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  • Writer's pictureRichard Harvey

Saville science

To the elegant Savile Club to give a talk on Digital Futures. Like quite a few of my talks it was inspired by intense irritation by the const waffle about "digital natives," digital futures and so on. Of which "digital humanities" is one bugbear. What I find irritating about digital humanities is that it is often passed off as a subject in polite conversation, whereas the more prosaic version which is "I now use a computer to do my work" is hardly worth mentioning at all. Largely because any sensible recipient of this information will respond "Gee whiz" with some degree of jaundice in their tone. Of course there are interesting and novel things happening in literature, the arts and other subjects -- the multilayered Digital Magna Carta, the analysis of Hansard to summarise the changing concerns of women MPs, and so. These are great. Essays about how the humanities is changing because we all use computers now - yawn.

And so it is with a few digital society papers. In the talk I played video clip of a researcher claiming that we were in the middle the largest unregulated experiment in the history of society. To be fair that was before covid so maybe that might modify that statement now, but what about the industrial revolution? what about Norman conquests? As a small example consider the kerfuffle about "screen time". For a few years there have been dire claims that small children are harmed by looking at computer screens. The truth of the matter is ”screen time” is a notoriously slippery concept, meaning that there appears to be good and bad screen time, and it is very tricky to measure it. Even if those problems were resolved, then its not clear it is a bad thing — ice cream sales correlate with murder but no-one is suggesting we regulate Mr Whippy to avoid a crime spree. Actually, let me take that back, several governments are indeed proposing that we regulate internet time on the flimsiest of evidence.

So once we sort out all the digital hype and waffle what are we left with? Well I did give an answer to that to the “Savillians” (members of the Saville Club are apparently referred to as Savillians) but it was a private meeting so for the time being it will remain our little secret.

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