What’s the matter with matter? Summit on Digital Tools for the Humanities–Day One (Night One)

A sound bite from the Plenary:
Imagine building things that are unethical to unplug.
I have to say that all the reading I’ve been doing for my exams has paid off tonight at the kickoff of the summit . This week, prior to my arrival, I started to formulate some ideas on how the particular projects of Modernism and Modernist writers might inform digital representations of Modernist work and how digital representations might inform how we as scholars view Modernist work. I must say this dovetailed nicely with the plenary speech tonight (or maybe it was the wine?) by Brian Cantwell Smith, Dean of Faculty and Information Studies, University of Toronto. Though he didn’t speak about Modernist literature, per se, he did outline some important aspects of turn of the century (twentieth, that is) computer culture that will bear on my theories as well. So, witout further ado . . . my notes:

Smtih started his discussion by saying that we as humanists must question the role these tools are playing in live academic history on the epistemologies of the humanities. We must consider the nature of these represenational vehicles and how they shape how we understand the world.
Then he got interesting:
He basically noted that people don’t know what “digital” means; they use the word interchangeably with all kinds of computing processes; they think it’s cool, but they don’t question what it means to be “digital”–and he never explained it. The point was more that he wanted people to question it, than to have an answer.
He says the need to question the term arises from consider Descartes and the mind/body division the he espoused. Descartes, Smith says, bascially decide there was this division and all the complicated messy stuff that creeps across the boundary of this division, he set aside. He said, essentially, we’ll deal with that later, it’s too complicated (again, Smith’s explanation). This bit comprises conducts of intellectual inquiry and the process of understanding the world and the world thereby understood–the messy bits that humanists deal with now. Smith claims, that the world that Descartes sundered was inherited by the mechanical world and hence shaped the basis of the rise of the computer 1850s with Babbage and Lovelace and on to early 20th century. Computers were meant to fuse meaning and mechanism, to fuse matter the verb and matter the noun.
Smith’s primary trope was that “computers aren’t special” and shouldn’t be treated as such. By this, I think he meant that the same issues that plague humans with matters of understanding the world and humanity are also evident with the computer.
How computers aren’t special:
1. The idea was that computers were completely mechanical and could therefore be understood in pure mechanical, scientific terms; BUT no, computers are actually meaningful, interpretative machines (which, I might argue makes them special but I wasn’t giving the plenary);
2. Machines should also be held accountable for the same things we hold other human constructs as humanists. This accountability is developed on the level of (a)ontologies–a very political act, (b) materiality which is grounded in pratice; don’t be fooled by the notion that somethig like “email” is virtual; it’s real becuase we treat it as real; (c) visualization–it just might not hold all the information that we want it to; can it carry the same level of information?
3. It is a Cartesian concept that all ideas should be clear and distinct; BUT the tools we build may work by classficiations that are not clear and distinct but do provide some aspect of the form . . . ?
4. THE MOST IMPORTANT aspect of digitality–what matters about the tools we build may not have anything to do with “being digital”. [This one got chewed a little further, but I’m too tired to go into it now; suffice it to say that I think he meant that we put what matters into matter so the matter shouldn’t matter. I’m not sure I agree. I have to read more 😉 ]
Essentially, he thinks that computers represent society trying to get over Descartes, trying to fuse what matters with matter.

Closing sound bite:
Society is engaged in making meaningful machines; it’s a conceit to assume that what we have made we understand.

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