File /Humanist.vol22.txt, message 406

From: Humanist Discussion Group <>
Date: Mon, 29 Dec 2008 06:26:31 +0000 (GMT)
Subject: [Humanist] 22.411 more on thing knowledge

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 411.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to:

  [1]   From:    Martin Mueller <>          (394)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 22.409 more on thing knowledge

  [2]   From:    Stan Ruecker <>                      (386)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 22.409 more on thing knowledge

        Date: Sun, 28 Dec 2008 07:58:50 -0600
        From: Martin Mueller <>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 22.409 more on thing knowledge
        In-Reply-To: <>

Lev Manovich's statement that 'a prototype is a theory' is either a  
tautology or a regrettable manifestation of the anti-banausic  
prejudice that is still unfortunately rampant in Literary Studies and  
other humanities departments affected influenced by that discipline.

It is a tautology in the sense that any human action is shaped by some  
purpose of which one could give a more or less adequate account. You  
can call that implicit purpose a theory, if you want to.  There is not  
always a strong correlation between the success of the action and the  
agent's ability to give such an account.

A prototype is an experiment. A few of them work the first time. Most  
do not. All of them benefit from iterative and incremental  
improvement. No progress without prototypes. Why should anybody ever  
have to apologise for them?

What happens if now glorify the prototype by calling it a theory? Are  
we going to get better prototypes? Almost certainly not.

In 2000 the German essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger wrote a wonderful  
piece about the digital revolution in Der Spiegel. He called it "Am  
Anfang waren die Bastler" or "In the beginning were the tinkerers."   
This is an open allusion to the famous passage in which Goethe's Faust  
tries to translate the opening sentence of John "In the beginning was  
the LOGOS".  Faust doesn't like 'word', goes through series of other  
inadequate choices and finally settles on "Tat": "In the beginning was  
the deed."

Hegel later said that the owl of Athena begins its flight at dusk.  
Good prototypes are creatures of dawn.

Aristotle observes in the Nicomachean ethics that bridlemaking is  
ancillary to the art of horsemanship. And so it is. But where would  
the horseman be without the bridlemaker? Did the horseman at some  
point think up a theory of the bridle and ask some banausos or  
tradesman to make it -- an uninteresting and prosaic activity once  
you've had the theory? Or did someone at some point have a bright but  
inchoate idea, fiddled with it, and after many failed trials bridles  
happened and the history of riding changed forever?

In Manovich's statement that 'a prototype is a theory' I hear a hidden  
(or not-so-hidden) contempt for skill that manifests itself in the  
doing or making. As for digital humanities, we need better doing and  
making. Let's worry about the "theory" later.

        Date: Sun, 28 Dec 2008 12:31:28 -0700
        From: Stan Ruecker <>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 22.409 more on thing knowledge
        In-Reply-To: <>

 > Could I ask for a context for Manovich's original comment: "stop
 > apologizing for your prototypes."  What prompted that?

I suspect we'd been doing some apologizing, mainly, as you rightly 
surmise, because prototypes aren't production systems, and at least some 
of them--perhaps the majority of them--never will be. DH2007 had several 
sessions involving prototypes as well as discussions of prototyping. 
Manovich's comment was in the question and answer period after Stefan 
Sinclair and I had been describing three of our recent ideas about tools 
for browsing XML.

I think one of the issues is to what extent a prototype can be 
understood either as a kind of experiment in its own right, or else as 
an experimental apparatus that primarily exists to serve other kinds of 
experiments. In both cases, I believe that there are some research 
questions that can only be properly addressed by building something and 
trying it out.

An apparatus is one thing. If you are Robert Hooke and you are
interested in very tiny things, then you need to grind some lenses, or
get some lenses ground for you, and look through them at tiny things.
But you aren't necessarily interested in lenses per se. You are
interested in the tiny things they reveal, and the lens and any interest
you have in it is a kind of side effect of the main project.

Hoffman (Humanist 22.379 how different subjects are different) points to 
a different kind of artifact when he cites Komatsu et al., who wanted to 
know if someone could do surgery on a molecule of Buckminsterfullerene 
and encapsulate a molecule of hydrogen in it. Someone had already 
encapsulated an atom, so a molecule was the logical next thing to try. 
In this case, the whole point was to build something new. The object 
itself is of interest.

If these two examples mark fairly widely separated points on a terrain,
then can software prototypes be placed at the same points or elsewhere?

If you are Martin Wattenberg and you are interested in what kind of data
people will visualize if you give them an easy way to do it, you build a
site like Manyeyes and find out
( I would say this is much
like Hooke's microscopes. The site and its various tools are a kind of
side effect of the main project, although some tools (e.g. the Wordtree) 
are perhaps experimental environments in their own right. BTW, there is 
a complete list of the Manyeyes tools here 

Alternatively, if you are Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar, and you are
interested in getting an overview of how people express emotion in
blogs, you can build a tool like We Feel Fine and watch the emotions
emerge from the blog scrapes ( I would say it is
similar to a project like ManyEyes, but not identical, since in this 
case the system itself is of primary interest. A research question here 
might be "how best can we provide such a visual overview?" You can see 
that they have tried several different ways, since there is a menu that 
lets you select different forms.


Humanist Discussion Group wrote:
>                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 409.
>          Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
>                 Submit to:
>         Date: Sat, 27 Dec 2008 16:06:07 -0400
>         From: Richard Cunningham <>
>         > 
> Could I ask for a context for Manovich's original comment: "stop  
> apologizing for your prototypes."  What prompted that?
> I just wrote a few paragraphs which I thought would contribute to this  
> discussion, only to realize that I hit a wall when I got to the part  
> that is newest to me, the proposal that a prototype is a theory.  I  
> can certainly see myself agreeing with that, depending on, as Willard  
> has noted, what is meant by "theory" and, I'd simplify even further,  
> what is meant by "prototype."  But before I can either agree or  
> disagree, or even intelligently join the discussion, I find myself  
> substituting "theory" for "prototype" in the assertion Stan offered as  
> his point of departure, Manovich's "stop apologizing for your"  
> theories.  If "stop apologizing for prototypes" is followed by "a  
> prototype is a theory" then it follows that whatever else a "theory"  
> is, it is assumed to be the kind of thing one doesn't have to  
> apologize for.  Where?  In what context?  When speaking to or with whom?
> If the rock is the prototype of the hammer, I can see how it is also a  
> theory of the hammer.  But I can also see the rock tied into the cleft  
> at the end of a stick as a better prototype and better theory of the  
> hammer.  Thus, if I'm tasked with developing a hammer, the engineer  
> who handed me just the rock has, to some extent, wasted my time  
> (albeit unintentionally).   Does that proto-engineer  then owe an  
> apology?  This is why I feel I need some context for the original  
> comment.  What was being apologized for, and to whom were the  
> apologies offered?  I guess at a fundamental level I don't get why,  
> aside from taking people in the wrong direction and thereby wasting  
> time, money, and energy, anyone would apologize for a prototype,  
> whether or not a prototype is a theory.  I should probably add that  
> I'm in higher education rather than industry because I prefer to doubt  
> the entire concept of wasted time and energy in such a context.  If we  
> didn't learn what we thought we'd learn, well, did we learn something  
> else?  Confirm a known something (theory, fact, whatever)?  Disprove  
> something?  I find it almost impossible to waste time doing.  And any  
> point along the line of developing then testing then discarding or  
> adopting a prototype is doing.
> But I remain curious about the apologies.  Can anyone fill me in,  
> please?
> Thanks,
> Richard Cunningham

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