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Decoding Digital Humanities: Procedural Literacy - Richard Lewis [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Richard Lewis

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Decoding Digital Humanities: Procedural Literacy [Apr. 19th, 2010|01:00 pm]
Richard Lewis
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I went to the second Decoding Digital Humanities meeting last week. We read a paper suggested by me on procedural literacy: understanding the ideas behind computer programming, even if not being familiar with any specific language. As expected, a number of interesting points and criticisms were raised.

A suggestion was made that the paper tried to equate computer languages to human (or "natural", as computer scientists often call them) languages. I would argue that this wasn't intended by the author. He talks about communicating ideas of process through computer languages, but doesn't argue that they can be used for other kinds of communication.

This discussion did lead on to the question of whether this kind of thinking really just essentialises technology. It was argued that computer programming shouldn't been seen as a panacea for forcing focus. Although attempting to express ideas in formal languages undoubtedly does force the focusing of those ideas, requires their explicit and unambiguous expression in terms which the computer can understand, should programming be seen as the only method of doing this? It's probably the case that any writing exercise will force focus of ideas.

Also raised was the criticism against digital humanities of "problematising innovation". Perhaps arguments against DH are more arguments against unsettling the status quo? What can these changes possibly have to do with our discipline? Of course, the point was made that the current stratification of disciplines in universities is quite a modern construction and is most likely subject to continual change, whether the impetus be intellectual, geographic, or economic.

It was suggested that the argument in the paper may be a classic example of the problematic role of the critic: is it valid to criticise a practice in which you yourself are not skilled? This reminded me of one recent body of scholarship I've engaged with by Harry Collins, a sociologist of science. He describes the difference between "contributory expertise" and "interactional expertise". Contributors to a discipline are those who are trained in the practices of the discipline - who conduct experiments and generate new knowledge. But Collins also argues that there's a class of expertise he calls "interactional" in which the expert has engaged with other practitioners in the discipline to a sufficient extent that he can hold conversations with them and understands all the important principles.

Perhaps procedural literacy could be a class of interactional expertise, rather than a necessarily practical engagement?