Statement of Intent

Computers cannot see, at least not in any way that is recognizably human, and therefore cannot participate in aesthetic discourse.

Our workshop, which took place on November 13, 2015, took this provocative stance as an axiomatic point of departure. But rather than praise or blame either humans or computers for this disjuncture, we were interested in exploring the consequences of this position. Can we find a way to pivot from the language of anthropomorphism, as in “computers cannot do what humans do,” in order to provide a better description of the interface between human vision and technologically-aided modes of perception? How might interrogating the deep history of works of art produced computationally, and yet prior to the digital age, provide insight into the current state of the question? By scrutinizing the intersections and misalignments between a number of different fields that have privileged visual perception (both human and computer), this workshop confronted the challenge of how digital technologies can aid in the study visual and material culture.

While computers cannot “see,” there are things that they can perceive better than humans, just as there are many things that humans perceive better than computers. Recognizing these simple facts might become generative of a new mode of scholarship that unites different disciplines invested in visual perception. By bringing together scholars from the humanities and computer science, this workshop drew attention to the limits of computing aesthetics. Pointing out limits, we believe, is essentially providing challenges and opportunities for the creation of new knowledge.

Thus, we were interested in signaling a few things:

  1. How might digital technologies help humanists better understand the human-created, visible world, especially in the realm of value judgements;
  2. How might humanists help computer scientists better understand potential uses for digitally-aided modes of visual perception, and;
  3. What new questions can emerge when scholars in the humanities unite with computer scientists to bring human vision into productive tension with computational power?

This workshop took place from 9am to 5pm on Friday, November 13 in the 3rd floor Collaboration Space in the School of Information Sciences (135 N. Bellefield Avenue) at the University of Pittsburgh. In the morning session, which took place from 9am-noon, four scholars actively engaged in the question of the role of the digital computer in the world of the humanities offered four personal viewpoints on these essential questions arising from the point of view of their own research:

  • Thomas Lombardi,Computing and Information Studies, Washington and Jefferson College
  • Benjamin C. Tilghman,  Art History, Lawrence University
  • Alison Langmead, School of Information Sciences and History of Art and Architecture, University of Pittsburgh
  • Christopher Nygren, History of Art and Architecture, University of Pittsburgh
  • Adriana Kovashka, Computer Science, University of Pittsburgh

The afternoon session took the form of a faceted conversation between the participants, including the presenters, in order to delve more deeply into the three main questions posed above.