15.052 obstacles (and propulsion) to humanities computing

From: by way of Willard McCarty (willard@lists.village.Virginia.EDU)
Date: Sun May 27 2001 - 02:12:56 EDT

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                    Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 15, No. 52.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

       [1] From: Matt Kirschenbaum <mgk@pop.uky.edu> (85)
             Subject: Re: 15.050 obstacles to humanities computing

       [2] From: Matt Kirschenbaum <mgk@pop.uky.edu> (47)
             Subject: Re: 15.050 obstacles to humanities computing

       [3] From: Leo Robert Klein <leo@patachon.com> (34)
             Subject: Re: 15.050 obstacles to humanities computing

       [4] From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk> (80)
             Subject: obstacles and fertility

             Date: Sun, 27 May 2001 06:36:46 +0100
             From: Matt Kirschenbaum <mgk@pop.uky.edu>
             Subject: Re: 15.050 obstacles to humanities computing

    Kudos to Adrian Miles, who in response to a proposed list of what every PhD
    needs to know, points out:

    >the above, for me, completely assumes:
    >that computing humanities apparently has little or nothing that it wants to
    say about:
    >still image
    >moving image
    >[ . . .]
    > i think my very general question, as someone in cinema studies with
    > computers, is why are these major cultural forms of the last 100 years
    > largely invisible *to* computing humanities? Is computing humanities
    > primary concern with the static and stable textual object (manuscript,
    > etc)? Why doesn't it seem to have much to say about these things?

    The answer here is, I suspect, primarily historical; that is, humanities
    computing traces its roots back to a time when computers were (comparatively)
    good at manipulating words, and much less good (and efficient) at manipulating
    images, particularly raster images. (There are sessions readily recognizable as
    "humanities computing" from the MLA programs of the early 1970s, for example.)
    Thus the foundation of the field, historically and technologically, has been

    In my own opinion, it's high time we collectively acknowledged this and thought
    through the ramifications, not least because from a computational standpoint
    images and text remain very different entities. Both images and text are
    computable, but they are not computable by means of the same algorithms, the
    same software, or even (and especially) the same intellectual assumptions.
    Using SGML at the Blake Archive we have, perhaps, managed something akin to a
    keyword in context search for images, but even that analogy quickly breaks down
    once one begins thinking about how the visual images are being linguistically
    encoded (I gesture here to Kari Kraus's upcoming ACH/ALLC paper on the subject
    of image description).

    But there is also another set of issues at stake. In my editor's introdution to
    a forthcoming issue of Computers and the Humanities on the subject of
    image-based humanities computing, I write:

    "In my experience, image-based humanities computing serves as a powerful
    demonstration to the humanities at large that the computer is something more
    than an instrument for computation---that it is also a venue for
    This is clearly evident from the technical procedures that major image-based
    projects have helped cultivate [ . . .] But it is also evident in a more
    visceral sense, one we ought not to be bashful about acknowledging: the genuine
    excitement of seeing a high-resolution, 24-bit color image wash across the
    display screen. Many mainstream humanities scholars have long been skeptical of
    quantitative research methodswitness, for example, the sinister Centre for
    Computational Stylistics depicted in David Lodge's academic satire Small World.
    This skepticism has in turn lead to apathy towards computers, apathy which in
    my view was not entirely misplaced so long as the computer's primary role in
    the humanities was, ostensibly, to compute. But show colleagues a painting from
    the Rossetti Archive, or a digital image of one of Emily Dickinson's turbulent
    manuscripts and that skepticism vanishes, or is at least replaced with more
    to-the-point questions about image acquisition and editorial fidelity, not to
    mention scholarly and pedagogical potential. These are questions of
    representation, and they are eminently relevant to the work of the humanities."

    Several years back, I posted to Humanist my own list of what every computing
    humanist ought to know. I just had another look and still stand by it; here it
    is, lightly edited:

    * text-encoding/theory and practice of markup;
    * digital image creation and manipulation;
    * fundamentals of library science and information retrieval;
    * theory and practice of textual editing, both electronic and print;
    * principals of graphic design;
    * interface theory and design;
    * electronic poetry and fiction;
    * cyberpunk and the history of science fiction;
    * digital music and the digital arts; digital culture;
    * the history of writing;
    * the history of the book;
    * the history of other media;
    * the history of computing, artificial intelligence, and telecommunications
    * chaos theory and fuzzy logic;
    * practical introduction to Javascript, VRML [now largely defunct], Shockwave
    [Flash], and other networked multimedia formats;
    * current issues in electronic publishing, in both commercial and academic
    * exposure to a programming/scripting language;
    * fundamentals of linguistics and symbolic logic;
    * project management skills;
    * introduction to intellectual property and copyright issues;
    * computer-assisted pedagogies

    Of course finding (and funding) the time to do/read/learn all that is another

    Best, Matt

             Date: Sun, 27 May 2001 06:37:44 +0100
             From: Matt Kirschenbaum <mgk@pop.uky.edu>
             Subject: Re: 15.050 obstacles to humanities computing

    Some comments on the thread about software design and its "indictment" of
    humanities computing. I sympathize with those who don't much sympathize
    with those who are unwilling to invest time and energy (and even money) in
    learning new tools. A Blake scholar wishing to do research of any
    sophistication can't get far without coming to grips with Bentley's Blake
    Books, a reference tome I suspect few Blakeans would describe as
    user-friendly. It takes a little time and a little energy to learn to use
    it, and money too if one doesn't have access to a library that already owns
    the volume or is willing to acquire it. I also think that the notion that
    humanities computing has somehow failed its mandate if it has not provided
    sufficient quantities of user-friendly software tools misses the point, for
    that line of thinking relegages humanities computing to the academic
    service sector . . . and that's a job I'm not much interested in.

    I am, however, currently engaged in a software project of my own, one that
    is designing an environment for comparing, and remotely sharing, image
    sets. Of course I hope that our tool will be widely useful and used. But I
    wouldn't be involved in the project if it wasn't fun. By "fun," though, I
    don't mean fun in the same sense that a vacation is fun. Here's what I do
    mean by "fun": yesterday I was designing some icons for our toolbar
    interface; that was fun because it appealed to my instincts for graphic
    design, a kind of hobby. A week earlier, I was writing a longish email to
    my collaborators detailing some shortcomings in the behavior of our GUI;
    that also appealed to my design instincts, and was fun because I had never
    built a GUI from the ground up before. Prior to that, thinking through some
    problems in authority control (how to keep multiple participants in a
    session with the software from initiating mutually exclusive actions) was
    fun because it was a kind of analytical thinking different from the
    literary critical thinking in which I was officially trained. The truth is
    that if I did _not_ find these activities fun, I would not be working at
    them no matter how important or vital I thought the tool we were building
    really was. Instead I would be teaching nineteenth century American
    literature, the field I originally enterred graduate school to pursue (or
    perhaps, given the job market in that field, I would now be plumbing).

    My broader point ( belabored though it might be), is that software design
    in the humanities is almost certainly even more contingent than we already
    acknowledge: it depends on one or more individuals with the requisite skill
    sets who are also predisposed to derive the kinds of personal satisfaction
    I have been describing above, simultaneously occupying a time and a place
    where there are sufficient material/institutional resources to pursue the
    work at hand. There are only a few places around the world where the stars
    are right for that on anything like a regular basis, and even in those
    places it's sometimes hard to keep the constellations fixed. That may
    change as humanities computing comes more and more into its own (witness
    the emerging degree programs and growing numbers of jobs in the field),
    but not if we browbeat people with the notion that what they really should
    be doing is building tools for the AOL generation. (BTW, by my unscientific
    estimate the average number of times the word "easy" appears in a 30-second
    AOL spot is 5.5---count for yourself.) Best, Matt

             Date: Sun, 27 May 2001 06:38:24 +0100
             From: Leo Robert Klein <leo@patachon.com>
             Subject: Re: 15.050 obstacles to humanities computing

    on 5/26/01 Adrian Miles wrote:

    > At 6:15 +0100 25/5/2001, Kirk Lowery wrote:
    >> Ideally, then, a brand, spanking new humanities PhD *minimally* ought to:
    >> 1. Be able to write programs to manipulate text, and to be able to create
    >> and manage databases. This implies knowledge of:
    >> a. the Perl programming language
    >> b. Regular expressions
    >> c. How programs can be "hacked" together from pieces of code lying
    >> about the net
    >> 2. Be able to collaborate with others. This implies knowledge of:
    >> a. Web authoring (and HTML/XML) and markup
    >> c. "Groupware" allowing networked collaboration
    > to enter into the spirit of Charles' comments and what the above, for me,
    > completely assumes:
    > that computing humanities apparently has little or nothing that it wants to
    > say about:

    Let me chime in to totally agree with Adrian. If we're going about setting
    requirements for new humanities PhDs, I'd consider figuring out the
    ins-and-outs of Photoshop and vector-based animation or maybe a 3D program
    just as valid and commendable as having to tackle regEx and the O'Reilly
    Camel. There's no reason to needlessly scare people away especially when
    the possibilities of what they can do are simply so much more expansive than
    what is suggested above. If they want to do databases or text manipulation
    -- hey, that's okay too -- only I'd let them choose their own solution
    whatever that implied.


    P.S. I'd have them do a little plumbing along the way.

    Leo Robert Klein Library Web Coordinator
    home ::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: http://patachon.com
    office ::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: http://newman.baruch.cuny.edu

             Date: Sun, 27 May 2001 07:00:15 +0100
             From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
             Subject: obstacles and fertility

    In his very important essay, "Farewell to the Information Age" (in the
    collection of essays, The Future of the Book, which he edited) Geoffrey
    Nunberg comments that the forms of discourse emerging in this
    post-informational age "tend to mirror those of the preinformation age". He
    points, as one might guess, to the professional discussion groups, such as
    this one. He notes "the opening up of the right to speak", which reverses
    "the effects of nineteenth-century immurement and professionalization of
    the disciplines... a transition from the republic of letters to the
    bureaucracy of letters", where a writer must continually declare style and
    department and submit to an examination of purpose and credentials at the
    frontier to every field. Discussion groups, Nunberg says, don't just permit
    the participation of interested amateurs, "they also remove the burden of
    professionalism that was imposed in the nineteenth century to limit the
    published discourse of the sciences to descriptions of its 'subject matter'
    and purge it of critical self-consideration. The amateur epistemologizing
    and sociologizing, the pedagogical and technical lore, the gossip and the
    professional politics, the anecdotal observations about curiosities that
    lie outside the realm of current theory -- all these come bubbling back
    into public view from the orality where they have been repressed for the
    past two hundred years...." (pp. 130f). Do we need to be told that what's
    happening here is important -- that it's more important than simply the
    constant building of a community centre? Perhaps we do.

    "Of course it can be a risky matter to read all this informationally, "
    Nunberg comments -- which leads me to my second point, in aid of a great
    deal, though perhaps not obviously. By now, I expect, the thorn-bush words
    that have announced the death of "the impression of information" (as
    Nunberg brilliantly says) and put it into an historical context will have
    pricked a few readers. Better than anyone I know, Nunberg has looked very
    closely at "information", this "uniform and morselised substance
    indifferent not just to the medium that it resides in but also to the kind
    of representation it embodies" (philosophical alert!), and shown it to be a
    particular "mode of reading", an artefact of a certain way of doing things
    that so-called "information technology" is, he argues, bringing to an end.
    I never was particularly happy with the word "information", but now it's
    hard to say without it triggering a great deal of conscious mental activity.

    I keenly appreciate Mark Wolff's comment, in Humanist 15.041, that
    academics quite understandably get annoyed at the extra-territorial demands
    which humanities computing can place on their attention. These can be from
    trivial causes, such as the rebarbative interface I must face when using
    fsconcordance. I'm quite prepared to be told, o grow up, you've mastered
    and re-mastered more difficult stuff before &c. (And the person who tells
    me this should be prepared for me to reply that I really do have better
    things to do with my time, and the DOS-prompt interface is not what we want
    to promote &c.) But Wolff's point is more serious than that. The fact is
    that the humanities computing components of research projects which are
    primarily in other fields do make sometimes unsupportable intellectual
    demands on those in the other fields, who are forced by practical
    circumstances to ignore many fascinating problems along the way.

    And the difficulties only get worse. I am looking (almost) as I write at a
    quite long shelf and a half of books I had to read and understand on the
    way to writing an article, for a collection in classical studies, that took
    me nearly a year to produce. (Let us say for the purposes of argument that
    this is a very fine article; I cannot tell, but the point doesn't turn on
    its quality.) This shelf and a half doesn't contain the dozens of articles,
    mostly printed out from the ACM Digital Library, which are piled elsewhere,
    nor the still electronic ones piled virtually on my hard disk. None of this
    stuff is in either of my conventional fields. And then, through the
    kindness of Matt Kirschenbaum, I have encountered the brilliant new book
    (picking up on a point by Adrian Miles, about the narrow-mindedness of
    humanities computing....), The Language of New Media, by Lev Manovich (MIT
    Press, 2001), which is beginning to change the way I see a number of
    things. Someone's got to put a STOP to this! :-) Or introduce me to one of
    those Star Trek creatures who moves and lives so fast that all ordinary
    people hear is a buzz.

    Yes, I do remember what happens to those who are thus introduced.
    Suggestion withdrawn. It's clearly no good to push item upon item into the
    bulging curriculum; only mental indigestion and other forms of polymathic
    stress will result. We need to think more subtly about a broad survey of
    many fields followed by specialisations here or there. I think if I were a
    philosopher or historian or sociologist I'd be mightily intrigued by the
    possibility of constructing a survey course or courses in which my
    discipline had to fit in along side several others. Perhaps this is not so
    different a vision from the one responsible for the humanities programme at
    my alma mater, Reed College, and like things elsewhere.

    The late Don Fowler wrote, in "Criticism as commentary and commentary as
    criticism in the age of electronic media", of the potential which our field
    offers: that "the commentary becomes fluid, an emblem not of monumental
    solution but of the continuing fertility of problematisation" (Most, ed.,
    Commentaries, p. 441). And so this gardener's lament is a celebration. L'chaim!


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