File /Humanist.vol22.txt, message 144

Date:         Sat, 26 Jul 2008 08:11:37 +0100
From: Humanist Discussion Group <willard.mccarty-AT-MCCARTY.ORG.UK>
Subject: 22.142 toy or tool?
To: humanist-AT-Princeton.EDU

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 142.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to:

   [1]   From:    Humanist Discussion Group                       (42)
         Subject: RE: 22.134 Wordle: toy or tool?

   [2]   From:    Willard McCarty <>(43)
         Subject: toys are us

         Date: Sat, 26 Jul 2008 07:12:40 +0100
         From: Humanist Discussion Group <>
         Subject: RE: 22.134 Wordle: toy or tool?
         In-Reply-To: <>


Why can't it be both a a toy and a tool? I would argue that the essence
of digital visualization is that it is a 'playful' research methodology.

I've just come back from a conference on digital visualization in the
arts. I'm quite taken with the idea of an artist's journals being
considered a valuable part of the research process (and even part of the
assessment of those in education). I'm sure the use of a 'toy' such as
wordle would be considered a valid part of their research process.

The use of the phrase 'both visually appealing and typographically
interesting'  raises the issue of aesthetics in digital tools, is there
not more to the value of a tool producing an aesthetically pleasing
result than simply surface gloss?



Martyn Jessop,
Director of Teaching,
Centre for Computing in the Humanities,
King's College London,
26-29 Drury Lane

Phone: 0207 848 2470

         Date: Sat, 26 Jul 2008 08:06:15 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <>
         Subject: toys are us
         In-Reply-To: <>

Neven Jovanovic's note about Wordle immediately got me thinking about
the Dictionary of Words in the Wild (, which
itself offers a standard wordcloud display. Wordclouds have been made
since at least 1990-1, when I was experimenting with output from the
Ratcliffe/Obershelp pattern-recognition algorithm in TACT
(, for an article which
begins at -- though of course
one could argue its origins as far back in time as the concordance
itself. Anyhow until the software for generating them became available,
constructing a cloud was so laborious that the word "toy" hardly
applies. At the time I constructed the cloud represented as fig20.html,
I could only see the possibility of significance. There was only a
curiousity until it could be done in the manner of play, quickly,
experimentally, even thoughtlessly, trials discarded until something
curious emerges.

What I am stumbling toward is the idea that a "toy", not being serious,
allows us to play, to fool around, having dismissed the censor to allow
what might happen to emerge and to show itself in a world where it is so
new that no one would fund it, or publish it, or tenure it. A "tool", in
contrast, is seriously useful. We know what it is for before picking it
up, or discover its usefulness immediately. But what if the job to be
done doesn't yet exist?

Old ideas, for which I suppose the most obvious source is Johan
Huizinga's Homo Ludens. But not being serious, or rather seriously
playful, they are easily forgotten. They are also anathema to the
dogmatically practical amongst us.

But here's a question. I would like to think that there's a reasonably
direct relationship between between the speed of interactivity of our
machines and the degree to which we play with them. Furthermore, I would
very much like to think that our model of interaction has a quite
profound effect on what we take computing to be, culturally and
cognitively. I would like to be able to argue that much of what we hear
and read people saying about computing, in the humanities and elsewhere,
   is rooted in the old master/slave rhetoric of commands and responses,
otherwise known as "batch" computing. When -- as I think has been
happening for quite some time -- command and response blur into a sort
of resonance, then what happens to the Turing Test?


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