught this as
part of learning to use a slide rule. Now, none of the PhDers
I teach have ever heard of, let alone thought about, such a
notion. Often, it seems, research in these computation
dominated places, is about getting the numbers, and not much
else. (I count this kind of thing as being morally weak.) [And
most of these PhDers don't know what a slide rule is.]

Copying someone else's art does not necessarily make for good
art. That, as you say, needs good reflexion . . . on, is it
good art in the first place?

Speaking of Zarathustra, how about we ask HAL about this?

Thanks for the conversation.

Best regards,


> On 14 Jun 2022, at 06:22, Humanist <> wrote:
>              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 36, No. 63.
>        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
>                      Hosted by DH-Cologne
>                Submit to:
>        Date: 2022-06-13 13:07:43+00:00
>        From: Mcgann, Jerome (jjm2f) <>
>        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 36.59: AI: a shifting moral agent
> A thought about “making” and “made by art” in computational contexts.
> When it comes to poiesis, the distinction between author” and “user” (say
> scholar, reader, audience, etc) is not so transparent as seems to be assumed
> here.  Everyone involved in the materials being exchanged in poiesis are
> – that is the horizon of the actions we track in composition and reception
> histories.  Even “the original author” should not to be thought a godlike
> ex nihilo.
> Those histories expose moments/agents who have been more or less
> Both histories shapeshift over time because agency (intentionalities) carry
> In that conceptual framework, users of computational tools they have not
> themselves had a hand in making – and may have therefore a more or less
> diminished capacity to understand in certain crucial respects --  nevertheless
> have a hand in their remaking (their use).
> From that to this particular thought: between the 1980s and today a set of
> have become the institutional standard for modeling and representing poietic
> works.  Because the tools were designed for informational not poietic works –
> ie, for marking, extracting,  and organizing certain specified self-identical
> conceptual entities – the tools radically fail to achieve what the far more
> flexible systems of oral and paper/print machineries are capable of.
> And one further thought.  In using those (oral and textual) systems it may or
> may not be advantageous to have an expert understanding of how they work.
> radical maturity ensures  that they can be called upon by anyone with a
> determination to use them.
> The moral: the tools are apt for expressive and transactional purposes, but –
> far – not nearly so apt for reflexive purposes.
> Also sprach Zarathustra.
> Best,
> Jerry

Unsubscribe at:
List posts to:
List info and archives at at:
Listmember interface at:
Subscribe at: