15.485 tools

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty (w.mccarty@btinternet.com)
Date: Fri Feb 01 2002 - 05:04:49 EST

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 15, No. 485.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

       [1] From: "Al Magary" <al@magary.com> (30)
             Subject: Re: 15.481 tools

       [2] From: "Mary Dee Harris" <mdharris@acm.org> (6)
             Subject: Re: 15.481 tools

       [3] From: Willard McCarty <w.mccarty@btinternet.com> (73)
             Subject: argument, tools, metaphors -- and a mascot

             Date: Fri, 01 Feb 2002 09:47:48 +0000
             From: "Al Magary" <al@magary.com>
             Subject: Re: 15.481 tools

    I found it convenient that Patrick Durusau littered his reply to the list
    moderator's musings with
    for I read each tag as a header for a snippy comment rather than a marker
    for an excision from the original post.

    The Moderator, for example, reached for a metaphor for computer-as-tool:
    "One metaphor to hand, as it were, is prosthesis..." To which the
    Commentator snipped or snapped, "Why do I need a metaphor to describe
    humanities computing? Why isn't our work like that of Cain in Genesis 4:7
    'If you do well, will you not be accepted?'"

    I snip in response, why do I need biblical guidance any more than a
    metaphorical guide to further thought? The Moderator was not engraving his
    metaphor on a tablet and handing it down from on high. I'd guess it was ad
    hoc whimsy, a little flash in cyberspace. If the Commentator wants to quote
    Genesis, that can be done without displacing someone else's momentary figure
    of speech, which gave shape to the next paragraphs.

    The Commentator's scissor-like sniping appears to have been set in motion by
    the Moderator's setup for his metaphor: "...some years ago I had to deal
    with a now somewhat quaint sounding sneer, that the computer was 'just a
    tool'..." Which the Commentator seems to believe is the Moderator's own ad
    hominem attack on "our peers (in the sense of other academics, not
    necessarily computing humanists)."

    I'm a computing humanist of a sort (historical researcher) but not an
    academic peer, but just the same can do without the Commentator's
    supersensitivity to unintended insult in an anecdote about computing that
    probably dates back to 1985 or so. His ad hominem reaction was not just
    gratuitous but jarring in this thoughtful forum.

    Al Magary

             Date: Fri, 01 Feb 2002 09:48:37 +0000
             From: "Mary Dee Harris" <mdharris@acm.org>
             Subject: Re: 15.481 tools

    My vote for mascot would be the snipe! Hard to find, of course, but that
    also might be appropriate!


    Mary Dee Harris, Ph.D.

             Date: Fri, 01 Feb 2002 09:54:21 +0000
             From: Willard McCarty <w.mccarty@btinternet.com>
             Subject: argument, tools, metaphors -- and a mascot

    How my remarks in Humanist 15.477 about the 'quaint sounding sneer, that
    the computer was "just a tool"' could have been interpreted as ad hominem
    escapes me. As I understand the rhetorical term, an "ad hominem" remark or
    argument is directed, as a literal translation would suggest, at an
    individual. (Like a spear thrown, it may not reach him or her, but the
    intention is definitely to injure the person.) In other words, the attack
    is personal. We all agree, I hope, always to go after the sins we perceive
    rather than the sinners. But I would think that an important part of
    getting the development of our field right is to argue over particular
    ideas as they arise, change and resurface -- which will sometimes mean
    attacking ones we think are dead wrong.

    The conversation's the thing, isn't it? -- the moving, changing dialogue in
    which we are always challenging what we think we know, asking how we know
    it, even exaggerating something so that others are provoked to look at it.
    Indeed, this means knowingly taking the risk of being wrong so that the
    conversation may proceed. In a sense the main function of my editorial
    persona is to take such risks so that certain ideas and opinions may be
    tested, but this should not be especially notable in an intellectual
    environment where everyone understands that being right is not the point,
    rather getting it right. Which is and always will be sometime in the future.

    Patrick Durusau raises another important point by arguing that we'll be
    known by our ability to do good work -- by which I think he means get good
    scholarly results -- despite our view of ourselves or others. One function
    of Humanist is certainly to exchange news, information and techniques
    toward better results (which are never obtained on Humanist itself), but
    since the beginning another has been to reflect on the activity of
    humanities computing and what we think about it -- to make ourselves
    smarter about our professional/intellectual selves. With respect to this
    second function, we're observers and commenters on what is said and done in
    the application of computing to the humanities; we stand in relation to
    good (and bad) scholarly results obtained with the computer as the
    philosopher to the products of humankind as a whole. I'm not claiming we do
    our job especially well -- too few of us are granted the time for such
    self-reflective thinking -- but over time, the necessary critical thinking
    happens, in dribbs and drabbs, communally, in exchanges such as this one.
    All I'm saying here is, perhaps, that we should recognise what in fact is
    taking place.

    I think the point to be made about tools is that they mediate the knowledge
    we make or have through them. I'd argue then that the terms "tool" and
    "medium" are two tightly interrelated if not inseparable aspects of what we
    do when we're using computers in our work. (I recently came up with the
    formulation that the tool is an effecting medium, a medium is an affecting
    tool.) As Wendell Piez suggested some days ago, when we internalise
    tool-use the mediation becomes very difficult to see, but we need to remain
    aware of it -- esp those of us whose professional lives are chiefly in
    humanities computing. I suppose that, for example, if I search the web for
    "amoxicillin AND food" because I need information my pharmicist did not
    think to supply, I am using my computer consciously only to answer an
    urgent question, utterly unconcerned or even aware of such mediation. But
    it is another thing entirely to say that the machine thus instantiated is
    having no effect on when and how I ask questions. We are students of this

    There are, I suppose, two points about metaphors. One is that the metaphor
    of prosthesis, for example, is in the literature quite a popular way of
    talking about computers. This metaphor leads the mind in certain directions
    and brings with it a certain amount of intellectual baggage. Is it not
    important that we look at the metaphor for its adequacy, question whether
    these assumptions are ones we want to make? The second point is that
    metaphorical or more generally figurative language is language fully
    realised -- i.e. powerful, unavoidable, and yes, potentially misleading. If
    the computer is worth our attention, then the struggle to develop adequate
    imaginative language for it is imperative, I would think.



    PS We have in fact had a mascot since 1989. It may be discovered, and the
    history of it subsequently unearthed, by starting at the Humanist homepage.
    Thoroughness and persistence are rewarded.

    Dr Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer,
    Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London,
    Strand, London WC2R 2LS, U.K.,
    +44 (0)20 7848-2784, ilex.cc.kcl.ac.uk/wlm/,
    willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk, w.mccarty@btinternet.com

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